The language of adoption has evolved dramatically over the past few decades. Many terms commonly used a generation ago are now considered not only offensive but inaccurate.

Some years ago a group of adoption advocates calling themselves the Accurate Adoption Reporting Group prepared a Suggested Adoption Stylebook in an attempt to educate journalists and other media writers to write or talk about adoption in a more sensitive and informed way. The guide is not available on the Internet, but is quoted widely, as in this article from Adoptive Families Association of British Columbia.

Here are some tips from the guide:

  • As with race or gender, the fact that a person was adopted should be mentioned only if it’s essential to the story. If it is used, its relevance should be made clear. A daughter who joined the family through adoption is—and should be described as—simply a daughter. If it is relevant to mention adoption, use past-tense phrasing such as: She was adopted in 1997, rather than She is adopted. Adoption is one of many events in a person’s past, not an immutable personal trait.
  • An adopted person’s parents should be referred to simply as father, mother, or parents. The man and woman who shared in the child’s conception can be referred to as the birth or genetic or biological parents (not real or natural parents).
  • Writers should avoid terms such as abandoned or given up. It is usually inaccurate to refer to children available for adoption as orphans. Often, their birth parents are alive. Nor should children be referred to as unwanted. It is better to say that birth parents placed the child for adoption, made an adoption plan, or transferred parental rights.
  • The reasons that people adopt are rarely relevant. To suggest or say that parents couldn’t have a baby of their own is inaccurate. Adoption is not second best. Children who join families through adoption are their parents “own” by law and by love.
  • Stories should not portray adoptive parents as unusually selfless or saintly. In most cases, families adopt because they want to be parents and are no more saintly or selfless than other parents.

The National Council for Adoption and Adoptive Families, a resource and community for adoptive families, each have guides to adoption language. This chart brings together accurate and less-accurate language from these two guides.

Accurate Language Less-Accurate Language
adoption triad adoption triangle
birth child own child, real child, natural child
birth father; biological father begettor
birth parent/biological parent real parent, natural parent
born to unmarried parents illegitimate
child from abroad foreign child
child in need of a family adoptable child; available child
child placed for adoption an unwanted child
child with special needs handicapped child, hard-to-place child
confidential adoption closed adoption
court termination child taken away
person/individual who was adopted adoptee
finding a family to parent your child putting your child up for adoption
fully-disclosed adoption open adoption
international adoption foreign adoption
make an adoption plan, choose adoption give away, adopt out, give up, put up
making contact with reunion
my child adopted child; own child
parent adoptive parent
to parent the baby/child to keep the baby
permission to sign a release disclosure
search track down parents
unintended pregnancy unwanted/problem pregnancy
was adopted is adopted


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