|Tuesday 12 June 2012|
This essay was previously previewed in the May edition of spiked plus.
Reforming Britain’s adoption system, to streamline and speed up the process of placing children in care with adoptive parents, has emerged as a significant policy issue for the Lib-Con coalition government. The Queen’s Speech last month included setting a new ‘time limit’ on cases of children going into care, stating that family courts should make a decision on whether a child should be taken from their parents and placed in care within six months. This measure wasreported as part of the government’s drive to ‘speed up’ the adoption process, because of its belief that too many children stay too long in care and miss out on the stability of a caring permanent home.
In Britain, official concern about both the speed and the number of adoptions has been rumbling on for some months. On 23 February, the Lib-Con coalition’s education secretary, Michael Gove, speaking ahead of the government’s forthcoming adoption action plan, ‘reiterated concerns around low adoption numbers and delays and bureaucracy in the assessment process’. On 27 February, the BBC reported new rules issued by the schools’ inspection body Ofsted, stating that ‘local authorities in England will only get an outstanding rating for adoption in future if they place children within 12 months’.
In 2011, children’s minister Tim Loughton appointed an ‘adoption tsar’, Martin Narey, former chief executive of the children’s services charity Barnado’s, who had been commissioned by The Times (London) to write a review of Britain’s adoption system. The Narey report was published in July, making a number of quite controversial recommendations. Although the government has denied The Times’ claim that this would provide a ‘blueprint’ for the reforms, many of its proposals are already being aired by government ministers.
There are some problems with Britain’s current adoption system. There are also some big questions to be asked about the current policy agenda to increase the speed at which children are taken away from parents and placed into care – or, in the case of adoption, placed permanently with another family. That is the subject of another article.
But an issue that has also emerged in relation to the adoption agenda is an assumption that this should be more heavily promoted as an alternative to abortion. In this regard, two central assumptions deserve serious questioning. The first is that the number of abortions should be reduced, while the number of adoptions is increased. The second is the proposal that women who have abortions should be more rigorously ‘counselled’ about choosing the option of adoption instead.
Numbers and targets
The issue of Britain’s abortion numbers has been raised as a problem by policymakers for decades, and always begs the same two questions: what would be the right number of abortions, and how might policymakers achieve this objective?
Last year, some figures were provided by Nadine Dorries, the anti-abortion Conservative MP, when she tabled an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill designed to strip abortion providers of their ability to offer information, advice and counselling to women considering having an abortion. Dorries arguedin March 2011 that offering women ‘independent’ counselling instead could reduce Britain’s abortion numbers by 60,000 per year.
Dorries also talked about the need to promote adoption more strongly as an alternative to abortion. ‘It is a fact that 400 babies were available for adoption in this country last year’, she said in March 2011. ‘Many women now wait until their late 30s, early 40s to start a family and they then realise they can’t and turn to adoption. But it just isn’t an available option anymore because the abortion process is so streamlined that adoption is just fading out.’
Max Pemberton explained the problems with Dorries’ statistics, in his Daily Telegraph column responding to her comments last March. ‘The truth is that childless couples are not being denied the opportunity to adopt, as she claims’, Pemberton argued. ‘There are more couples hoping to adopt babies than there are babies up for adoption, but the key word here is babies. In fostering and care homes, there are thousands of children desperate to be adopted, but there is a dearth of parents willing to accept older children, those with disabilities or those with siblings.’
Pemberton went on to stress that the decline in adoption rates ‘has nothing to do with rates of abortion, and there is not a shred of evidence to support Ms Dorries’ assertion’: ‘A far bigger factor, as the British Association of Adoption and Fostering pointed out when I spoke to them, is the change in social attitudes towards single mothers and improved financial support for them from the state, which means more young women are keeping their babies. In addition, barbaric practices in which babies were wrenched from their mother’s arms and put up for adoption have been abolished. The decision to remove a child from his or her biological mother is now made by the courts only after careful deliberation. This takes time, so that many babies are toddlers by the time the decision is finalised.’
Pemberton’s argument is quite correct, and indicates why we should be very careful indeed of any attempts to link rising abortion rates with declining adoption rates. Intuitively, it may seem obvious that the widespread availability of legal abortion means that women with an unwanted pregnancy will have an abortion rather than have the baby adopted at birth.
But this ignores the changing wider context, including the shift in attitude to unmarried mothers, which may make women with an unplanned pregnancy more likely to carry the pregnancy to term and to keep the baby. It ignores the change in adoption practices, which since the Second World War have been made much more official and permanent, organised formally via the state rather than informally via the family. It ignores the advances there have been in relation to fertility treatment, where the first port of call for a couple struggling to bear children is likely to be IVF rather than adoption. And it ignores the genuine shift in attitudes to abortion – which sees this as an acceptable, sensible and responsible personal solution when a woman has an unwanted pregnancy. Of course, there are those who see this attitude shift as an example of an immoral, callous culture; but many others clearly accept the difference between an embryo and a born child, and recognise women’s control over their fertility to be a progressive gain.
As for the adoption numbers: one central proposal by the Narey review, which has been endorsed by the prime minister David Cameron, is to boost the number of adoptions. One of Narey’s strongest and most controversial recommendations is to produce a ‘league table’ of adoption numbers, recommending that the children’s minister ‘regularly produce comparative information for local authorities, identifying rolling totals of adoptions finalised along with the time taken to complete those adoptions’.
So while policymakers seek to find ways to reduce the number of abortions, Local authorities are also under pressure to increase the number of adoptions, and will be thus compared to one another. This reduction of the complex issues of abortion and adoption to cold statistics in league tables betrays a worryingly bureaucratic tendency.
The reality in Britain today is that abortion and adoption are not ‘equivalent’ options. Abortion is neither an easy decision nor a pleasant experience, but it is a culturally accepted and widely provided solution where an individual woman has an unwanted pregnancy. Adoption can be another solution, but it requires carrying a pregnancy to term and giving a born child up to strangers, a scenario that many women find harder to contemplate than terminating a pregnancy one, two, or even five months in.
Counselling women to ‘choose’ adoption
The Narey review on adoption is primarily concerned with raising the number of adoptions of children already in the care system. But he also explicitly addresses the issue of adoption in the context of pregnancy counselling. ‘Pregnant women in the UK are mostly seen as having a choice between giving birth and bringing up their child or aborting the pregnancy’, he states. ‘What seems to have disappeared in the UK — certainly in comparison to the US — is consciousness about a third option: of going to term but allowing the child to be adopted.’
While Narey stresses that he is ‘emphatically in the pro-choice camp when it comes to abortion’, his report argues that ‘pregnancy advisory charities, children’s charities and local authorities need to highlight that third option [of adoption] better’.
Nadine Dorries has notoriously described Britain’s abortion service as putting women on a ‘conveyor belt’, which pushes women to terminate their pregnancies before giving them the chance to think through their other two options: keeping the baby or putting the baby up for adoption. Frank Field, the Labour MP who initially supported the Dorries amendment, also aired the view that women could be somehow counselled to choose adoption over abortion. ‘It is bizarre that we have couples scouring the world for children to adopt, yet we don’t know whether it is an option put during abortion counselling’, said Field in September 2011.
The Narey review and the Dorries amendment on pregnancy counselling are different initiatives, and there is no suggestion that they have been designed to complement each other. But there is a strange coincidence of timing in the way these arguments have been promoted and their assumptions about the role of counselling in women’s pregnancy decision-making.
Women considering abortion are provided with information, advice and counselling about three pregnancy options – continuing the pregnancy to term and keeping the baby, continuing the pregnancy to term and giving the baby up for adoption, and aborting the pregnancy. While a proportion of women do end up choosing the first two options, it is an insult to women’s understanding of themselves and their situation to imply that those who opt for abortion could just as easily wait until they give birth and hand the baby over for adoption.
The role of pregnancy-options counselling is to give women the space to talk about the reasons for her decision, and to ensure that she is sure about her decision before aborting her pregnancy. The key feature of this counselling is that it is non-directive: it is aimed at supporting the woman’s own decision about what she feels is right for her. The implication of the argument that if women were given more information about adoption they would be more likely to choose it as an option runs completely against the grain of non-directive counselling, and fails to grapple with just how different the abortion/adoption decision is for the woman who is carrying the pregnancy.
As for adoption: as Max Pemberton argues, the biggest problem is not to do with babies, but with older children who may have spent several years stuck in residential or foster care, and for whom prospective adoptive parents are reluctant to come forward. While the number of adoptions of babies is very small, toddlers and very young children are more likely to be adopted than any other age group: as the Office for National Statistics notes, ‘the proportion of children adopted aged one to four has steadily increased over the past decade’ and now accounts for 58 per cent of children adopted in 2010. This raises the question: why would baby adoption be on the agenda at all, when children aged five and over are so much more in need of attention?
Early intervention and the ‘welfare of the child’
As Max Pemberton pointed out, there is a chilling logic to Dorries’ argument, that is, ‘women who have unwanted pregnancies can be turned into baby-making machines for the infertile’. This viewpoint, he argued, ‘also presents children as mere commodities’. In fact, ‘Adoption does not exist to fulfil the need of an adult to become a parent. The sole consideration should be the welfare of the child. Adopting a child is an incredible act of grace and love. If people are only willing to adopt a cute, bouncy baby, then their motivation should be carefully reviewed.’
It is tempting to see the argument that women should be counselled to adopt rather than abort as a rather shameless attempt to push women into childbirth for the sake of providing children for the childless. But this gets the dynamic behind the push towards early-years, fast-track adoption back to front. What is truly startling about the Narey proposals for adoption reform is the extent to which they privilege assumptions about the welfare of the child over any rights, feelings or experiences that the birth parent might have.
The first chapter of the Narey review begins: ‘Adoption is the ultimate intervention in the life of a child and one that, we know, can and does transform lives, particularly when the adoption is made at an early age. But adoption generally becomes a possibility only when a child has been taken into care – that is, removed from his or her birth parents. And that process can often begin too late and then take far too long, endangering the chances of a successful adoption (if that is what is best for the child) or in some cases preventing adoption. Central to this report is my belief that there is a very strong case for radically increasing the number of adoptions in England and in the rest of the UK. But to do so will require us to intervene earlier in the lives of large numbers of deeply neglected children and to resolve their permanent future much more quickly. Delay in intervention and then delay in achieving permanency for children is deeply damaging.’
The policy dynamic towards early official intervention into the lives of children whose families are struggling has been well established by the Lib-Con government, and Frank Field MP has been one of the principal architects of this approach. Whatever the pros and cons of early intervention as a strategy within social work, it has some profound consequences when its logic is adoption. Because, as Narey indicates, adoption is the ‘ultimate intervention’, removing a child permanently from his or her birth parents, on the justification that the damage caused by the child’s birth parents outweighs the legal (and moral) rights that the parent has over that child.
Whether adoption is warranted in individual cases is a judgement for professional social workers to make. And it may well be the case that, if a child is going to be adopted, that child will fare better if the adoption takes place at a very young age. But as a policy dynamic, the notion that children should be adopted out of their families in greater numbers, at a faster pace and at a younger age, carries enormous risks. This is particularly true if it runs parallel with a policy approach designed to encourage women to choose adoption over abortion, and thus reduce the number of abortions.
Whatever policymakers’ intentions, the message here is that women should adopt not abort, because that is better for the baby, regardless of its impact on the woman; and that babies born in difficult circumstances should be taken away from struggling birth parents as quickly as possible, because that might be better for the baby, regardless of the impact on the mother. As a society, do we really want to be so cavalier about the rights and feelings of the woman who bears a child?