Honest Adoption Language

Over the last 30 years, adoption industry social workers have developed terminology called “Respectful/Positive Adoption Language” (often abbreviated as “RAL”).   But this very one-sided terminology set has inherent problems and limitations, and is only “respectful” of one party in the adoption transaction.

The first limitation of RAL tries to  be respectful of some adoptive parents – but only those adoptive parents who believe the industry “guarantee” that they would be “the ONLY parents” an adoptee will ever have or need. What it does not respect is the experience of the adoptive parents who realize that their child has another mother and father as well.  It also sets up the  unrealistic expectation in people hoping to adopt, that there will be no remaining emotional, social, or psychological bond between the natural mother and her baby after they are separated. This can lead to keen disappointment and feelings of betrayal if the child they adopted seeks out his or her natural parents or wants to forge a family relationship once again, which is common even after decades of separation.

“Respectful Adoption Language” denies any respect for the family members who were separated from one-another by adoption:  respect for mothers who grieve for their lost children; respect for adopted persons who lost their natural families; acknowledgement of their loss and respect for them and for their experiences.  This lack of respect has been reinforced by the adoption industry, who have found that it is easier to promote public acceptance of adoption if one can dehumanize the mothers who have lost children to adoption.  One way that mothers have been dehumanized and demeaned is by the introduction of the term “birth mother” about thirty years ago to replace the original term “natural mother.”

The term “birthmother” [and birthfather, birthparent, etc.] was first used by adoptive parent and industry promoter Pearl S. Buck in 1955*, and promoted later on by the industry to to replace the original term “natural mother.   But “birth terms” were defined specifically to imply that these mothers, fathers, and parents *were* mothers at the time of their child”s birth but not afterwards, and that hence their role in our children’s lives is solely reproductive – as living production units, producing a child for adoption.   This objectifies a mother as being a “body function,” to be little more than a “breeder” or “incubator.”

This attitude towards unmarried mothers, as being sources of babies to sell, is evident in the industry’s writings:

“Because there are many more married couples wanting to adopt newborn white babies than there are babies, it may almost be said that they rather than out of wedlock babies are a social problem. (Sometimes social workers in adoption agencies have facetiously suggested setting up social provisions for more ‘babybreeding’.)” Social Work and Social Problems, National Association of Social Workers, (Out-of-print) copyright 1964 *

“… the tendency growing out of the demand for babies is to regard unmarried mothers as breeding machines…(by people intent) upon securing babies for quick adoptions.” – Leontine Young, “Is Money Our Trouble?” (paper presented at the National Conference of Social Workers, Cleveland, 1953)*

However, the mother’s relationship with her child did not end with birth.   The mother’s love for her child, her family connection as being related to her child as her child’s mother, the ongoing caring and bond, did not disappear with a signature.  These mothers are still mothers and thus parents of their children, even if they were taken by the industry and given to others to raise.

Ask any adoption agency, and they’ll tell you that the corresponding term to “birthparent” is “parent,” not “adoptive parent.”   This example provides another example that the adoption industry wishes to protray people who have adopted as the ONLY parents once the child is adopted, hence the natural mother is seen as only being relevant for having served a purely physical, reproductive purpose.

The term birthchild [birthson, birthdaughter, etc.] was coined to imply that the relationship of adoptees to their natural parents ended at birth, and thus the adoptee is a “product” produced by “breeders” who aren’t their parents

In post-adoption support groups, members who researched the adoption industry began to become aware of the semantics of these words, and by consensus decided not to use language that was coined by the adoption industry in order to demean natural mothers or the mother/child relationship.   They decided to use language which still acknowledged that mothers who were separated from a child by adoption did not cease to be mothers, did not cease to love and care for their children.  People whose lives have been affected by adoption are now asking others in the rest of society to respect them and their experiences,  and use “Honest Adoption Language” as well.


 A Guide to Using Honest Adoption Language:

Adoption Industry Terminology
“Positive/Respectful Adoption Language”
Honest Adoption Language:
“birthparents” natural parents, mothers, fathers

parents, mothers, fathers
The mother-child relationship does not end at birth. As well, “birth-terms” dehumanize mothers into being walking incubators whose purpose is solely reproductive.
“parents” (when only referring to people who have adopted that child) adoptive parents


people who have adopted
An adoptee has at least 4 parents: two natural parents and 2 adoptive parents, and often step-parents as well.
“placed for adoption”

lost to adoption

taken for adoption
A mother seldom chooses adoption for her child – financial, emotional
and/or social coercion often play a role – as well as professionals intentionally
withholding information from her so she is unable to make an informed decision.
See our articles on Adoption Coercion
“birthson” “birthdaughter” “birthchild” son, daughter, or child

natural son, daughter, or child

lost son, daughter, or child

son, daughter, or child lost to adoption

Children are not “products.”We may refer to our lost children as our sons and daughters, even though others may have taken them and raised them, our spiritual/emotional/psychological bond with them endures past years and even decades of separation.
son/daughter/child (when in reference to only the adoptive family) adopted son/daughter for media and other third-person references. the industry wants all mention of “adopted” removed from newspaper articles. This presents a false picture that the adoptee was born to the adopters.
“was adopted” “is adopted” Unless a person who was adopted as a child has terminated his or her adoption, or has been adopted-back by his or her natural parents, he or she is still legally adopted.  However, the decision on terminology must remain with the adopted person themselves.
“adoption triad””adoption triangle” adoption transaction There are no triads, mosaics, circles, or constellations of adoption. These constructs exist only to dilute voice, and to falsely equate the lived experiences of those individuals marginalized in adoption transactions to those of the adoption ‘status quo’. This term renders invisible the power dynamics involved in adoption and seeks to equalize the parties.
parented raised “parented” implies that the only parents a child has is those who are raising them.
parenting a child raising a child
nurturing a child
caring for a child
“parenting” is much more than raising a child, it is also a emotional/psychological/spiritual bond that comes from pregnancy, birth, genetics, and a clan bond coming from millions of years of evolution.
“meeting””making contact” reunion

Copyright © 2003 Origins Canada Supporting People Separated by Adoption