After years of tireless organizing, lobbying, and raising awareness, natural mothers whose children were forcibly adopted away from them decades ago are finally beginning to receive the acknowledgement and apologies they deserve. However, this week's news articles state that unethical adoption practices occurred "as recently as 1987." Having been involved in reproductive rights and adoption-related activism for the past 15 years, I can say with absolute certainty that coercion and adoption still go hand in hand in the United States.
Thanks to the advent of accessible birth control and abortion, and the lessening stigma against single parenthood, the sheer number of infant adoptions has decreased since the 1970s. Nevertheless, the demand for babies remains high, and the wait to adopt a newborn is often very long. People who earn a living facilitating adoptions have considerable motivation to do whatever it takes to convince parents to surrender their babies. Would-be adopters pursuing a private adoption are equally motivated to do the same. Factor in the religious conservatives who purport to save babies by adopting them away from their families and into Christian homes, and pregnant women today are hardly better off than their mothers and grandmothers before them.
Though many of the old tactics used to procure babies from unwilling mothers have been abandoned, the new methods employed by crisis pregnancy centers, adoption agencies, and prospective adopters are hardly more ethical than the ones used during the recognized era of forced adoptions. From conception to birth, here are the top five ways in which socially vulnerable women are pressured toward surrender.
#1: Misleading Crisis Pregnancy Centers promote adoption.
At the outset, a young woman who fears she is pregnant may be tricked into visiting a CPC for confirmation. These centers often advertise deceptively and frequently position themselves near colleges or universities and women's health clinics in the hope that unsuspecting women will come to them for free pregnancy tests and anti-abortion counseling. Often associated with adoption agencies and almost always religious in affiliation, CPCs counsel low-income women with statistically inaccurate information about abortion and birth control, while using deceptively simple language to promote adoption. My local CPC, the Friendship Center for New Beginnings in Flemington, NJ, describes parenting as "very challenging" while stating that adoption is a "loving decision" made by "over 50,000 women" in America per year. Other centers appear to follow the same protocol in their attempt to make adoption sound popular and appealing.
#2: Loaded language sets the stage for surrender.
Adoption terminology is carefully crafted to present a very specific image to expectant parents and adopters alike. One controversial term popular among adoption workers is "birthmother" (and any other use of the "birth-" prefix in describing family members). Mothers who were separated from their children decades ago have written extensively about the slur-like nature of this terminology. Historically, the term was crafted by social workers to replace the phrase "natural mother," which was commonly used but disliked by prospective adopters. Mothers who have lost their children more recently allege that "the b-word" was used as a tool to distance them from their motherhood before they ever gave birth. They say that being called a birthmother while still pregnant made it seem as though adoption were a forgone conclusion rather than one of several options.
#3: Mothers are given a false sense of control in open adoption.
Women who express a desire to remain involved in their children's lives are assured that they can have open adoptions with letters, phone calls, and visits as their children grow. Adoption agencies promise them that they can choose the amount of contact they have with their child, giving expectant parents a false sense of control. While it's true that women may say how much contact they desire while planning to surrender, it is absolutely not true that they have any long-term control over the situation. Upon finalization of the adoption, the adopters have all the power. Even the few states that purport to enforce open adoption agreements for children adopted as infants absolutely will not overturn an adoption because the adopters have refused to follow through on the contact they promised. In the past five years, I have personally received countless emails and phone calls from mothers who were coerced into surrendering their children to open adoptions, only to be exiled shortly after finalization.
#4: Modern-day maternity homes recall The Girls Who Went Away.
Women who were forced into adoptions decades ago recount how they were isolated from their families and friends, verbally and physically abused, and otherwise mistreated and manipulated while interred in maternity homes. Although most of these facilities closed following the advent of legal abortion and increasing acceptance toward single parenting, recent years have seen a resurgence in both state run and private maternity homes. Predominantly religious in nature, private institutions seem to focus on the antiquated notion that because an unmarried young woman has become pregnant, she requires "treatment" for what is perceived as a mental illness or deficiency. Contact with family members and friends is strictly limited -- often forbidden -- and women living in these homes are not permitted to leave without a chaperone. Many are directly affiliated with adoption agencies, and these often make it clear that a resident who refuses to surrender will have to find new housing accommodations. Isolated from the outside world, required to learn and parrot religious concepts of shame and sin, and directed by case workers who are invested in adoption, the potential for coercion is limitless.
#5: Guilt and manipulation infiltrate the delivery room.
As open adoptions encourage expectant mothers to meet with prospective adopters and make plans to surrender their infants to specific couples before birth, maternity wards have become battlegrounds for women who want to keep their babies. Although pre-birth agreements between parents and adopters are not legally binding, many new mothers report feeling pressured to hand over their babies as promised even when their instincts say otherwise. In some cases, they feel guilty for having spent months getting to know the adopters, accepting financial assistance from them, and making plans to consent to adoption. They give birth while the couple waits -- sometimes in the delivery room and sometimes just outside -- with the expectation that the baby will be adopted. A young mother with few resources, exhausted from labor, and facing a moral conflict between her maternal instincts and her previous promises, is in no position to offer informed consent to an adoption. In Australia, where infant adoption is neither profitable nor encouraged, such a situation would be viewed as wildly inappropriate and coercive. It is.
While circumstances have changed since the first era of forced adoptions, the institution is still plagued by ethical issues surrounding consent and coercion. As conservatives move to limit access to abortion, deny women birth control, defund Medicaid and family services, and declare that single parenthood is child abuse, the United States is barely a step away from a new Baby Scoop Era. Women simply cannot afford to pretend that adoption coercion ended in the 80s. Tactics may have changed, but the results are the same. Generations from now, this era will be as much a black mark on society as the last.