The South helped lead the way on abortion bans. Is the adoption system ready?

Jeramesha Warner was at home frying pork chops and cooking white beans when news leaked that the Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade.

It would be weeks before the court officially announced its 6-3 decision. But in that moment, Warner immediately thought of her biological mother, who at the age of 15 chose to relinquish Warner. Warner was first taken in by her grandparents in Alexandria, Louisiana when she was 3 months old. By age 4, her aunt and uncle were considered her parents. It was not a “loveless situation,” Warner said. But it was “confusing,” and it took many years to process.

Wesley Harrell, 10,  plays with his sister, Ruby, 2, on a trampoline as Michelle and Jeremy watch them with their infant child, Rosie, in their backyard in Eagleville, Tenn., Thursday, June 30, 2022.

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“I didn’t call anyone ‘mama’ for a while,” Warner said. “The person who gave birth to me was 15 years old. She had no idea what to do with a child. She was a child herself.”

When Warner became pregnant at the age of 16 despite using birth control, she realized she had a choice to make. She knew she couldn’t handle being a parent while in high school. And she knew firsthand how adoption could impact both her and her child. After discussing the options with her family, they decided to drive two and a half hours to Shreveport so she could have an abortion. 

“It was a really hard decision to make, but ultimately I knew that it was the best decision,” said Warner, now 32. “I can't imagine a world where a scared, terrified 16-year-old girl does not have that option.”

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling overturned Roe and removed the choice Warner once had.

Louisiana’s trigger ban on abortions went into effect immediately following the decision, although it has since been blocked temporarily in state court. Twelve other states have similar bans that could potentially go into effect in upcoming weeks but are already facing similar legal delays.

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In the South, most states with the exception of North Carolina have passed bans or restrictions on abortion access in recent years that are likely to be enforced in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

“It's heartbreaking,” Warner said. “There are so many children who are going to be in really unfortunate situations. What’s going to happen to them?”

Adoption as an alternative

Almost immediately after the Dobbs decision was issued, adoption was promoted as an alternative option for unplanned pregnancies.

U.S. Rep. David Crenshaw (R-Texas) tweeted, “Less abortion, more adoption. Why is that controversial?” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement lauding the decision and said the state had made “significant strides to stand for life at all stages” including “adoption and foster care reform.” 

In Mississippi, the state where Dobbs vs. Jackson was first argued before making its way to the Supreme Court, Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted, “We need to commit more to the mission of supporting mothers and children. We need to continuously improve our foster care system. We need to make it even easier to adopt a child. This is the mission now.”

Southern states have led the charge in overturning abortion rights. But many of these states have also seen some of the highest rates of maternal deaths and child poverty. 

From 2012-2016, Louisiana had the highest maternal mortality rate in the U.S. with 58.9 deaths per 100,000 births, followed by Georgia with 48.4 deaths, according to a 2018 USA TODAY investigation analyzing state health data. The outcomes are even worse for Black women nationally, who were three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications compared with white women as of 2020. When combined with high poverty rates, often cited as a leading cause of both abortion and child relinquishment, some are wondering if these states — and their adoption and foster care systems — are prepared for more childbirths and potentially more relinquished children.

Adoptions are lengthy, emotionally challenging, and often costly processes. 

In Tennessee, the Department of Children’s Services says it aims to finalize adoption “within 12 months.” 

The Harrell family pose together in front of their home in Eagleville, Tenn., Thursday, June 30, 2022. Pictured are Wesley, 10, Michelle, infant Rosie, Jeremy and Ruby, 2.

For Jeremy Harrell and his wife, Michelle, who adopted two half-sisters through the private domestic adoption process, the adoption of their oldest daughter took three years from the initial home visit to finalizing the documents in court.

Spurred by his own experiences, Harrell co-founded The Adoption Project in Nashville with the hope of creating policies that make the process easier for all parties involved in both private adoptions and those through the foster care system.

“They're doing the best job they can,” Harrell said. "The system needs to be better, but nobody's working on the system itself."

Will adoptions increase?

It’s unknown if the Dobbs decision will increase the number of children put up for adoption in abortion deserts like the South.

Adoption rates declined after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1972, according to a 2003 study published by the Guttmacher Institute. Before 1973, 9% of children born to never-married women under 45 were relinquished for adoption. That number dropped to 4% between 1973 and 1981, according to CDC data. By 2002, only 1% of children born to never-married women under 45 were put up for adoption.

That doesn’t guarantee that more children will be placed for adoption after the Dobbs decision. Madeline Zavodny, a University of North Florida economics professor who co-authored the 2003 report, said the demographics of women who seek an abortion or decide to place their children for adoption have changed since the 1960s when those mothers were often younger, unmarried women pregnant for the first time.

“What we know now is that the women who are having abortions these days, the majority of them already have at least one child,” Zavodny said. “And I think that it would be unusual to see women or couples that already have children at home relinquishing additional children for adoption.”

The Turnaway Study, which followed nearly 1,000 women seeking abortions for five years, may provide the best estimate of the potential increase in adoptions. The study found that 9% of women who were denied access to abortions placed their child up for adoption, said Gretchen Sisson, a University of California at San Francisco professor who co-authored the Turnaway Study. 

“If you say approximately 100,000 women are going to be denied access to the abortions that they want, that would correlate to about 9,000 to 10,000 additional adoptions that we can expect per year, which would be about a 50% increase in the number of private domestic adoptions that occur annually in this country right now,” Sisson said. 

Is adoption a viable substitution?

Southern states and adoption agencies have begun preparing for a potential increase in children up for adoption.

In Abilene, Texas, the Christian Homes and Family Services adoption agency added two new maternity adoption caseworkers to the staff in anticipation of the Dobbs decision, said CEO Sherri Statler. 

The agency also plans on offering community training to teach the public about adoption and the rights that women have when relinquishing their children. 

“We think young women who are pregnant can be a good mother by simply choosing adoption because she's not ready to be a parent,” Shatler said. “And so we want to make sure that she knows that we have a long list of families ready to adopt her baby.”

If the number of children relinquished for adoption increases, Sisson does not foresee a burden on the private adoption system, saying, “There is no shortage of demand.” 

But questions remain about the system’s ability to effectively care for all parties involved.

For Harrell, co-founder of The Adoption Project, the adoption process for his two daughters took an emotional toll on their biological mother. And while they stay in contact and send the mother pictures of her daughters, Harrell said more should be done to support the mental health of mothers who relinquish their children.

“There is a tremendous amount of grief in that decision, regardless of your reason for making it,” Harrell said. “And we should be making sure that that person has access to real comprehensive mental health care from a mental health professional.”

Jeremy Harrell watches his daughter, Ruby, 2, play with rocks while holding his infant Rosie, in their backyard in Eagleville, Tenn., Thursday, June 30, 2022.

Southern states have spent millions in recent years opposing abortion and implementing a framework to steer women toward adoption. 

Mississippi Gov. Reeves signed a law in April authorizing a $3.5 million tax credit for individuals and businesses that donate to non-profit pregnancy resource centers in the state. These centers are typically faith-based and often promote alternatives to abortion services such as adoption.

Since 2010, 13 states have funneled nearly $500 million to crisis pregnancy centers, according to a recent Associated Press investigation. Five Southern states — Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina — accounted for $282 million, though Texas alone distributed $204 million.

But during the same timespan, some Southern states implemented laws that could prevent children from being adopted. Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have all passed laws in recent years that allow faith-based adoption agencies to deny adoptions for same-sex couples. 

Additionally, advocates say less is being done to address poverty, a leading cause of abortions and relinquishments. 

Leslie Pate McKinnon, a North Carolina-based adoption therapist who relinquished two children prior to Roe v. Wade, said not addressing poverty makes adoption a class issue. 

“(Adoptive parents) are not bad people, but they’ve gotten caught up in this system where people steal from the poor and give to the rich,” McKinnon said.

Some such as Teri Casso have seen the good that can come from adoption. As executive director of the St. Elizabeth Foundation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Casso has supervised the placement of 250 babies over the last 13 years.

But she doesn’t think there will be a sharp rise in relinquished children. While lawmakers tout adoption as a panacea, Casso said legislators are “mostly men” who “have no earthly idea how hard it is to carry a baby to term and place that baby.”

“I would love to think that we are going to see an increase (in adoptions),” Casso said. “But I think we're going to most likely see an increase in children being raised in poverty.”

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at ayawn@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.