2012 has been a good year for an international community of mothers seeking redress for millions of forced adoptions that took place in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. In February, Australian legislators announced a plan to apologize for the coercive practices that unnecessarily separated thousands of families during this time. In March, Canada's forced adoptions began receiving media attention, with many activists calling for a federal inquiry similar to the one that revolutionized adoption in Australia. And just last week, American adoption victims from the aptly named Baby Scoop Era finally received some recognition for their losses when “Dan Rather Reports” featured their stories on national television.
I know these women. A decade and a half ago, I began researching adoption. I was inspired to interact Dian Wellfare online. An Australian mother who spent her life fighting for a parliamentary inquiry into past adoption practices, Dian passed away in 2008, before the fruits of her labor were fully realized. Several years later, I co-wrote an article on reproductive exploitation with a Canadian mother whose son was taken via forced adoption during the Baby Scoop Era. Over the years, I have worked with dozens of American women – mothers and adoptees – who spent years lobbying for recognition here in the United States. These women are my friends, and I am happy for their successes.
As an activist, however, I am concerned.
I'm concerned that the conversation about forced adoption is being framed in such a way as to imply that adoption coercion is a relic from the past. I'm concerned that mothers who lost children to more recent unethical practices are discouraged from sharing their stories in order to support this conclusion. I'm concerned that women who might consider adoption now or in the future will incorrectly believe that today's agencies and facilitators are above reproach because reports say that coerced adoption ended in the 1970s. While its true that contraception and abortion access have reduced the number of infants being surrendered for adoption in recent years, corruption is ever-present.
In fact, in some ways, things haven't changed at all. Young, single, and poor, mothers who were pressured into adoption during the Baby Scoop Era say that social workers asked them what they had to offer in comparison to the wealthy, married couples who wanted to adopt their children. If you look at the “Dear Birthmother” letters that agencies like Bethany Christian Services currently promote on their websites, you'll see that the unfair competition continues to this day. Each letter is a collection of statements that make the prospective adopters sound like ideal candidates for parenthood, what with their stable incomes, expansive back yards, extended families, and empty nurseries. In the 1950s, social workers made that comparison and said, “If you love your baby, you will let him go.” Today, adoption workers and crisis pregnancy counselors tell young women that adoption is “the loving option.”
Of course, some things have changed. When social mores no longer said that unmarried mothers were unfit to raise their children (an archaic premise some politicians are trying to reinstate), adoption agencies were forced to experiment with new tactics or risk going out of business.
Now, instead of simply demanding that women hand over their babies, today's adoption facilitators give expectant mothers a false sense of empowerment. They give them the opportunity to “make an adoption plan.” Today, the adoption industry tells the press not to say that a woman has given up her baby, nor that she has surrendered. They want her to feel like she's in charge, so they tell her she's making a plan. The National Council for Adoption, a controversial pro-adoption organization, operates an infant adoption awareness training program for the sole purpose of teaching professionals who interact with pregnant women how to promote adoption to their clients. A large portion of the training emphasizes careful language choices that create a sense of camaraderie while presenting a very specific image of adoption to expectant parents. You don't have to work in marketing to recognize a sales pitch like that!
Now, instead of the secrecy and shame that surrounded the girls who went away during the Baby Scoop Era, adoption agencies promise expectant mothers unlimited contact with their children. Technically, modern facilitators are being truthful when they say that most of today's infant adoptions are open, since “open” is a blanket term used to describe any situation in which the mother has some form of contact with the adopters. This can mean anything from a few meetings during pregnancy to exchanging pictures and letters via an intermediary to a coveted lifelong relationship that includes phone calls and visits. However, many agencies promise expectant mothers that they can decide how much contact to have with their children. This is untrue. Legally, once an adoption is finalized, the adopters have all the control and can cut off contact at will. And they frequently do. One mother who complained to her adoption agency that her daughter's adopters were not following through on the level of contact they promised was told that the adopters close more than 80% of the open adoptions that are initiated there.
Now, instead of the punitive, solitary birth experiences that countless mothers of the past endured, many mothers today birth with the prospective adopters in the room or just outside the door, waiting for the baby with outstretched arms. While this intrusive practice is unheard of in Australia, a country that appears to have learned a lot from its shameful adoption history, Americans embrace the idea. Although new mothers have no legal obligation to follow through on an adoption they planned before their child was born, allowing adopters to wait in the wings during birth and receive the baby as if s/he is their own does not give the mother an adequate opportunity to change her mind. Laws vary, but in 16 states, mothers are permitted to sign away their rights immediately. Many other states have waiting periods between 12-72 hours. Anyone who has ever borne a child should understand why it's highly unethical to ask a woman who has just given birth to make such a serious decision mere hours later. At this point, she may not have even had the chance to spend time alone with her baby.
There's no need to argue whether or not adoption has changed in the past thirty years. It has. The problem can be summed up with the old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Not only are modern adoption practices coercive as were their predecessors, but we have to contend with the War on Women that currently threatens to take women's rights back to the '50s. As conservative legislators rush to deny funding to Planned Parenthood, limit access to contraception, and prevent abortion by any possible means, the shadow of a second Baby Scoop Era is looming over America. Will we learn from the past, or will we repeat it?
*Originally published on RH Reality Check, 5/15/12.