The Troubling Meaning of the 'We Will Adopt Your Baby' Meme Wars

The debate isn’t a panorama of the whole American abortion war, but it is a snapshot of a key battle after a surprise victory, and it shows no path to peace.


You may have seen this meme going around Twitter. It started with a couple of photos from demonstrations marking the end of Roe v. Wade (1973). In each, a smiling couple holds a sign that speaks directly to women considering abortion: "We will adopt your baby."

Well, that's how it started, anyway. Soon things took a turn, with Twitter users posting modified versions or captioning different images entirely with that same line. Pro-lifers offering to adopt unwanted babies, the memes suggested, are pedophiles. Or cultists. Or "sadistic Christian nationalis[ts]," or likely abusers, or kidnappers, or enslavers, or rapists, or "treating people like livestock," or "TERRIFYING" horror movie monsters, or serial killers, or at least "vaguely creepy-looking." Even Bette Midler and Mark Hamill got in on the action, though the apogee of the genre is probably the cats:

Next, of course, the hot takes began. "'We will adopt your baby' is the meme we wish we didn't need," explained a piece at Mic. From McSweeney's came a "short imagined monologue" by the pictured couple. "We want that baby when it's nice and cute and fully formed, but we aren't planning on adopting anything else," they assiduously explain. "Obviously, we can't adopt your morning sickness, so when you wake up at 5 a.m. to puke your guts out before work, and when you also puke your guts out at work in the employee bathroom, we won't adopt that."

I've watched the spread of "we will adopt your baby" with a morbid fascination. The meme itself is a curious thing, with a sort of M.C. Escher logic that makes perfect sense to its creators and not a whit to its critics. ("This [offer of adoption] is beautiful. Am I missing something?" asked one sweet summer child in response to the "vaguely creepy" post.) But beyond the meme itself, the way pro-life and pro-choice Americans look at the same image and see something wholly different is striking. Each comes away sincerely convinced the other is not merely misguided or ignorant but evil—and I can see how they arrive at those conclusions, but I can't see how they'll find a way to work together around abortion post-Roe.

Let's start with the logic of the meme. Were I to steel-man its meaning, I'd say the concern here is that expressed in the McSweeney's piece: It's about the (unpictured, unmentioned) pregnant women more than the pregnancy or would-be adopters. "It's that they're offering to adopt children resulting from fetuses women do not want to give birth to," as writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy argued, adding: "They're telling a woman who's 6 weeks pregnant how to spend the next 9 months."

And maybe that is the message, but if so, it's remarkably poorly expressed. The more obvious meaning of the hundreds of instances of this meme isn't about the invisible women at all. It begins with the premise that these couples must have nefarious motives. They might want a child to abuse, enslave, or kill, or maybe they want to brainwash more babies than they can biologically produce into sharing their religion and politics. But regardless of the exact accusation, the course of action for anyone of conscience is clear: Don't let those people get babies. It would be immoral to let them adopt—you wouldn't do it any more than you'd give a helpless bird to two cats. The couples are "automatically predators" and the babies their prey. Protect the babies. Abort them instead.

Of course, in this line of thought, what you're aborting generally isn't a baby, not yet. It's an embryo, a fetus, a clump of cells, maybe a potential baby. Still, whatever you deem the subject of the abortion, the underlying logic of destruction-for-protection-from-destruction remains. Better never to exist than be raised by crass Republican rubes. And if you start with the twin assumptions that abortion doesn't kill someone, but some of these couples well might (particularly if the kid doesn't turn out as anticipated), this is all reasonable, moral, glaringly obvious. Only someone evil could disagree. Who would willingly expose a child to abusers?

But it will never be reasonable or moral to the couples, nor to other pro-lifers for whom this meme feels like a cruel trick. For decades, pro-choice Americans told their pro-life neighbors they must adopt unwanted babies themselves if they insist those babies be born. But when pro-lifers tried to do exactly that—and research shows practicing Christians, a group with significant overlap with pro-lifers, are more than twice as likely as the average American to adopt—this too was met with disdain.

Bafflingly, it was met with simultaneous calls for adoption as well. Why do you specifically want a baby? asks one viral tweet after another. Why not adopt a child from foster care? Never mind that there are plenty of people equipped to raise a child from infancy but not to appropriately care for children living with trauma or disability; or that the primary goal of the foster system is safe reunification with the family of origin; or that—if we accept the premise of the meme—foster care adoption should be off-limits for predators, too. The message remains steadfast: You should want to adopt, but your wanting to adopt is deeply suspicious. You shouldn't be allowed to adopt, but why aren't you adopting, you hypocrite?

And if you start with the twin assumptions that abortion does kill someone, and that these couples are normal, well-intentioned people trying to save one life and ease another, then their offer of adoption is generous, moral, beautiful. Only someone evil could disagree. Who would willingly take a child's life, and a life with loving, eager parents at that?

Twitter is overrun with brain worms, yes, and offline most of us have messy views on this issue, and even those with clearer positions often hold them with more forbearance for our political opponents. Yet Twitter is not not real life. It's where political hobbyists tend to lurk and where many news articles are conceived. The "we will adopt your baby" meme isn't a panorama of the whole American abortion war, but it is a snapshot of a key battle after a surprise victory, and it shows no path to peace.