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How Online Adoption Ads Prey on Pregnant People

8 minute read
Sisson, Ph.D., is a qualitative sociologist studying abortion and adoption at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at University of California, San Francisco. Her book RELINQUISHED: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood is available from St. Martin's Press.

Taylor had taken several home pregnancy tests, and every one had come back positive—yet she wanted more confirmation, something definitive. She went to a Planned Parenthood but they couldn’t see her that day, so she was pleasantly surprised to find a clinic across the street offering free tests and ultrasounds. She went inside.

They gave me a pamphlet on how birth control will kill you. It had all of the birth controls laid out, and said “Oh, this causes stroke and this causes this side effect,” and I was like, “That’s false, but okay.” Then I saw a poster on the wall with information about how abortion will definitely kill you. I finally realized I was at an anti-abortion clinic and thought: “Great. I need to get out of here before they realized that I’m very opposed to everything that they’re about.” So I ended up getting the information that I needed—the confirmation of pregnancy—to get signed up for WIC and Medicaid and all of that, and then I left.

Taylor (all names have been changed in this story to protect people's privacy) wasn’t interested in having an abortion, anyway. Even though she described herself as “very pro-choice,” and even though it was an unplanned pregnancy, she felt bonded to the pregnancy right away. But she knew that parenting would be a lot of work, especially without a steady income or a trustworthy boyfriend. When she googled “help for single moms” in her home state, she was flooded with ads for adoption agencies. “The first three or four search results were all for agencies,” she said, “I was like, ‘Huh, that’s something I haven’t really considered.’” Curious, she clicked on the ads for more details, and was soon mesmerized by the compelling profiles of waiting families with their suburban homes, stay-at-home moms, extended families, graduate degrees, and disposable income.

As her pregnancy went on, things got harder and harder for Taylor. She was so desperately sick that she had to quit her job. She sold her car to buy a plane ticket to move across the country to live with her mom, but then she’d spiral into anxiety about how her only available car was her stepfather’s pickup truck, with no space for an infant’s car seat. Even though she still wished to parent, the idea of adoption became a lifeline for her.

Read More: The Baby Brokers: Inside America’s Murky Private-Adoption Industry

Taylor wasn’t the only mother I spoke with who was bombarded with similar ads while searching for parenting support. Adoption agencies pay for traffic to their sites, as do prospective adoptive parents who create their own websites to showcase their family profiles. They often specifically target terms that do not include adoption. A search of a keyword and digital advertising research platform revealed that adoption agencies routinely buy Google ads for practical search queries like “assistance for pregnant mothers in Nevada” or “housing programs pregnant DC,” or seemingly generic searches like “college pregnancy stories” or even just “prenatal care.” Many terms were related to unintended pregnancies but carried no sense of crisis: “unplanned baby announcement,” or “how to tell your husband you’re pregnant when you weren’t trying.” Then there were three agencies who bought ads on the desperate search string: “I’m scared I’m pregnant and I’m fifteen.”

These ads are paid for by would-be adoptive parents who have been instructed by dozens of how-to articles in the art of search engine optimization and online advertising. These prospective parents are in turn sold a set of paid services in website design, Google and Facebook ad campaigns, and profile development (including photography packages and, in one case, an extra fee to have an advising birth mother provide feedback on their pro- file in advance of its going up online).

The cumulative costs of these services and campaigns are in the thousands of dollars, when most relinquishing mothers report that they would be parenting if they had that much additional money in their own bank account. And importantly, the costly bombardment of advertising is not always legal. Many states regulate the extent to which advertising for adoption is allowed, and by whom. But such restrictions are very difficult to enforce. One industry exploration found that unlicensed, for-profit adoption brokers frequently outspent regulated agencies on a massive scale, leaving pregnant people highly exposed to the least scrupulous players.

Women who seek abortions can face similar exposure. In 2016, I was inadvertently included on this email that was also being sent to adoption agency employees across the country:

“Copley Advertising can mobile geo-fence Planned Parenthood locations and other abortion clinics. We will geo-fence Planned Parenthood locations and other abortion clinics, tag all the smartphones in the clinic, drill down to demographic (women 18–24), place an ad in a mobile app (You Have Options). The ad will direct traffic to your landing page. When women leave the clinic they will continue to see your ad for 30 days. We just finished a large campaign with Bethany Christian Services. If you are not the appropriate person please forward the information of the correct contact. Thank you.”

I was not the appropriate person to contact. The banner ads Copley offered would appear on the phones of anyone in—or near—healthcare facilities that provided abortions. Copley Advertising, a Boston-based firm, soon settled with then Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey and, without admitting liability, agreed to stop geofencing clinics solely in that state— but only after they ran a campaign targeting 140 abortion clinics and methadone treatment centers for Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest adoption agencies in the country.

The ability of these ads to appear in people’s most innocuous searches or at their most vulnerable moments makes them especially invasive. It’s difficult to overstate how captivated many mothers are by the adoptive family profiles they find online. While the profiles are designed to help prospective adoptive parents “match” with expectant mothers considering relinquishment, they also serve to spark interest in and increase commitment to the idea of adoption itself. A

“I was looking at the independent sites where hopeful parents can put up their profiles,” another woman, Amy, described. “And they write a letter: ‘Dear birthmother, we’ve been waiting so long.’ And I just got sucked into their need. And I started thinking, I have a way that I can help people. “

For many expectant women considering adoption, who are often just getting by financially (if that), the comparative means of potential adoptive parents can be both intimidating and powerfully convincing. Cassie talked about considering her own paltry nine-dollar-an-hour job as she looked at the “impressive” profile with “an amazing house.” Hannah, who was already raising a daughter on her tips as an exotic dancer, mentioned being “blown away” by the “really beautiful house, big land” and “good incomes” of her son’s adoptive parents. It’s not just the money, though. For expectant women who are lacking the sup- port of their own families or the stable relationships with their partners that would help them parent, looking at the pictures of happy weddings, family vacations, and big holiday dinners have their own persuasive draw. Isn’t this what a better life for a child looks like? Paige talked about keeping a printed profile under her bed and pulling it out every night, saying “it would feel right” to look at them again. Leah said after reading the profile of the parents she eventually chose for her son: “I just totally fell in love with them.”

Women don’t make relinquishment decisions based on a single advertisement, of course. But for many, the marketing of online profiles was a key step in their path toward relinquishment.

After exploring a few agencies online, Taylor connected with a large Christian adoption agency that sent her profile books of prospective adoptive families. She was immediately drawn to one family, who seemed like just the sort of family Taylor wanted her child to have – and light-years away from where she sat, on the couch in her mother and stepfather’s house in the rural Pacific Northwest, with no job, no boyfriend, no car, and no apartment to call her own. The family flew across the country to meet her for dinner at an Italian restaurant, where their older son drew pictures of his baby brother in Taylor’s belly. She felt there was no way she could back out now.

In the spring of 2015, Taylor delivered her son. She spent about an hour with him before his adoptive parents came in the room. When Taylor had a postpartum medical emergency, the adoptive parents were given their own hospital room to bond with the baby while Taylor was in surgery. She remained groggy and heavily medicated for the next few days, and never got to be alone with her son again.

From RELINQUISHED: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood by Gretchen Sisson. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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