The term “birth parent”
was embraced by adoption reformers in the 1970s. The term satisfied
at least two important needs. It made visible the people that practices
like matching and policies like confidentiality
and sealed records had tried so hard to erase. But it did not
simply turn the tables and erase adoptive parents, or underline
their secondary status, as older adoption
terminology, such as “natural” or “real”
parent, would have done.
In practice, “birth parent” almost always meant “birth
mother.” In the public imagination, birth mothers were presumed
to be unmarried women whose unrestrained sexuality violated an important
cultural rule: children needed and deserved married parents because
legally sanctioned heterosexuality was the best and only “normal”
way to make a family and socialize the next generation. Out-of-wedlock
births deeply concerned Progressive-era advocates of child
welfare, and the U.S. Children’s
Bureau tackled the problem of illegitimacy
with great determination. Even so, statistical analyses have shown
that a majority of surrendering parents before 1940 were married.
Family preservation was the favored ideology of early twentieth-century
reformers, who believed that crises such as death, desertion, and
chronic poverty should not force people to give their children away.
Even unmarried women and their children, these professionals believed,
should be kept together whenever possible.
The preference for natal kinship that made adoption a last resort
was not based primarily on respect for birth parents and families.
It frequently reflected eugenic beliefs
that illegitimate children were hereditary lemons, destined to spread
disease and feeble-mindedness
to future generations, and also likely to end up in the hands of
unscrupulous baby farmers and other
black-market adoption entrepreneurs. Before the Depression, only
the amateur architects of the country’s first
specialized adoption agencies seriously advanced the idea that
children born to unmarried parents would be better off adopted by
strangers than remaining with their blood kin.
It was between 1940 and 1970 that adoption became a simultaneous
solution for illegitimacy and infertility.
With the rate of non-marital pregnancy rising among young, white,
working- and middle-class women, it seemed entirely logical to transfer
babies from single women and teenage girls to married couples unable
to have children of their own. Out-of-wedlock births often estranged
white women from their mortified families, and many wayward daughters
were packed off to distant maternity homes to wait out their shameful
pregnancies in silence and secrecy. Meanwhile, African-American
women contended with the opposite presumption: because illegitimacy
was perfectly acceptable in black communities, adoption was unnecessary.
The result was widespread, systematic racial discrimination in child
placement services. Legal adoptions by African-Americans
were rare before 1945, although informal adoptions were not. Many
black and minority children also needed permanent and fully legal
families. This point was finally made by the special
needs revolution that followed World War II.
By the 1960s, the vast majority of birth parents were unmarried,
and the meaning of illegitimacy had
changed dramatically. Early in the century, it was condemned as
a moral failing. It confirmed that vulnerable women needed protection
from sexually predatory men. Many unmarried women had become pregnant
through no fault of their own, in other words, as in cases of domestic
servants victimized by their male employers. Others were simply
feeble-minded, promiscuous, or “vicious” by nature.
In either case, adoption was not the answer.
This began to change with the spread of scientific interpretations
of illegitimacy that drew upon the
theories of Sigmund Freud.
As early as the 1920s, leading psychiatrists like Marion Kenworthy
argued that non-marital pregnancy was psychopathological, a symptom
of profound personality problems and neuroses. By 1945, this view
of unmarried mothers as mentally disturbed was widespread. At the
same time it shifted the blame from men to women, it strengthened
the conviction that illegitimate children were innocent. They might
be rescued through adoption.
Several developments converged to give birth parents much more
power in adoption after the 1960s. In 1973, Roe v. Wade
legalized abortion in the United States, and the number of healthy
white infants available for placement began to drop. The sexual
revolution also reduced the stigma of being a single parent, so
that fewer and fewer unmarried women who decided to have children
gave those children up. Finally, Stanley
v. Illinois (1972) gave standing to birth fathers for the
first time, according new legal rights to the most shadowy figure
in adoption history. Inspired by the new era of adoption reform
after 1970, by the mobilization among adult adoptees, and by the
power of sharing their own adoption
narratives, birth parents organized to advance their collective
interests. Concerned United Birthparents
is one example.
In spite of conservative resurgence since 1980, including right-wing
movements to protect “family values” and defend heterosexual
marriage, there is no going back. Birth parents are far more assertive
and influential today than they were in the past, and less likely
to be entirely cut off from the children to whom they gave life.