(Photo courtesy of Tiffany HyeonBrooks; Designed by Lara Witt)

Adoptees Disrupting Adoption Narratives is a series of as-told-to pieces written and curated by Prism’s editor-at-large, Tina Vasquez, featuring five adoptees—Tiffany HyeonBrooks, Mezekerta Tesfay, Nicole Eigbrett, Rachael Murphey and Rev. T Sheri Dickerson—and one personal narrative essay by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣. They share in their own words what being an adoptee means to them and how current narratives around adoption are inextricably linked to family separations, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. They also delve into how adoptee-led discussions are necessary for the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. You can find the series in its entirety here.

CW: mentions of sexual assault, forced birth, and family separation 

Tiffany HyeonBrooks is the reason for this series. 

At SisterSong’s reproductive justice conference in August, the 35-year-old grant writer from New York City presented a session called, “An Adopted Person’s Lived Experience and Expertise at the Intersection of Reproductive Justice, Adoption, and Survivorship.” The gathering made a big impact on the adoptees who attended—one of whom spent almost two decades in sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements and said she’d never before seen a space carved out by and for adoptees. 

In a way, the session was a culmination of what HyeonBrooks calls her “reproductive justice journey” that began about a decade prior when she moved to Korea and sought out information on her birth mother. The road has been long and hard, and it’s led to a fundamental shift in the way HyeonBrooks views her own experience and the lens for which she understands modern adoption. She has come to some critical understandings, namely that adoption is a deeply political issue and that the adoption system is rife with inequities and power imbalances—especially when it comes to transracial and international adoptions. 

The adoptees present at HyeonBrooks’ session agreed that everyone—adoptees, adoptive families, and the general public—needs reporting that disrupts the “win-win” narrative of adoption that positions adoptive parents as heroes who are fulfilling their reproductive destinies and adoptees as silent and grateful recipients of a new family. This is how this series was born, and in the coming year HyeonBrooks’ session will continue to take shape in the world. She is partnering with Collective Power and other adoptees featured in this series to create more adoptee-centered spaces for youth in the reproductive justice movement. 

Earlier this fall, HyeonBrooks spoke to Prism about her fears leading up to the SisterSong conference, the challenges of finding her voice, and why now is the perfect time to bring adoptees into the reproductive justice movement. Here she is, in her own words: 

The conference session at Let’s Talk About Sex verified that there are adoptees who want to do reproductive justice work together. This was very heartening for me. Going in, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I remember realizing there were no other adoption-centered sessions, and I worried that an adoptive parent would attend and just kind of come at me. I still feel vulnerable openly talking about adoption. I was so relieved that everything went well, and I walked away feeling encouraged by the adoptees who attended.

I’m just now getting to a place where I’m building connections with a wider community of adopted folks. I’ve been on my own journey for a while now with the support of my partner and friends, which I’m grateful for because there’s really no way to know what might come up when you search for answers about your birth family. 

About 10 years ago, I moved to Korea for a while to search for my birth mother. This was really the beginning of my reproductive justice journey, and it was such a challenging process. I learned that I was conceived through rape. 

As an adoptee, I think there is a lot of romanticizing about your blood relations because you don’t know anything about them, so for this to be one of the only facts I learned about my biological family—that my birth father harmed my birth mother and I am the result of a violent act—rocked me. When you add the context that until very recently, abortion was criminalized in Korea, it’s an added layer to process. With anti-abortion laws, there is always a focus on whether there are “exceptions” for rape and incest. It’s almost unbelievable, but I have been asked whether I would rather have been aborted than adopted. Even though I don’t want to dignify that question with an answer, I would have wanted my birth mother to have the true freedom to choose. 

For a lot of us, there are always more questions than answers. I grew up in Westchester County, north of New York City. I was adopted by older parents who had two biological children of their own. I would ask my parents why they adopted me or what made them want to adopt a child, and their answer was basically just like, “Because we wanted to.” I was never satisfied with that. It was that lack of information that led to the investigation of my own adoption and adoption as a broader issue. I was also unsatisfied with these narratives of adoption that focused on gratitude or painted it as a win-win situation. None of it resonated with me. 

Disrupting those narratives can feel really hard for adoptees because of the way their adoptive parents often respond. But also, a lot of times when adoptees share their stories, we’re judged based on our relationship with our parents or families and whether we talk about having a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ adoption. When I was growing up, there were so few resources for navigating all of this. Survivors who are adopted or adoptees who experience abuse might feel like they have few places to turn—and it’s not like there is anyone checking in on them. There are few to no post-adoption services to help survivors on the front end or to prevent abuse from happening. 

I’d love to see the gratitude narrative abolished. It’s this idea that adoptees are forever indebted to our adoptive parents, and even discussing our actual experience as adoptees is seen as ungrateful.

This is one of the reasons why I’d love to see the gratitude narrative abolished. It’s this idea that adoptees are forever indebted to our adoptive parents, and even discussing our actual experience as adoptees is seen as ungrateful. Mainstream adoption narratives also tend to take this “colorblind” approach to adoptees. The narrative that we should really push for is framing adoption as a reproductive justice issue. 

Reproductive justice is this human rights framework centered on bodily autonomy and the right to have children or not have children, and adoption plays a huge role in who gets to parent. [Grand Valley State University professor] Kimberly McKee wrote a paper called “Adoption as a Reproductive Justice Issue” that’s sort of like my Bible. It’s really inspired me, and it feels very foundational to this work and our understanding of adoption as an RJ issue. In the paper, she uses the phrase “reproductive destinies,” which I find really powerful. She asks us to question whose reproductive destinies we are privileging in the adoption system. 

“What about people who are infertile or older or LGBTQIA+?” That question comes up a lot in conversations around adoption. I would never say these populations shouldn’t have the right to create their own families, but everything I know about the modern adoption system pushes me to question adoption as the solution. I can understand why that’s hard to talk about. The reality is this is a system that perpetuates a lot of harms and inequalities. I think we need to grapple with that.  

I once had a conversation with someone whose mother was adopted, and we engaged in this in-depth back-and-forth about whether adoption can be ethical or if we can make the current system better. There are no easy answers. There are movements of people pushing for things like open adoption and access to original birth certificates, and I’m totally in favor of that. But in terms of the system as a whole? More and more I am in favor of taking an abolition approach to the modern adoption and child welfare systems—or, as Dorothy Roberts has aptly named it—the “family policing system.” What else can we create? Joon Ae Haworth-Kaufka, an adoptee rights advocate whose work I admire a lot, wrote a really smart Instagram post about the abolition of the modern adoption industry that I’d suggest checking out. 

McKee’s question about reproductive destinies also pulls a thread that makes people really uncomfortable because it requires talking about class and race and gender and all of these other subjects that adoptive parents often don’t want to talk about—that the majority of adoptive parents are white and that the majority of birth parents and adoptive children are people of color. This means that an overwhelming majority of adoption placements are transracial. That should bring up a lot of questions about adoption as a system.

It’s important to distinguish that there’s always been guardianship, kinship, and histories of communities taking care of children. That’s where the “it takes a village” mentality comes from. That is very different from modern-day adoption practices that are rooted in deeply oppressive histories. When I link modern adoption to the forced pregnancy of Black women and the removal of Black children from their families during slavery, I know there are people who think that’s a far-off connection to make. But it speaks to the severing of family ties, and that is foundational context for modern-day adoption practices. The removal of Indigenous children from tribal communities is another way of understanding the oppressive history of modern adoption practices. And these aren’t just histories—these issues continue to play out today. I don’t think we are talking enough about the Supreme Court case regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act. This case really gets to the root of these oppressive histories that are tied to child welfare practices, the family separation crisis, and nearly 200 years of cultural genocide in the boarding school system. It’s about removing future community members from their community. 

An overwhelming majority of adoption placements are transracial. That should bring up a lot of questions about adoption as a system.

Part of the challenge in talking about these issues is that adoptive parents take criticism of adoption as criticism of them as parents. As adoptees, our questioning of this system makes adoptive parents question their worthiness as parents. Like so much with adoption, it becomes about the adoptive parents. Lately, there has been some movement away from only relying on the insights and feelings of adoptive parents. There’s a group called The Chinese Adoptee Alliance that now has an all-adoptee board; they used to have a board that also included adoptive parents. It’s great to see an organization move toward a leadership model that centers adoptees. I hope there is more movement towards centering adoptees’ voices and lived experiences and that there’s more awareness that adoptive parents have been speaking for us and on our behalf.

There is this tendency to infantilize adoptees, which is also why I think it’s become so normal for adoptive parents to speak for us. What other population of adults do you know where it’s normalized for strangers to ask personal questions about your family connections or about whether you have a “good relationship” with your parents? You’re judged on whether you are a “good” or “well-behaved” adoptee. You’re treated like a child well into adulthood. 

Even adoptees who had a “good” experience with their adoption can still experience feelings of loss—loss around their identity, their birth parents, or just generally struggling with what it means to have been adopted. It’s important that we listen to these nuances from adoptees—especially in transracial placements. A lot of us grow up without any racial or cultural context, and we are placed in communities that are mostly white. There is no real space to explore who we are. 

This was my experience, and it felt severely isolating. Adoption trauma is very real, and I don’t think there are enough public resources for how to deal with it. What’s great is there are a lot more adoptee advocates out there. They are a huge community on social media, and I follow many of these people on Instagram and TikTok, including Lina Vanegas, JaeRan Kim, Cam Lee Small, Adoptee Voices Rising, and many others. They are contributing to a real shift by leading these brave public conversations and serving as a resource for adoptees. There is also a wave of adoptee social workers and academics, many of whom are from South Korea because we were one of the first big waves of adoption. Many of us are adults now delving into this work in important ways. 

You’re judged on whether you are a “good” or “well-behaved” adoptee. You’re treated like a child well into adulthood. 

I’m a South Korean adoptee, and it’s been my experience that there’s so much adoption history people are unfamiliar with. South Korea was devastated by the Korean War. The war led to hardship and poverty for families, and this is why adoption from South Korea started. Another important piece of this history is that there were a lot of multiracial children in South Korea after the war whose fathers were men in the U.S. military. During the war, the president of Korea wanted multiracial children removed from the country. I stress this point because this history complicates the narratives we usually hear about these adoptions. These weren’t altruistic stories where adoptive parents are heroes for deciding that adoption from war-torn South Korea was the right thing to do. It was actually this dark history and these racist conditions that made adoption from South Korea possible. 

Right-wing movements have taken hold of adoption narratives. Because of that, and because there’s a fear that talking about adoption will detract from efforts to advance and sustain abortion rights, reproductive justice movements have been reluctant to talk about adoption. This does a disservice to our movements because adoption touches on so many reproductive justice issues and adoptees can be a powerful force for building the movement and acting as political allies. Many of us are looking for a movement home in this way. 

What upsets me is that adoption almost always gets neutralized as a political issue when it’s so demonstrably political. It reminds me of something interesting I read recently, which is that Democrats and Republicans disagree on abortion but agree on adoption.

I think it’s important to dispel the myth that adoption is an alternative to abortion. Research from Gretchen Sisson, an amazing sociologist who studies abortion and adoption, found that most people who are seeking an abortion know about their adoption options and would not choose adoption unless they absolutely had to. Even in cases where they were turned away from getting an abortion, only a very small percentage opted for adoption. Most ended up parenting. 

The whole thing about choosing between adoption and abortion is a myth. The real choice is between abortion and a kind of forced parenthood that is only going to become more common now that Roe v. Wade is overturned. We can’t talk about this without also talking about maternal mortality rates and the way Black women are at serious risk when they give birth in the U.S. It’s never risk-free to force somebody to remain pregnant and give birth and then relinquish that child. There are also so many layers of trauma in that. 

This is an especially good time for our movements and our country to talk about adoption. I don’t even think we can fully wrap our minds around the devastating consequences these sweeping abortion bans will have over time. If there were ever a moment to disrupt the myth that adoption is an alternative to abortion, the moment is now. 

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.