As the wave of pro-life legislation continues to roll across the United States—nine states have passed significant abortion restrictions already this year—adoption inevitably comes up as an alternative. But it’s not a popular one.

Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council For Adoption, told The Atlanticin May that both pro-life and pro-choice pregnancy centers fail to adequately promote adoption as a viable option.

Among each, the rate at which women are referred to adoption agencies hovers around 1 percent.

As of 2018, Planned Parenthood performed 118 abortions for every adoption referral. And among the pro-life crowd, adoption comes up as a talking point, but usually on the other side of the equation: “We’ve done a great job of conveying that adoption is a good option for the family adopting, but not for the birth mother,” Johnson said.

But fewer moms are in the position to choose adoption to begin with. The birthrate hit a historic low last year. Plus, there’s far more support around single motherhood.

Prior to 1973, 9 percent of babies born to never-married women were relinquished for adoption. By the ’80s, 2 percent. And since the mid-’90s, fewer than 1 percent, per National Adoption Data.

The Invisible Option

These days, expectant mothers see their choices as parent or terminate—and have a decision in mind by the time they make it to a crisis pregnancy center or abortion clinic.

“Generally, it’s an either/or,” said Laura Echevarria, director of communications for the pro-life National Right to Life Committee. “We really try to present [adoption] . . . as a real option.”

Many Christian advocates favor efforts to promote family unity and, ideally, avoid the need for adoption in the first place. In urging mothers to choose life, pregnancy center staff emphasize the inherent value and strength they see in each mother, so many leave seeing themselves as more capable to parent.

Those who are involved in adoption—particularly birth parents—know the stigma firsthand.

“People project their image of a birth mother on to me, thinking I’m irresponsible, uncaring, and a bad mom,” wrote one birth mom and open adoption advocate, Annaleece Merrill.

This view extends into pro-life circles as well, according to Kelly Rosati, a consultant and former Focus on the Family vice president.

“I don’t think the church, as a whole, has any idea how disfavored adoption is generally, but especially not within the community of women who seek support at pro-life pregnancy centers ,” she told CT. “Unless this changes, it will not be chosen in large numbers by women who will otherwise be choosing abortion.”

Making Adoption More Compelling

When it comes to private infant adoption in the US, there are far more families looking to adopt than there are pregnant women looking to place their children. Promulgating adoption is not a matter of making adoption more palatable to the public, but rather to expectant mothers.

“We need to look at the experience of relinquishment for the birth parent, which is a difficult and often gut-wrenching decision to make,” said Kris Faasse, senior vice president of clinical operations at Bethany Christian Services.

Counselors must recognize the need for time and clarity. Moms may not be ready to consider adoption when they are still in the shock of an unplanned pregnancy. They also need to trust the process and believe that their role as birth parents will be honored in adoption agreements.

Echevarria agrees that open adoption, which allows the birth parent (or parents) to have a relationship with the child and adoptive family, needs to be better understood. Mothers who can have ongoing contact with their children may be more inclined to pursue adoption.

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Rosati believes much of the negativity around adoption is based on outdated perceptions of closed adoption, when mothers were cut off from further contact. “Modern child welfare practices typically include some measure of openness, which benefits all members of the adoption triad—the child, birth parents, and adoptive parents,” said Rosati, mother to four children adopted from foster care.

She has detected a “very robust anti-adoption sentiment” among some pro-lifers when they contrast adoption to the choice to parent a child themselves. While churches celebrate adoption as a good outcome for children and for adoptive families, it can be seen as a failure on the birth mother’s part.

“There is still a sense that birth parents making an adoption plan are abandoning their child, when in reality they are making a self-sacrificial decision based in love and rooted in the child’s best interest,” Rosati said.

To make adoption a more compelling option for moms, advocates want to highlight more recent, realistic “success stories.” Women who choose adoption are significantly more likely to finish their education, find gainful employment , and marry and have children, said Johnson.

Though there are hard moments for all involved, there is a lot to celebrate in the opportunities made possible through adoption.

“I’d like to see a major public relations campaign featuring, among others, celebrity adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents … to negate the negative stereotypes about adoption and demystify the adoption process,” Rosati said.

Compassion from the Church

In some ways, the internet has made domestic adoption more transactional, according to Faasse at Bethany. She has seen birth moms go through the process and have expenses paid but not receive support to address grief and family relationships after the placement.

“It is also essential for the church to offer love and compassion to those expectant parents facing difficult decisions,” she added.

While fewer than just a half a percent of mothers will make the difficult decision of placing a baby for adoption, many more will have the decision made for them, by circumstances and state policies. More than 100,000 kids are waiting to be adopted from foster care in the US.

“We’re not taking the kids in our communities right now who need adoptive families,” Rosati said. We’re going to need to walk our talk in much larger numbers before we’re viewed as credible urging adoption instead of abortion.”

Griffin Paul Jackson is a Chicago-based writer.