Birth Parents

Source: Ada Patterson, "Giving Babies Away, " Cosmopolitan, August 1905, p. 405.

These images from a 1905 Cosmopolitan article illustrate that “giving babies away” was both deeply shocking and, at the same time, closely associated with dramatic upward mobility. The picture below depicts several “waifs” whose clothing indicates they are waifs no longer. The baby, “found in ash-barrel,” ended up “in a millionaire's home.” Cultural representations frequently contrasted the affluence and benevolence of adopters with the image of impoverished, desperate, and sometimes callous birth parents.

Source: Ada Patterson, "Giving Babies Away," Cosmopolitan, August 1905, p. 408.

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.


Document Excerpts


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
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