LDS Family Services, a Mormon Church-owned counseling center and adoption agency with nearly 70 offices worldwide, has announced that it is getting out of the adoption business. Not enough young women, they said, are willing to relinquish babies for adoption anymore, and the business model they established decades ago is no longer sustainable.
For years LDS Family Services (LDSFS) has been a titan in the domestic adoption field. It was a top donor and the second-largest member of the adoption lobby organization National Council for Adoption, which has helped shape adoption policy at the national level. In 2005, the National Council for Adoption inducted LDSFS into its “Adoption Hall of Fame” for the agency’s own work in adoption policymaking, helping to make Utah a “national-model” for “pro-adoption” states.
But being “pro-adoption” means different things to different people. For would-be adoptive parents, Utah’s laws certainly seem friendly. Domestic adoption laws vary widely by state, and Mormon-dominated Utah has always been a standout for its lax regulations—drafted in part by LDS Family Services—which are so favorable to adoption agencies that the state has been nicknamed a “baby warehouse.” Mothers in Utah can relinquish infants for adoption within 24 hours after birth—a period when many are still recovering from labor, post-delivery hormones and pain medication—and relinquishments are irrevocable from the moment the papers are signed. What’s more, LDS Family Services subsidizes Mormon adoptions so heavily that LDS couples might pay as little as $4,000 to adopt a baby, compared with a national average of $30,000-$40,000.
However, for the mothers and fathers faced with relinquishing children for adoption, LDS Family Services can seem something else entirely.
During the 2012 presidential election, allegations surfaced that candidate Mitt Romney had once pressured a woman in his Boston Mormon church ward to give her child up for adoption to LDS Family Services. In 1983, Romney was a ward bishop, and the mother, Peggie Hayes, was a 23-year-old single mom who babysat for his kids. When Hayes became pregnant again, she told the Boston Globe, Romney told her about the church’s adoption agency. When Hayes balked at giving up her child, she claims Romney threatened she could be excommunicated if she refused. Hayes says the message she received was clear: “This is not like ‘You don’t get to take Communion.’ This is like ‘You will not be saved. You will never see the face of God.’”
Though Romney denied he threatened Hayes with excommunication, the allegations don’t seem like an anomaly. In online forums and the comments sections of Utah newspapers, a number of Mormon and ex-Mormon women similarly claim that they encountered severe pressure from their local church leaders to relinquish babies for adoption through LDSFS, or risk losing their good standing in the church. Women described how they were pressured to sign relinquishment papers in their hospital beds, while they were still groggy after labor; how a scheduled baptism was withheld from a mother pregnant by rape until she agreed to relinquish for adoption; how mothers who had children out of wedlock were urged to place them to foster care in order to demonstrate that they truly repented of their sins.
Mormon teachings on parenthood, and on the importance of forming an “eternal family” that will last after death, are traditionally hostile to the idea of single motherhood. LDS doctrine has long held that, “When the probability of a successful marriage is unlikely, unwed parents should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Social Services,” to help ensure the baby will be raised in a proper, two-parent Mormon home.
The shaming of unwed mothers is hardly limited to one religious tradition. Throughout much of the 20th century, Catholic churches in Ireland dictated that unmarried pregnant women be sent to maternity homes often known as “Magdalene asylums”—like the one featured in last year’s blockbuster movie Philomena—where they were to deliver and relinquish their children as penance for their sins. And in the U.S. from the 1950s-’70s, both religious and secular maternity homes led millions of women to relinquish children in secretive adoptions, during a time now known as “The Baby Scoop Era.”
But such homes, and the model of compulsory adoption they promoted, largely faded into history as abortion laws were liberalized and acceptance for single parenthood grew. Across the U.S., the number of white, never-married women who relinquished for adoption plummeted, from nearly 20 percent in 1972 to around 1 percent today. (The rate of relinquishment for women of color has traditionally remained low.)
For a long time, the situation in Utah and other Mormon communities didn’t seem to follow suit, and Utah’s juggernaut of Mormon culture, church-subsidized adoptions, and agency-drafted laws combined to make the state one where birthparents seemed to be disenfranchised en masse by a number of agencies.
Mormon women weren’t the only victims. There were also widespread stories of pregnant women flown in from out of state to give birth and relinquish under Utah’s looser laws. Some agencies were accused of offering small cash payments to mothers, or worse, threatening to refuse airfare home if the women changed their minds after giving birth. (In 2005, one birthmother from Illinois who changed her mind during labor was apparently abandoned by the agency that brought her to Utah, and which left her and her newborn baby stranded at a Salt Lake City homeless shelter after the mother refused to agree to adoption.)
Birthfathers whose partners relinquish for adoption in Utah also faced a particularly raw deal, as the state’s labyrinthine system of registering paternity has frequently been used against dads who aren’t familiar with the process. One California father, Mario Beltran, says LDS Family Services tricked him into forfeiting his paternity rights despite the fact that he’d written to the agency, declaring his intentions to “pursue custody of my child as vigorously as possible.” When the case went to court, an adoption attorney argued that Utah law does not obligate agencies to inform unwed fathers of their rights, and the judge agreed. Other agencies have brazenly advertised their intention to use loopholes in Utah adoption law to exclude the birthfather from the process.
Cases like these have become so common in Utah that 12 fathers recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s adoption laws and claiming $130 million in damages. And this spring the Utah legislature passed a bill requiring that more notice be given to fathers before an adoption takes place—an attempt, explained one legislator, to counter “this perception that we’ve become a magnet state for fraudulent adoptions.”
It’s hard to consider the closure of LDS Family Service’s adoption program without keeping this history and recent developments in mind. But the larger significance of the move remains to be seen. Adoption experts wonder if LDS Family Services’ departure from adoptions will critically weaken advocacy groups like the National Council for Adoption, and thereby alter the national debate around adoption regulation and reform. Some critics worry LDSFS will simply refer prospective adoptive parents to outside agencies, and corrupt adoptions will continue. But in one way or another, it seems clear that the closure is a sign of changing times in the industry.
Above all these considerations is the fact that fewer women are willing to relinquish children for adoption if they find themselves pregnant at a young age, or while unmarried. A 2010 report from the Center for American Progress noted that annual domestic infant adoption rates have fallen so significantly that they are hard to track accurately. There is the simple fact that teenage pregnancies are down across the country. And for young women who do experience unplanned pregnancies, there are more choices available today. Although adoption is often presented as the pro-life alternative to abortion, the Center for American Progress report found that the greater acceptance of single parenthood is a stronger factor in fewer women choosing adoption than the availability of abortion, since both adoption and abortion rates have fallen, while rates of unmarried parenthood have dramatically increased.
What’s more, many pregnant women considering their options are more likely today to have access to the experience of mothers who have been in their shoes in the past. The Internet has brought greatly increased visibility to the experiences of birthmothers from decades before, many of whom have written online, in blogs or on social media, about the lifelong grief they faced after relinquishing children. And the rise of adult adoptees as a vital part of the adoption community has complicated narratives about adoption that long presented only one perspective—that of adoptive parents.
As LDS Family Services told the Salt Lake Tribune, “It’s a different world for adoption.” And that’s not all bad.