“An Information Sheet About Adoption Language,” by Pat Johnston

Positive Adoption Language (PAL) is vocabulary concerning adoption which has been chosen to assign the maximum respect, dignity, responsibility, and objectivity to the decisions made by birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoptees concerning their family planning decisions. Using PAL helps to eliminate the emotional over-charging which for many years has helped to perpetuate a societally held myth that adoption is a less than optimal alternative for all involved – that in being part of an adoption one has somehow missed out on a “real” family experience. The use of this vocabulary shows those involved in adoption to be thoughtful and responsible people, reassigns them authority and responsibility for their actions, and, by eliminating the emotionally – charged words which sometimes lead to a sub-conscious feeling of competition or conflict, helps to promote understanding among members of the adoption circle.

Let’s begin with the concept of family. In our society, people have historically been considered to be members of the same family when one or more of several conditions are met: they are linked by blood (birthfather and son). they are linked by law (husband and wife), they are linked by social custom (woman and her husband’s sister), they are linked by love. But as the concept of family changes somewhat in modern America, it is important that we consistently acknowledge that any two people who choose to spend their lives committed to one another are indeed a family. A couple who has chosen a childfree lifestyle and a single parent with children are just as much a family as are a married couple who has given birth to six children.

We don’t blink at the concept of two non- genetically related people being members of the same family if one or more of the other criteria are met – except in adoption. Though an adoption parent and child are linked by law and love, the fact that they are not connected by blood has often meant that some people are unwilling to acknowledge their relationship as genuine and permanent. Thus they use qualifiers (“This is Bill’s adopted son”) in situations where they would not dream of doing so in a non-adoptive family (“This is Bill’s birth-control failure son” or “This is Mary’s caesarean section daughter.”) They tend not to assign a full relationship to persons related through adoption (“Do you have any children of your own?,” or “Have you ever met your real mother?” or “Are they natural brothers and sisters?”) They assume that adoptive relationships are tentative (“Will the agency take him back now that you know he’s handicapped?” or “What if his real mother wants him back?”)

Adoption is a method of joining a family, just as is birth. It is a method of family planning, just as are birth control pills or abortion. Though the impact of adoption must be acknowledged consistently in helping a person who has been adopted or who has made an adoption plan to assimilate this factor positively, adoption should not be described as a “condition.” When it is appropriate to refer to the fact of adoption at all, it is correct to say “Kathy was adopted” (referring to the way in which she arrived in her family.) Phrasing it in a present tense – “Kathy is adopted”- implies that adoption is a disability with which to cope. In an article or situation not centering on adoption (for example during an introduction, in an obituary, in a news or feature story about a business person or a celebrity) it is usually inappropriate to refer to the adoption at all.

Preferred terms to use in describing family relationships using PAL are as follows:

  • Birth parent, birthmother, birthfather – terms describing the man and woman who conceived and gave birth to a child. All of us have birthparents, however, not all of us live in the custody of our birthparents.
  • Parent, mother, father, mommy, daddy – terms used to describe the people who raise and nurture a child.

Terms to AVOID in describing family relationships:

  • Real parent, real mother, real father, real family – terms which imply that adoptive relationships are artificial and tentative.
  • Natural parent, natural child – terms which imply that in not being blood related we are less than whole or that our relationships are less important than are relationships by birth.
  • One of your own – a term which implies that genetic relationship is stronger and more enduring than adoptive relationships.

In describing the decision making process birthparents go through in considering adoption, it is preferred to use terms which acknowledge them to be responsible and in control of their decisions. In an age of increasing acceptance of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and single parenthood, today’s birthparents are generally well counseled and well informed about their options. Increasingly, as agencies take on the role of facilitator and mediator rather than lifter of burdens and grantor of children, the phrase place for adoption is also being questioned. The preferred terms to describe birthparents’ adoption decisions are make an adoption plan, or choose adoption.

It is best to AVOID the commonly heard but emotion-laden terms that follow. Rarely is a child abandoned. Birthparents today do NOT surrender or release or relinquish or give up their children to adoption (except in the rare cases where parental rights are INVOLUNTARILY terminated after abuse or neglect) Using such terms conjures mental images of babies being torn from the arms of unwilling parents. Children are not adopted out or put up for adoption (a term which came from the old orphan train days of the late 1800’s when city foundlings were taken to the country and displayed on train platforms for farm families interested in taking them in as extra laborers.)

In thinking positively about adoption, it is best not to refer to a birthparent who decides NOT to make an adoption plan as keeping her baby. These are women who decide to parent their children rather than to make an adoption plan, so that the preferred terminology would have you say “After considering her options, she decided to parent her baby herself.”

The process by which families prepare themselves to become parents in adoption is often referred to as a “home study.” This term implies a judgmental process of screening out. While this has indeed historically been a part of the adoption process, today more and more agencies are coming to view their role as less God-like and more facilitative. The preferred positive term, then, in describing the process whereby agency and prospective adopters come to know one another and work toward expanding a family is parent preparation.

As prospective parents consider the way in which they will adopt, they may choose to adopt a child from another country. In the past this has been referred to as foreign adoption. It has been suggested by those working in the adoption field that because the word “foreign” has negative connotations in many other usages, it may be perceived negatively by many in an adoption context as well. The preferred term is now international adoption. Similarly, adopters who choose to parent one or more of the many waiting older children, sibling groups or children facing physical, emotional or intellectual challenges are said to be parenting children with special needs, a term seen as less damaging to the self-esteem of these children than the older term hard to place.

Frequently, news stories refer to “reunions” between people who are related genetically but have not been raised in the same family. In most such instances these encounters do not carry with them the full spectrum of understanding that the usual use of the term reunion implies (a re-meeting or a seeing again). Most adoptees join their families as infants, and as such they have no common store of memories or experience such as are shared in a reunion. While children adopted at an older age may indeed experience a reunion, the more objective description for such a meeting with birth family members by a person adopted as an infant is to describe it as a meeting.

This short poem by Rita Laws attempts to point out humorously the impact of NEGATIVE language in adoption.

Natural child: any child who is not artificial.
Real parent: any parent who is not imaginary.
Your own child: any child who is not someone else’s child.
Adopted child: a natural child, with a real parent, who is all my own.

POSITIVE ADOPTION LANGUAGE, however, is very serious business. Just as in advertising we choose our words carefully to portray a positive image of the product we endorse (selling Mustangs rather than Tortoises, New Yorkers rather than Podunkers) those of us who feel that adoption is a beautiful and healthy way to form a family and a responsible and respectable alternative to other forms of family planning, ask that you consider the language you use very carefully when speaking about those of us who are touched by adoption!

About the Author

Pat Johnston is an adoption and infertility educator/trainer, the publisher at Perspectives Press – the infertility and adoption publisher, chairman of Indiana’s Adoption Forum Coalition, a member of RESOLVE’S national board of directors, an active volunteer for several national groups working in the infertility and adoption arenas, and the author of several books. This article may be copied for a newsletter, distributed to journalists or in a symposium packet, etc. without additional permission as long as its author’s name and her business address are included with it.

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