Language of adoption: Wikis


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The language of adoption is changing and evolving, and it has become a controversial issue tied closely to adoption reform efforts. The controversy arises over the use of terms which, while designed to be more appealing or less offensive to some persons affected by adoption, may simultaneously cause offense or insult to others. This controversy illustrates the problematic nature of adoption, as well as the fact that coining new words and phrases to describe ancient social practices does not alter the feelings and experiences of those affected by them.

The two contrasting sets of terms are commonly referred to as "Positive (or Respectful) Adoption Language" and "Honest Adoption Language."


Positive Adoptive Language (PAL)

It is believed that social workers in the field of adoption, most notably Marietta Spencer, created and began the promotion of what they termed "Positive Adoption Language" around the mid 1970s.[1]. The terms contained in "Positive Adoption Language" include the terms "birth mother" (to replace the terms "natural mother" and "first mother"), "placing" (to replace the terms "relinquishment" or "surrender"), and restricting the terms "mother" and "father" to refer solely to the parents who had adopted. It reflects the point of view that (1) all relationships and connections between the adopted child and his/her previous family have been permanently and completely severed once the legal adoption has taken place, and that (2) "placing" a child for adoption is invariably a "decision" the empowered birth mother makes, free of coercion or pressure from external circumstances or other people.

The reasons for its use: In many cultures, adoptive families face adoptism. Adoptism is made evident in English speaking cultures by the prominent use of negative or inaccurate language describing adoption. To combat adoptism, many adoptive families encourage positive adoption language.

The reasons against its use: Many natural parents see "positive adoption language" as terminology which glosses over painful facts they face as they go into the indefinite post-adoption period of their lives. They feel PAL has become a way to present adoption in the friendliest light possible, in order to obtain even more infants for adoption; ie, a marketing tool. These people refer to PAL as "Adoption Friendly Language" or AFL.

Honest Adoption Language (HAL)

"Honest Adoption Language", on the other hand, refers to a set of terms that reflect the point of view that: (1) family relationships (social, emotional, psychological or physical) that existed prior to the legal adoption often continue past this point or endure in some form despite long periods of separation, and that (2) mothers who have "voluntarily surrendered" children to adoption (as opposed to involuntary terminations through court-authorized child-welfare proceedings) seldom view it as a choice that was freely made, but instead describe scenarios of powerlessness, lack of resources, and overall lack of choice.[2][3] It also reflects the point of view that the term "birth mother" is derogatory in implying that the woman has ceased being a mother after the physical act of giving birth. Proponents of HAL liken this to the mother being treated as a "breeder" or "incubator".[4]. Terms included in HAL include the original terms that were used before PAL, including "natural mother," "first mother," and "surrendered for adoption."

The reasons for its use: In most cultures, the adoption of a child does not change the identities of its mother and father: they continue to be referred to as such. Those who adopted a child were thereafter termed its "guardians," "foster," or "adoptive" parents. Most people use "Honest Adoption Language" (HAL) because it is the original and most widely-used terminology. Many of those directly affected by adoption loss believe these terms more accurately reflect important but hidden and/or ignored realities of adoption. It also has the advantage of not excluding further contacts, sometimes even allowed since the beginning and never totally severed.

The reasons against its use: The term "Honest" implies that all other language used in adoption is dishonest. Adoptive parents feel disrespected by language that does not consider them, as the people who were fully responsible for a child's upbringing, to be the only parents.

Terms used in Positive Adoption Language


PAL term:

Reasons stated for preference:

your own child

birth child; biological child

Saying a birth child is your own child or one of your own children implies that an adopted child is not.

child is adopted

child was adopted

Some adoptees believe that their adoption is not their identity, but is an event that happened to them. ("Adopted" becomes a participle rather than an adjective.) Others contend that "is adopted" makes adoption sound like an ongoing disability, rather than a past event.

give up for adoption

place for adoption or make an adoption plan

"Give up" implies a lack of value. The preferred terms are more emotionally neutral.

real mother/father/parent

birth, biological or genetic

The use of the term "real" implies that the adoptive family is artificial, and is not as descriptive.

natural parent

birth parent or first parent

The use of the term "natural" implies that the adoptive family is unnatural, and so is not a descriptive or accurate term. Although it can be seen as unnatural to conceive and relinquish children, the purpose is to present the adoption of those children in need as natural. The term "natural" in its origin means a family by the natural means of conception and birth and its primal bond which exists by itself since the beginning unless it's severed.

your adopted child

your child

The use of the adjective "adopted" signals that the relationship is qualitatively different from that of parents to birth children.

surrender for adoption

placed or placed for adoption

The use of the adjective "surrendered" implies "giving up." For many parents placing a child for adoption is an informed completely voluntary choice. For others, there is no choice as the parent's rights were terminated because the parent was deemed to be unfit.

Terms used in Honest Adoption Language


HAL Term:

Reasons stated for preference:

birth mother/father/parent

mother, natural mother, first mother (or father/parent)

HAL views term "birth mother" as being derogatory, limiting a woman's purpose in her child's life to the physical act of reproduction and thus implying that she is a "former mother" or "breeder." HAL terms reflect the point of view that there is usually a continuing mother-child relationship and/or bond that endures despite separation

birth child

natural child, child of one's own

HAL views the term "birth child" as being derogatory, implying that the adoptee was a "birth product" produced for the adoption market, and having no relationship or connection with his or her natural mother past the event of having been born. It also implies that the mother is a "birth mother" with no connection to her child or interest in her child past this point

place for adoption
give up for adoption

surrender for adoption
(have) lost to adoption
(are) separated by adoption,

HAL acknowledges that past adoption practice facilitated the taking of children for adoption, often against their mother's expressed wishes. Many women who have gone through the process and who lost children to adoption believe that social work techniques used to prepare single mothers to sign Termination Of Parental Rights papers closely resembles a psychological war against natural motherhood; hence the term "surrender."[5] "Surrender" is also the legal term for the mother's signing a Termination of Parental Rights. "Make a plan" and "place for adoption" are viewed by HAL proponents as being dishonest terms which marginalize or deny the wrenching emotional effect of separation on the mother/child dyad.[6] and imply the mother has made a fully-informed decision.

mother/father/parent (when referring solely to the parents who had adopted)

adoptive mother/father/parent

Referring to the people who have adopted the child as the mother or father (singular), ignores the emotional and psychological (and often physical) presence of a second set of parents in the child's life. In contrast to RAL, HAL reflects the opinion that there are two sets of parents in the adopted person's life: adoptive parents and natural parents.

adopted child

adopted person or person who was adopted

The use of the adjective 'adopted' signals that the relationship is qualitatively different from that of parents to other children. The use of the word "child" is accurate up until the end of childhood. After that the continued use of "child" is infantilizing.

See also


  1. ^ Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language, By Patricia Irwin Johnston
  2. ^ Logan, J. (1996). "Birth Mothers and Their Mental Health: Uncharted Territory", British Journal of Social Work, 26, 609-625.
  3. ^ Wells, S. (1993). "What do Birthmothers Want?", Adoption and Fostering, 17(4), 22-26.
  4. ^ "Why Birthmother Means Breeder," by Diane Turski
  5. ^ Not By Choice, by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, Eclectica, 6(1), Jul/Aug 2001
  6. ^ "The Trauma of Relinquishment," by Judy Kelly (1999)


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