Today's birth parents: Their needs and rights


The Donaldson Adoption Institute
Focus on Adoption magazine

There are still many myths and much misinformation about birth parents. Though the adoption community may be better educated than the general public, we also still have much to learn.

A year-long project, "Safeguarding the Rights and Well being of Birth Parents," by the US-based Evan B Donaldson Institute for Adoption, has much to teach us about today’s birth parents. Though the study focuses on the United States, many of the findings are relevant to the Canadian adoption community. In this article, we focus on some of the major points in the report. The full text can be found at

Beyond the stereotype

The study found that only about one-fourth of women choosing adoption are below the age of 20. In fact, the most common situations for women choosing adoption are women in their early- to mid-20s who are just becoming independent, and single women with other children who believe they cannot manage parenting another child.

An overwhelming proportion (90%) of birth mothers have met the adoptive parents of their children and almost all of the remaining birth mothers helped to choose the new parents. Almost no women choosing adoption today seek anonymity or express a desire not to have ongoing information or contact.

Poor information

The Basics on Birth Parents

  • Only about 1/4 birth mothers are teens; most are women in their 20s who graduated high school, and many have other children.
  • Birth mothers rarely want anonymity and the vast majority meet their children’s adoptive parents.
  • Birth mothers who place their children with the understanding that they will have ongoing information, but the arrangement is cut off, suffer from the highest levels of grief.
  • Birth mothers in “closed” adoptions or who felt pressured to relinquish struggle most with chronic grief.

Birth Parent Rights

You have the right to be free from pressure to make a decision for or against adoption.

  • You have the right to total confidentiality, if you so choose.
  • You have the right to impartial counselling by a trained professional so you can review all your options.
  • You have the right to choose your baby’s adoptive parents.
  • You have the right to a safe and legal process.
  • You have the right to choose an open adoption or ongoing communication with the adoptive family.
  • You have the right to change your mind about any verbal promise or written agreement made before the birth of the baby.
  • Birth parents’ basic rights should be in documents that all practitioners provide and sign.
  • Legally enforceable post-adoption contact agreements should be established.

According to the report, most women struggling to make decisions about unplanned pregnancies do not have accurate information with which to make an informed choice about whether adoption is the right choice for them.

Research on birth parents in the era of closed adoptions suggests a significant proportion struggled—and sometimes continue to struggle—with chronic, unresolved grief. The primary factor bringing peace of mind is knowledge about their children’s well-being.

Current research on birth mothers concludes that being able to choose the adoptive family, and having ongoing contact and or knowledge, results in lower levels of grief and greater peace of mind for birth parents.

Broken promises

Birth mothers who have the highest grief levels are those who placed their children with the understanding that they would have ongoing information or contact with the adoptive family, but the arrangement was cut off or neglected.

Birth parents need time

Acknowledging that in the days and weeks after the birth of their child can be very hard, the study reinforces the need for birth parents to have enough time to make their decision about the adoption and that there should be a reasonable revocation period during which she can change her mind—simply because she wants to be a parent. Birth parents should be able to do this without having to jump through legal hoops.

Giving birth parents sufficient time after the birth of their child to confirm their decision, says the report, serve everyone’s interests because the adoption is on firmer legal and ethical foundations and adoptive parents can feel more secure that the birth parents are sure of their decision and will not try to reclaim their child.

What about the fathers?

A minority of infant adoptions involve fathers in the process. The strongest protection for their rights and for the legitimacy of the adoption process requires identification of biological fathers and notifying them of adoption proceedings.

The fundamental foundation for protecting the rights of fathers is identifying the father, locating him, and notifying him of his rights. Some jurisdictions do not require mothers to identify their children’s fathers, viewing this as a right of privacy for the women involved, while others require them to name the fathers and impose penalties for giving false information.

There are strong ethical, moral, and practical reasons to involve men as fully as possible. Some of the highest-profile cases [in the US] in which adoptions were overturned—and the children were returned to their birth parents—resulted from the fathers’ legal rights being violated. The first essential way to involve men in the adoptive process, to protect their rights, and thereby to also bolster the efficacy of the process itself, is to require that they be identified whenever possible and then be personally notified of the pending adoption.

Many jurisdictions have established “putative father registries,” which men must sign if they believe they have fathered a child out of wedlock; only fathers who have registered are entitled to parental rights, including notification of adoption proceedings. Many people do not even know these registries exist. Lack of registration, says the report, should not be used as a means of excusing notification or excluding a putative father’s participation. Overall, more aggressive protection of birth fathers’ rights is needed, including requiring the mothers to identify them, except in extraordinary circumstances, and working to personally notify all possible fathers of adoption proceedings.

Need to know more

In order to improve adoption practice and address the needs of birth parents in the process, it is critically important to conduct sound research that focuses on birth parents who participate in all types of infant adoptions today and to follow them over a period of years.

In today’s more-open, more-honest adoption climate, many women and men make successful post-adoption adjustments and feel pride and confidence about their choices. So, in addition to needing more current research on birth parents’ needs and adjustment issues, greater understanding is also required of those who adjust well to informed adoption decisions and of which processes helped them to achieve this comfort level.


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