Privatized adoption is the “commodification of children,” one adoptee told Mic.
Ever since the Supreme Court made abortion access a federally protected right in 1973, conservatives have attacked Roe v. Wade. Narrative control has been key to anti-abortion movements, including the re-defining of its supporters as “pro-life.” Anti-abortion activists paint themselves as “saving” kids, and they frame privatized adoption as abortion’s ethical alternative. But as Roe teeters on the edge, adoptees and family separation activists are disrupting this conservative narrative — and they’re doing it in a very personal way.
Thanks to its powerful algorithm, TikTok is known for being divided into its own subsections of interests, like SoberTok or EcoTok. If you’ve spent any time on what’s been dubbed AdopteeTok, you might know the name Tory Bae. In the 1980s, Bae was adopted from South Korea to an all-white family in Minnesota. She now lives in North Carolina — and has amassed nearly 100,000 followers since the start of the pandemic by making videos about the foster care and adoption industries.
Like many adoptees, Bae is intimately familiar with conservatives’ troubling invocations of adoption. As their attacks on Roe have ramped up, conservatives keep bringing up privatized adoption as the answer; following Politico’s leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said, “Less abortion, more adoption. Why is that controversial?”
Crenshaw’s statement captures what Bae says is the dominant attitude amongst conservatives: “Adoption is seen as so good, and everything else is seen as so bad,” she tells Mic. She points to the September 2020 confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a notable example. Over the course of her time before the Senate, Barrett frequently mentioned her seven children, including her two kids adopted from Haiti. But Bae noticed a problem. When Barrett was asked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) about peoples’ fears about a potential overturn of the Affordable Care Act, she responded, “I could empathize with people who lack health care. You know, one of the things that was so striking to me when we went to get our daughter Vivian from the orphanage in Haiti was the lack of access to basic things like antibiotics.”
Conservative outlets like Fox News celebrated Barrett, but the judge’s responses came off “like a stereotypical adoptive parent” to Bae. “When [Barrett] talked about her biological children, she started off with how great they are and their accomplishments,” she says. “And then when she started talking about her two adoptive children, who are Black, she first led with their struggles.” It’s a dynamic Bae has seen play out time and time again. “It happens all the time, where you lead with, ‘Oh, my kids are doing so well. And then my adoptive kids, well, they’re struggling.’”
As an Evangelical Christian, Bae was often told, directly or indirectly, that adoption was the moral thing to do. While she and her husband never wanted kids, they still began exploring international adoption for themselves. “We were kind of brainstorming, and we were still in the Evangelical church,” she explains, “[so] it was very much like, ‘Adopt, adopt, adopt! That would be awesome!’”
Research, however, brought their plans to a screeching halt.
“We literally hopped on Google one night and I was like, ‘Heck no.’ It took us one night to be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Bae recounts. By that point in her life, Bae says she had already “come out of the fog” and “knew adoption was trauma.” But she’d never previously looked at statistics regarding “how many children have been exported, especially from South Korea.”
Exporting may seem like a strong word, but the argument isn’t new. In a 1988 article first published in The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild examined the revenue generated by international adoption agencies. After Guatemala imposed a moratorium on foreign adoptions, a former member of its National Adoption Council said, “Our image as being the number one exporter of children has changed. Guatemala has dignity.” When it comes to international adoptions, the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest players: Of the nearly 46,000 children adopted internationally in 2005, almost half went to the United States.
“For us adoptees, it’s not your right to buy us to build your family.”
After doing their research, Bae and her husband decided adoption wasn’t for them. They began exploring foster care instead. It’s not something Bae suggests for everybody, given “the foster care system is more heavily nuanced, and [has] so much more trauma” — but their decision was child-centered and motivated by their experiences working with youth in higher education and in the church. While attending foster parent classes, Bae joined TikTok, and quickly found herself immersed in AdopteeTok. “I started hearing a lot of adoptee stories and realizing that my [good] adoption was an outlier. The relationship that I had with my parents was an outlier,” she tells Mic.
As Bae built community online, she began making videos about the industry, like the cost of privatized adoption, adoptee fog, and deconstructing conservative narratives around adoption. “We have grown up in a society where you get married and you have kids. You expand your family,” Bae explains. American society tends to view kids as an extension of their parents, and as a result, people are bombarded with messages that having kids will fulfill them. For families who can’t conceive themselves, adoption has been the go-to solution — which makes it all the more controversial for someone to call out its issues.
Bae says she’s received pushback to some of her videos from people asking, “How else am I supposed to build a family?” The question, she says, “sparks conversations, especially in our adoptee community, where parenting is not a right. It’s a privilege.” The phrasing people use when making these statements says a lot, she says. “When you say ‘I want to adopt,’ you are centering yourself in a situation that should be child-centered. You’re saying, ‘I want this child, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it.’”
Although it might be hard to hear, Bae’s main point comes down to one simple thing: “For us adoptees, it’s not your right to buy us to build your family.”
That fact — that privatized adoption is a literal business — is another reason why conservatives saying “just adopt instead of abort” doesn’t work. In the U.S., private adoption is a multibillion-dollar industry; Time reported that a 2021 agreement from one company, Adoption Network Law Center, showed adoptive parents were charged over $25,000, not including legal costs and other expenses. Costs could easily be double that as people pursue “add-ons,” like choosing a child of a specific gender.
Not only does Bae assert that “adoption is not a solution for abortion,” but, she continues, “It shouldn’t even be in the same conversation. You’re talking about abortion as a medical procedure being compared with adoption which, in this day and age, is the commodification of children.”
Conservatives aren’t the only ones using adoptees as political pawns. In January, the Good Liars, a comedy duo, made a viral video of themselves attending the March for Life. While there, they approached groups of women holding “choose adoption” signs and asked them how many children they had adopted. The answer? None.
The video’s appeal is obvious: It’s pointing out hypocrisy. Of course, plenty of anti-abortionists do adopt children — and it doesn’t make their rhetoric any less disturbing. In reality, the video doesn’t really show hypocrisy, so much as it highlights the fact that decades into post-Roe anti-abortion movements, many people still fail to understand conservatives’ motivations. Saving children isn’t — and has never been — the point. Control is.
“People have to come to understand that adoption and foster care are rooted in specific histories of control that play out in our contemporary institutions,” explains Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sánchez, who was separated from their family in Colombia through privatized adoption. “They’re working from an ideology [that goes] back to the settlement of this land. It dates back to the displacement and enslavement of African people and the commodification and destruction of their families.”
In 2021, Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana studies, law, and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argued for abolishing family policing like the child welfare system. While many see the system as “a benign social service provider that safeguards children,” Roberts wrote, the U.S. has historically “wielded child removal to terrorize, control, and disintegrate racialized populations.”
Lundberg Torres Sánchez similarly describes themself as a family separation systems abolitionist. “Any system that facilitates making family or forming kinship through the termination of somebody else’s parental rights, [as] adoption and child welfare systems do, is a system that we have to end,” they tell Mic.
Once you realize this is all about control, conservatives’ views on adoption and abortion can be better understood as two sides of the same coin. Even though they attempt to paint one as the more virtuous solution to the other, the reality is that to promote adoption over abortion is to intentionally neglect the adoption industry’s own problems. For change to occur, people need to recognize how histories of oppression inform adoption too.
“You’re talking about abortion as a medical procedure being compared with adoption which, in this day and age, is the commodification of children.”
And whether it’s turning kids into dollars — as Lundberg Torres Sánchez puts it, the private adoption industry “requires other people’s children to keep the lights on” — or governments separating families for other reasons, children are the ones who bear the harm. Regardless of the political leanings at play, using adoptees as pawns de-centers children from conversations where they should take center stage.
In their pursuit for a systemic overhaul of privatized adoption and other family separation systems, Lundberg Torres Sánchez sees building relationships as key. “If isolation and separation are some of the major harms of family policing systems, we have to focus on building solidarity between people who have been impacted in similar ways by related systems, but may see their experience as wholly different from somebody else’s,” they tell Mic. To facilitate that, Lundberg Torres Sánchez helped launch We Are Holding This, an independent publication for “people directly impacted by systems of family regulation, surveillance, and policing to gather our creative expressions and to know one another.” One of its projects is a zine by and for adopted, fostered, and trafficked people.
In the end, the goal isn’t to “convince people about our humanity,” Lundberg Torres Sánchez says. “I do not believe that the fights that we have to win will come from convincing the majority of people in the U.S. that we experienced this.” That’s because, they say, “history bears out that it is a critical minority of people working together that create change, not convincing the majority of people.”