' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Exploiting first mothers, then and now

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Exploiting first mothers, then and now

(Jane, second row on the far right)
Babies come from mothers who don't want them was the shocking message of an adoption agency advertisement from the 1940's. The agency guaranteed prospective adoptive parents that babies would be matched to them not only in appearance, but also in intelligence. And unbelievably, prospective adoptive parents were also promised a "one year return policy" if the baby didn't fit into their family.

Ann Fessler's film, A Girl Like Her, includes this and other videos to present pictorially the ugly truth about adoption in the mid-twentieth century. As the videos of happy housewives dancing in their oh-so-modern kitchens and teens in full skirted strapless prom dresses switch to pictures of soldiers in Vietnam and war protesters, off screen first mothers tell their stories of loss without redemption.

As the hyper-puritan post World War II period melded into the "make love, not war," era of the 60's and 70's, and challenges of the social order were daily events, unwed mothers remained pariahs, an apparent anomaly when viewed from the lens of history. Fessler illustrates this through a mother telling of watching news reports of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy while hidden away in a maternity home in Washington DC.  The social mores that compelled women to give up their babies started to wan in the mid-Seventies, when the Women's Movement took hold, giving women power over their reproduction, increasing career and educational opportunities.

During these decades--often called the Baby Scoop Era--about 1.5 million single women, mostly white from upwardly mobile families, went away to have their babies, leaving the hospital with empty arms while social workers delivered their babies to "deserving" married couples. These mothers (Lorraine and I are among them) grieved and continue to grieve for their lost children. About thirty percent of these mothers, including Lorraine, never had other children.

Fessler first told this sad--and to those who have grown up in the post Roe v. Wade period--unbelievable tale in The Girls Who Went Away. FMF highly recommends both the book and the film. They, along with the other pioneering works documenting the era--Lorraine's Birthmark, Carol Schaefer's The Other Mother, Merry Bloch Jones' Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories--are a must read for serious students of women's history and social work, those who work or plan to work in adoption, and those connected with adoption, told through the narratives of these women in her 2006 book.

In the past four decades, adoption has had a make-over. Shame no longer drives domestic adoptions. Far fewer mothers give up their babies and those that do, explain their decision as giving their children "the life they deserve," while allowing mothers to pursue their goals. Rather than reflecting the powerlessness of mothers, the adoption option is touted as empowering--mothers don't lose their babies to adoption; they "choose not to parent." Most domestic adoptions have some degree of openness, or at least promised openness.

As the number of  women giving up their children has plummeted, the industry has turned to foreign countries to supply children. Far from asking for children closely matched to them, adoptive parents take pride in the physical differences between themselves and their children. The only thing that does remain  from the adoption practices described in Fessler's video is a return policy. Approximately 10 to 25 percent of  of adoptions "disrupt," and children are sent to other families ("re-homed" in adoption parlance) or placed in the child welfare system.

Exploitation of vulnerable women, however, continues through technology that existed only in science fiction a few decades ago. The infertile, gays, singles, anyone who wants a child can have one manufactured through "reproductive technology." An embryo created in a test tube and carried by a "surrogate" has brought parenthood to Mathew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, Elton John, Ricky Martin, and countless other celebrities and pedestrians with enough cash to hire someone to carry their baby.

What's lost in media stories about these happy "parents" is the effect on the women who carry their babies, many of them poor Indian women. "There is a dark underbelly to the surrogacy industry" writes conservative columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post:
"And it is a business -- including a burgeoning industry that preys on vulnerable women, commodifying them as 'ovens.'...Never mind repercussions for the children themselves, who may have as many as five 'parents,' from the egg and sperm donors, to the woman who carries them to the couple or the single parent who adopts them.
..."While no one wishes to cause pain to people who, for whatever reason, can't have a child on their own, there are more compelling principles and consequences in play. Human babies are not things, their mothers are not ovens. But bartering and selling babies-to-order sure make them seem that way. By turning the miracle of life into a profit-driven, state-regulated industry, the stork begin to resemble a vulture."
Kathleen Parker
Parker does not distinguish between the three types of surrogacy: "traditional" where the surrogate's own eggs are fertilized through artificial insemination; "gestational" where embryos are made from eggs and sperm of the intended parents; and "gestational" where eggs or sperm or both come from "donors." We vehemently oppose surrogacy where a woman's body and her egg are used to create a child for others. We also vehemently oppose the use of donor eggs--eggsploitation, whether the eggs are turned into a embryo carried by a surrogate or carried by the woman who raises the child.
The Center for Bioethics and Culture coined the term, eggsploitation, noting:   "Harvesting 'eggs is an onerous, invasive, and painful procedure" with serious health risks including infection, kidney failure, stroke, and even death. In addition to risking women's health, egg donation creates human beings who may never know their genetic origins and leaves women wondering about the children they may have created.

We are uncomfortable with, but find more acceptable, surrogacy, where the eggs and sperm belong to the intended parents. In the case of the celebrities above, the biological parentage of the offspring created is unknown. Clearly gay couples use harvested eggs.

We recognize that long as big bucks can be made through supplying children to those whose desire for a child and physical abilities do not coincide, families created artificially through adoption or technology will continue. What should not continue, however, is the exploitation of women: taking advantage of their poverty and ignorance. Laws need to be enacted so that women are fully informed about the effect of carrying another's child on themselves and their child.--jane
The Center for Bioethics and Culture, a think tank that "addresses bioethical issues that most profoundly affect our humanity, especially issues that arise in the lives of the most vulnerable among us. 

Surrogacy Exposed
A Girl Like Her
Donaldson Adoption Institute, "Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process" 2006
The Center for Bioethics and Culture: Victory for Women in New Jersey
Eggsploitation: The infertility industry has a dirty little secret 
Northwest Surrogacy Center
Child Information Gateway, "Adoption Disruption and Dissolution, 2012

More on Baby M from a psychiatrist who defended her mother, MaryBeth Whitehead
Action is the sincerest form of thanks
Surrogate Mother Wins Right to Sue for Custody; Police Chief Sentenced for Stealing Surrogate Items
Making babiest to make ends meet
Egg Donor or Egg Seller: Fulfilling Another Woman's Dreams or Filling Your Pockets? 
The Child Catchers exposes the stench of international adoption--and domestic adoption too
Utah agency places cast-off international adoptees
Joyce Maynard's adoption "disruption"

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade A remarkably well-researched and accomplished book. (The New York Times Book Review

Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories  by Merry Block Jones: Despite the media attention on Fessler's book as "the first one to tell the story" of first mothers, Merry Bloch Jones wrote a wonderful book along the same lines in 1993, more than a decade earlier than Fessler's book, and gives a more comprehensive picture of the effect of relinquishing a child as it analyzes the effects and draws conclusions about the corrosive effect of relinquishment on women. I was brought to tears more than once while reading this book as I recognized myself in her analysis.--Lorraine
"Often revealing their experiences for the first time, 72 American mothers who gave up their babies answered questionnaires and participated in in-depth interviews with sociologist Jones ( Step Mother ) for this searching study. Although their ages and backgrounds vary widely, almost all of the mothers, the author notes, share regrets about their decision to relinquish their babies, with a majority reporting troubled marriages. Most traumatized among those interviewed were teenagers too young to have a voice in the decision to surrender the baby, or who felt stigmatized by illegitimacy. Sixty percent of those who gave up a baby to adoption agencies that "seal" records later sought to locate their children. A chapter titled "Finding, Winning and Losing" sums up the obstacles to establishing intimacy after reunion, and discusses relationships between birth parents and adoptive parents.--From Publishers Weekly 

Lorraine's book preceded them all, published in 1979 to great controversy: "...The book is a spectacular addition to feminist literature. Dusky's experiences are not new: her self doubts about her desire for a career; her wish to have been born a man; her affair with a married man; her guilt about her pregnancy. She describes these experiences with such openness and raw emotion, without polemics or self-conscious feminist attitudes, that the impact of the book is overwhelming."--Library Journal


  1. FYI: A screening of

    A Girl Like Her

    Tuesday, June 11 at 6:30pm at
    The Century Association. Please arrive no later than 7:15 pm for the start of the film.

    It might be "sold out" so you better check first by calling the Donaldson Adoption Institute in NYC.

  2. As a fellow BSE mother, I think it's really cool that your picture is on the cover. Denise's picture is there as well. If another picture opportunity presents itself in the future, I hope I'll be able to take advantage of it.

  3. I am in the picture too, although not in the book. Ann had to persuade me to send it despite bad hair:-)Like so many others I got my hair done special for the senior pic. BIG mistake.

    The film and the book are poignant and dead-accurate pictures of being a young unwed mother in that era.

  4. Jane,
    A good article thank you. I am part of that group too. I had my son in 66 like you and Lorraine.
    I hate that I belong to this group. If I had the help I needed from my family, my boyfriend, the social worker that worked so hard for the adopter to help her take my baby. I to this day wonder why their life's work was spent separating mothers and babies. I could not live with myself if I did that for a living.

    I am fourth row from bottom third person from right hand side.

    When Anne Fessler came to my house it was the most grueling hours recalling the lose of my son. Although, I am not in the book. I am glad our stories were told and in print. And they are there for future studies I think its Harvard?

    I would love to have a day that I do not think of the loss. Think of how taken advantage I feel and how lucky I am to have survived the pain. Without drugs, alcohol I feel I am strong.

    I do know and always did know I was the best mom for my son. We are in reunion since 92. We have a good reunion and spent many years living together.


  5. This is for Lorraine. Just watched UTube video of New York Press Conference in New York.

    Thank you, Lorraine, for walking the walk and speaking the talk. You were clear, and represented mothers elegantly.

  6. I too am a girl like her. Although I was not in the book, I have given it to each of my family members to read so that they can truly understand my loss of being forced to give up my daughter. My daughter & I went to see the film and meet Ann. I recommend it to everyone touched by adoption.



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