Worries about the “bad blood”
of children available for adoption were a prominent feature of the
adoption landscape during the first four decades of the twentieth
century. They help to explain why most child welfare professionals
favored family preservation over adoption. At the time, a vigorous
eugenics movement sought to control the reproduction of genetically
inferior people through sterilization (called negative eugenics)
and encourage the reproduction of genetically superior people (called
positive eugenics). The movement drew support from Americans of
all political persuasions. Henry Chapin, a famous pediatrician whose
wife, Alice, founded one of the first
specialized adoption agencies, claimed that the divergent fertility
rates of rich and poor were fueling the demand for adoptable babies
because citizens with better genetic endowment were more likely
to suffer from infertility. For Chapin,
eugenic factors always mattered in adoption. “Not babies merely,
but better babies, are wanted.”
Fears about children’s quality or “stock” were
shared by ordinary people as well as professionals and policy-makers.
In 1928, one couple wrote to the U.S.
Children’s Bureau, “We are very anxious to adopt
a baby but would like to get one that we know about its parentage.
Are there any homes or orphanages where a person can find out whether
there is insanity, fits, or other hereditary diseases in its ancestors?
We would like to have one from Christian parentage.” In addition
to religious preferences, specifications for gender, racial, ethnic,
and national qualities in children illustrated popular ideas about
heredity. Physical health, mental health, criminality, educability,
sexual morality, intelligence, and temperament were all associated
Before 1940, eugenic concerns were expressed frequently and bluntly.
Henry Herbert Goddard, a national authority on “feeble-minded”
children, insisted that compassion for needy children was shortsighted
because adoption was “a crime against those yet unborn.”
The eugenic threat adoption posed, according to Goddard, was directly
tied to illegitimacy. Unmarried mothers
were likely to be feeble-minded themselves and have feeble-minded
children whose adoptions would contaminate the gene pool by reproducing
future generations of defectives. Goddard advocated segregating
these children and adults in benevolent institutions, where their
dangerous sexuality could be contained.
Even professionals who believed in making adoption work believed
that it was a “social crime” to place inferior children
with parents who expected—and deserved—normal children.
Agencies sometimes required parents to return children if and when
abnormal characteristics appeared and laws, such as the Minnesota
Adoption Law of 1917, treated feeble-mindedness as cause for
annulment. Medical writers in the popular press warned parents to
“be careful whom you adopt.” Adopters faced frightening
risks because children unlucky enough to need new parents were also
unlucky enough to be genetic lemons.
Tragic stories of unregulated adoptions which ignored or overlooked
the hard facts of bad heredity were publicized by reformers determined
to institute minimum standards
and protect couples from their own foolish desires to adopt newborns
and infants. Professionals used mental tests and other assessment
techniques to reveal hard-to-detect problems. Elaborate genealogies,
extending well beyond parents to grandparents and other natal relatives,
were considered evidence of thoroughness in child placement. Case
records showed that many social workers expected anti-social behavior
of all kinds to be passed intergenerationally from birth
parents to children. Nature-nurture
studies often reflected eugenic convictions about the heritability
of intelligence and tried to establish scientifically the maximum
tolerable gap between hereditary background and adoptive home.
Many people believe that eugenics disappeared in America after
the specter of Nazism made eugenics synonymous with racism and genocide.
While public discussion of taint and degeneration certainly decreased
after World War II, blood and biology remained central themes in
adoption history. Anxieties about miscegenation in transracial
adoptions and international
adoptions, as well as strenuous efforts to make racial predictions
and offer genetic counseling in cases of mixed-race infants illustrate
that eugenics did not disappear so much as change into a less aggressive,
more polite form.