Ross Douthat has Problems with Women, Babies, Numbers, and More

Plenty of folks on the blogs,  have had their way with the recent essay in defense of the use of poor white women as baby farms for discerning elites, written by the lesser half of The New York Times’ current conservative op-ed. embarrassment, Mr. Ross Douthat.

I’m not going to repeat what others have said better.  Read our own Anne Laurie’s take (and her next verbal RPG); check out Amanda Marcotte, who ropes, ties, brands and clips young Ross in a thousand words or so; see AsiangrrlMN’s riff on the apparently foreign (to Douthat) notion that some women might actually, sincerely, decline to accept motherhood as a necessary fulfillment of their personhood;  delight to Tintin’s allusive stylings over at Sadly No; and with TBogg, always trust the shorter.

With all that out there, in this post I just want to poke a few more holes in Douthat’s reputation for intellectual honesty/fun with numbers, and then, in a hopefully more concise item to follow in a few hours, to use a lovely piece by a former student to shine  a little historical sidelight on the monstrosity that Douthat seeks to gussie up with a bucket load of nostalgic fantasy.

On the numbers:  Douthat in his column states that before 1973 there was a comparative abundance of babies available for adoption — one out of five single white women making babies gave their kids up.

Now, he writes, only one percent of such pregnancies lead to adoptions, and “would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…,” basing that assertion, apparently, on the word of Melanie Thernstrom writing in the the Times Sunday Magazine* who claimed that she chose surrogacy because adoption was just too hard.

Well, there are actual data on this point, and while there has unquestionably been a drop in adoptions in the US since 1970, the scale of that shift is (surprise!) much less than Douthat implies.

According to the Adoption History Project, adoptions in the US peaked at about 170,000 per year in 1970, declining over the next several years to about 125,000 per year by the 1990s, a number that has remained pretty much at that level since.  (Note, for those of you keeping tabs on Douthat’s insistence on white babies as the gold standard, as it were, that foreign adoptions accounted for about 10% of that total in FY 2009, with the numbers of babies coming from abroad declining since 2004.)

All of which means that while Douthat seeks to argue that women’s autonomy over their own bodies has made it virtually impossible for wealthy white couples to gain access to the children of their dreams– it ain’t so.  We do not see the implied outcome that adoption rates/availability  have dropped by 95% in the last four decades.  Instead, actual adoptions are down by a little more than 25%.

That still leaves his qualitative claim, of course.  So, let’s check that too:  have adoption waiting lists extended “beyond reason?”

No.  With just a quantum of actual reporting you find a very different picture of domestic adoption as a couple might experience it in 2011.

Which is what I did, calling a local Massachusetts agency, Jewish Family Service of the North Shore, to speak to their adoption specialist, Ann Wordfork, about the facts on the ground.

According to Woodfork, the landscape for domestic adoptions has remained pretty constant over the last several years.  Every couple she sees that sticks with it, she says, gets a child.  The adoption process, especially if it comes in the wake of years of infertility medicine, is an emotionally demanding experience, so people do drop out, of course.  But, Woodfork says, once a  couple completes its adoption “book” — the collection of photos and personal statements with which prospective adopters present themselves to birth mothers seeking a home for their children-to-be — you can take about one year as the rule of thumb as the time it will takes for you to bring home your child.    Compared to the time that couples seeking a baby through the old fashioned channels “try” and then gestate….well there’s not much in it, is there?

So, when Douthat claims that allowing women to make their own decisions about their bodies has left adoptive parents out of luck, he is simply wrong.  And he is so because he either deliberately chose to deceive his readers, or more likely IMHO, he is so wedded to his assumption/conclusion that it never occurred to him to check.**

One last point on Douthat’s intellectual dishonesty/ineptitude.  One of the striking failures in this column and his mode of thought more generally is his touching faith in the simplest of causal explanations.  Abortions up and adoptions down since 1970?  Well then that’s the whole story.

Except it’s not, of course, and Douthat even presents one of the ways his logic fails without noticing that he’s blowing his punchline.

Recall that he suggests that Thernstrom and her husband were driven to acquire their children through the use of an egg donor and two gestational surrogates because adoption was effectively unavailable to them.

Not so.  Rather, both in the immediate case and in the spread of this response to infertility, what you see is an alternative to conventional adoption, not a sequel to its failure.  More broadly, there are a lot of factors that shape people’s decisions about whether or not to seek an adoption.  Advances in fertility medicine means that some couples who couldn’t have conceived do.  Gamete donation changes the landscape.  Surrogacy certainly does — especially if you are rich.  All of which adds up to a changing family landscape in which some couples, mostly in the overclass, who would once have been adoptive parents now acquire children by other means.***

The shorter to all of the above:  Once again, Douthat tries to find a deep social reason to deny women’s autonomy, and to advance that goal he gets just about everything wrong.

Last, just to go a bit bigger than the relatively inconsequential Douthat:  if this is what passes for elite public intellection on the Right, (and it is) then take this as yet one more overlong reminder why these clowns shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*Warning:  pretty ghastly piece at that link IMHO; I may yet blog on one aspect of it, in which the author happily glosses over the critical difference in power relations in surrogacy vs. adoption.  Or I might not, as the internal clues to the author’s unreliable narration seem sufficiently obvious, and life is short.

**I’m not claiming that I’ve committed a proper act of journalism here myself, by the way.   One interview with one social worker at one of Massachusetts 50 or so adoption agencies does not a comprehensive account make.  The point is not that I’ve proven adoption is easy; rather, I’m just trying to show that Douthat’s account of the state of adoption in this country doesn’t stand up to a minimal investigation of either the historical statistics or informed anecdotal experience on the ground.

***Again — I’m not making a broad claim here.  I haven’t gathered the statistics that could tell me how deep a bite surrogacy and fertility technology and the rest are taking out of conventional adoption.  Woodfork did tell me that in the professional meetings that discuss such issues, these alternatives to adoption are taking on a much larger share of the discussion, while adoption’s percentage of mindshare at such meetings is shrinking.  But that’s just one more anecdote, and I’m not going to plant a standard on this hill.  Instead, what I’m trying to do is to point out the flaws in Douthat’s approach  — the notion that all it takes is one correlation to explain any amount of social life.  Never forget:  milk drinking leads to heroin addiction!

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Hannah in the Temple; Samuel’s Prayer Testing, 17c.

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun The Marquise de Pezay (or Pezé), and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien. 1787.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Journalism and its discontents, MSM nonsense, numbers, Stupidity

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One Comment on “Ross Douthat has Problems with Women, Babies, Numbers, and More”


  1. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a bit,
    but instead of that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read.
    I will certainly be back.


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