Changing the Perspective: Adoption & Assisted Reproductive Terms You Need to Know

November 12, 2021 | By Elizabeth Vaysman

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, celebrating families built through adoption while raising awareness about the thousands of children in foster care across the US waiting for loving homes. Aspects of the adoption and family building process are complicated and may come with a stigma. It is important to learn what the language means and to consider changing your language and perspective to help remove this stigma and create understanding in such a difficult process. Here are some tips and terms to know when going through your family building options. 

“Domestic Adoption”

Domestic adoption is when a child is adopted in the United States by a United States family. This can be a newborn or infant up to an adult and is often completed through an agency and/or attorney.

“Kinship Adoption”

Kinship adoption is when a child is adopted by a relative, such as a grandparent, sibling, aunt, or uncle. A homestudy is likely not required for a close familial relationship, though a more distant family member may be treated like any other prospective adoptive parent and be required to complete a homestudy report.

“Private Adoption”

Private adoption is when a biological family makes an adoption plan for their child to be placed with prospective adoptive parents. Prospective adoptive parents must complete state-regulated pre-placement and post-placement requirements. The biological family has the option to choose the prospective adoptive family. All parties decide on the type of adoption relationship they plan to have, such as an open or closed adoption relationship.

“Public Adoption”

Public adoption refers to adoption through the public welfare system, working with government-sponsored agencies in a foster-to-adopt program. In the public system, children that are removed from their homes for foster care placement with the initial goal of reunification with biological parents or relatives through kinship placement. If reunification and kinship placement is not possible, and the biological parents’ rights are terminated, the child may be able to be adopted.

“Intercountry Adoption”

Intercountry or international adoption refers to adoptions between two different countries, either children being adopted from another country by U.S. families, or international families adopting U.S. children. Intercountry adoption is regulated by the Department of State and the U.S. is a member of the Hague Convention.

“Interstate Adoption”

Interstate adoption refers to adoption between states, the state where the child is leaving referred to the sending state, and the state where the child is going to live permanently referred to as the receiving state. Interstate adoption is regulated by the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) under the Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau. ICPC is the uniform legal and administrative procedure governing the interstate placement of children and is statutory law in all fifty-two member jurisdictions and a binding contract between member jurisdictions.

“Giving up a child” 

Consider instead “making or choosing an adoption plan”; or “placing a child with a family for adoption”

“Birthmother or Birthfather” 

Consider instead “biological mother/father”, “expectant mother/father”, “biological expectant mother/father”, “mother/father” (remember, there can be more than one mother or father!)

“Drug or alcohol abuse / Addict”

Consider instead “substance use” or “health history of substance use“

Surrogate and Gestational Carrier” 

These are often used interchangeably but are different.  Today, the gestational carrier is often referred to as “gestational surrogate.”

  • A traditional surrogate carries a child created by their own egg and the sperm from an intended parent or donor, they are biologically related to the child.  
  • A gestational carrier or gestational surrogate carries an embryo created by a donor or the intended parents, they are not in any way biologically related to the child.

“Intended Parent”

Intended Parent refers to the party that will parent the child born through assisted reproduction, whether through embryo, egg, or sperm donation, or through a surrogacy arrangement.

“Embryo Donation and Adoption”

  • Embryo Donation – If you have created embryos as part of your own family building process, and have unused embryos which you wish to make available to others, you can donate them to an embryo bank.
  • Embryo Adoption – If you do not have your own embryos, you can “adopt” embryos from an embryo bank. This process is not to be confused with traditional adoption as it is not a legal procedure of relinquishing biological rights and finalizing new parent(s) as legal parents.

The National Embryo Donation Center provides detailed resources on terminology surrounding embryo donation and adoption here.

“Consents or Relinquishments” 

These are the legal instruments or documents that the biological parents complete to consent to the adoption and/or relinquish their parental rights to the child. In many states, the consents or relinquishments must be submitted to the court to enter a decree for terminating the biological parents’ rights. In some states, this is the only mechanism needed to extinguish the rights, and a court decree is not entered to do so. Each state has its own state law on terminating biological parents’ rights and it is important to know and understand the law in both the biological parent’s state and the adoptive parent’s state.

“Termination of Parental Rights”

This is the court decree or order that states the biological parent’s rights are forever terminated, and the child is, therefore, free for adoption. Once the termination order or decree is entered into, the adoptive family can then file to finalize their adoption.


This is the court hearing where the court decrees or orders that the adoptive parents are the legal parents of the adoptee. This is usually an in-person hearing after the termination decree is issued and requires the adoptive parent(s) to testify and the adoptee to appear. Depending on the adoptee’s age they may be required to testify as well. The court decree finalization of the adoption will also issue the new name that the adoptive parent(s) wish for the child. Though the finalization hearing completes the adoption legally, there are steps that should be taken after the finalization of your child. 

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Vaysman


Liz is an adoption Fellow in the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (AAAA). She focuses her practice on all aspects of adoption and reproductive law matters in Southeast Pennsylvania and...

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