Whether you tune in every week or go out of your way to watch something else, Grey’s Anatomy is one of the most popular, talked about shows of all time. Spanning 17 seasons, it boasts some of the highest-rated hours in television. We have watched some of the greatest character developments, been left dumbfounded by shocking deaths, made new connections on multiple spin-off shows, and scratched our heads at some questionable decisions (musical episode, I am looking at you). Grey’s constantly tackles current events and confronts social issues head-on. Adoption storylines have consistently played a large part in this series. We have gotten to see perspectives from birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees alike. Adoption has continued to play a role in this groundbreaking series, and it is worth noting the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, is an adoptive mother herself. While it is fantastic to have adoption play such a huge role in a primetime spotlight, in addition to some of the excellent depictions of adoption in other shows, there are also some missed opportunities for further education on the subject. Let’s spend some time diving into all things Grey’s Anatomy and adoption.
One of the very first adoption stories we learn about features Izzie Stevens. In season two, we learn Izzie placed a daughter for adoption at the age of 16. She reveals this information to a pregnant young girl from her hometown. Aside from the glaringly inaccurate use of the term “give away” instead of “place,” the emotions Izzie feels from placing her daughter come across as authentic. Although it seems she does not have a relationship with her child post-placement, she carries a photo with her. When Izzie speaks of her decision to place, she expresses her desire for her child to have a greater life than she could provide at the time and states she does not regret her decision. We do not hear about this storyline again until season three, when Izzie’s daughter, Hannah, shows up at the hospital sick and needing a bone marrow transplant. She agrees and asks to meet Hannah, but Hannah declines to meet with her. We see Hannah receiving the bone marrow but get no additional information after that. I struggle to understand why the writers decided not to have Hannah and Izzie meet in person or even explain Hannah’s reasoning for not wanting to meet, but that very well could just be triggered by my fears of rejection by my own birth daughter. Izzie also keeps the information about her placing a child for adoption secret from most of her friends. It certainly made me sad for her that she is unable to open up about her story. The most prominent thing that comes across about Izzie is the amount of shame she feels. Shame plays a huge role in many birth parents’ journeys, and Izzie’s struggle is something we can all relate to. We do not get any more information about Izzie and Hannah’s relationship for the remainder of the show. Still, I was pleased with how they represented Izzie’s feelings as a birth mother for this storyline. Of course, I might be biased towards this one because it most closely resembles my own adoption journey.
In season six, what could be viewed as the most controversial adoption storyline is played out. Mark Sloan’s long lost 18-year-old daughter, lovingly referred to as “Little Sloan,” returns to his life and is pregnant. After playing with the idea of Mark adopting the baby himself, Little Sloan selects different adoptive parents. When the baby is born, Mark is smitten with his grandchild and offers to help Little Sloan parent the child. Mark’s friends and fellow doctors at the hospital are torn about their stance on this idea. One friend is incredibly supportive, while the other pushes towards adoption. This strong opinion towards adoption is what really had the viewer message boards heated.
I can understand both points of view here. On the one hand, if a birth mother does really want to parent but lacks the resources and her family members decide to step up and provide the lacking necessities, it can be a great option if all parties agree on how exactly that might play out. That could look like many different things, such as financial or emotional support or even an adoption within the family. However, just like anything that goes down within families, this does open room for complications and resentment down the road. In this situation, the other side of the coin is there is a huge magnitude of hormones and emotions that spill out after birth. You can cultivate a plan all day long, but as soon as that baby is born, science comes into play, and every fiber of your being wants to nurture and care for your child. Deciding to parent at that moment, based on emotions alone, can easily make you forget all the reasons you so carefully weighed during the many months you were pregnant. A birth mother puts so much time, thought, and energy into deciding to place her child for adoption, and changing things last minute because you, or your family, are overcome with love for the child may not be the best decision for everyone. Take Little Sloan in this episode; she initially wants to call the adoptive family right away but is swayed into considering parenting again when her father offers to help her. You can see how overwhelmed she is with the situation, pitting the decision she put time into making with a clear head against wanting to please her father. Arizona Robbins is the friend of Mark’s pushing towards adoption, and the way she comes across really rubbed some people the wrong way. She was viewed as trying to influence Little Sloan and Mark’s decision towards adoption instead of letting them work it out on their own. In a normal situation, any person, especially a doctor, pushing their opinion on your situation is very unethical. If you find yourself in such a situation as a birth parent, you most definitely want to question those practices so you can make the best and most informed decision for you and your child. Ultimately, Little Sloan decided to go ahead with the adoption, with Mark agreeing it was the best decision. Even though the viewpoints on the right reason to parent and making an adoption plan are opposed, Grey’s did represent both sides here, and the best television shows will bring out strong opinions from people.
Not all the adoption storylines on this show are from birth parent perspectives. One of the biggest storylines involved the adoption of Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd’s daughter, Zola. Derek falls in love with Zola after treating her Spina Bifida in a surgical program that treats international orphans. Once Meredith meets her, she does the same, and they file to adopt Zola through the foster care system. The road to adopting her is extremely complicated, and it seems to be dressed up for television drama. I have not personally been an adoptive parent, so I cannot say if this is a typical case, but things such as Meredith taking Zola in secret because she fears losing her or Derek and Meredith hiding that they are separated while going through this process seems farfetched for a legal adoption. Their best friend, Alex, tracking down the Judge of their case and pleading for him to approve the adoption regardless of these issues really seals the deal on the fictionalized version of this tale. Zola’s adoption is eventually finalized. Since Zola was born in Malawi, there is no relationship with her birth family to maintain post-placement. Still, Meredith and Derek do try to honor her heritage throughout the show.
Meredith and Derek are not the only adoptive parents in the Grey’s Anatomy world. Arizona also legally adopts the daughter of her partner, Callie. Sofia is raised by her two moms and her father, Mark Sloan, until his death. This setup leads to an interesting storyline later in the series when Callie and Arizona get divorced, and Callie wants to move to New York with their daughter. Arizona and Callie then enter a very nasty custody battle for Sofia. This is another portrayal viewers had strong opinions on because (spoiler alert) Arizona wins custody. Some viewers had trouble believing the court would rule in favor of the adoptive mother over the biological mother, which highlights a sensitive subject for any adoptive mother or even adoptees because we know for a fact that biology does not necessarily make a mother. I have a daughter I placed for adoption, though I am her birth mother, I am not her mom. I did not teach her to tie her shoes, I am not the one who tucks her in at night, and I will not be there to comfort her after her first heartbreak. Her mom is that person. Arizona is quoted as saying, “You are not going to imply that I am any less Sofia’s mother because we don’t share the same DNA.” I think Grey’s used this opportunity to emphasize that an adoptive mother is just as valid as any other kind of mother. Now, if only they could get on board with making sure proper adoption language is used at all times and stop with the “put up for adoption” or “gave away for adoption.” I am talking to you, Shonda!
I appreciate how Grey’s Anatomy showcases adoption in many forms. Owen Hunt’s journey to adopt a child from foster care as a single father is one such case. In this process, he fosters a baby boy named Leo and gets to know his birth mother, Betty. In the beginning, Betty is hoping to regain custody of Leo eventually but is a drug addict struggling to stay clean. She forms a relationship with Owen, and his girlfriend, Amelia. Amelia attempts to sponsor Betty in her bid to get clean, and they allow her to maintain a relationship with Leo as she works through this. A lot of television drama later, Betty realizes she is not ready to be a mother and needs to focus on her sobriety. She tells Owen he is Leo’s father, and he is able to proceed with adopting Leo. I have often said there is no handbook for adoption, and I enjoy watching the different ways this show represents that.
The adoptee voice also has the opportunity to speak during Grey’s Anatomy. Maggie Pierce is an adoptee who comes to Seattle to further her medical career and seek more information about her birth parents. It turns out she is the secret love child of Richard Weber and Ellis Grey (yes, Meredith’s half-sister). Maggie grew up in a loving and supportive home and is not seeking information because she lacks anything; she is simply curious about her biology. She maintains a strong relationship with her parents throughout her search. It was refreshing to see them fully support their daughter without any kind of drama, even as her biological parents’ circumstances seem riddled with drama. She also grows her relationship with Richard, which is nice to see, considering relationships between adoptees and birth fathers are rarely shown, much less positive ones.
These are just a few examples of storylines regarding adoption. There is so much more to talk about because Grey’s is such a long-running show, and they do such a good job of writing adoption into their world. Of course, they do not always get it right, and there are moments of questionable content, but it is just a fictional television show at the end of the day. Having so many different ways adoption is shown is a win in my book because the more we talk about it, the more we normalize seeing adoption as a positive option for many. Just like writing an article based on my opinion, I am sure some disagree. Still, overall, Grey’s Anatomy is a show where families are celebrated, no matter how they are created.Are you considering adoption and want to give your child the best life possible? Let us help you find an adoptive family that you love. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
Lacy Davis is a birth mom who enjoys educating and speaking about how adoption has shaped her life. She has spent time connecting with other birth moms at local support groups and has spoken on panels educating prospective adoptive parents. She grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and placed her child for adoption in 2006. In her free time, she is an avid reader and enjoys watching Law and Order episodes on repeat as well as spending time outdoors with her husband and two children.