Why adoption is how it is

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Child adoption, as it currently exists in Western law, was first created in an 1851 statute in the state of Massachusetts to deal primarily with the social welfare problem of poverty and “unwanted and unloved children.” At the time, social welfare reformists were looking for a solution to the problem of poverty: work-houses, orphans on the street who were in danger of exploitation, and rapid population growth in-part due to birth control prohibitions and legalized marital rape.

“Its illegitimate origins, its birth in the workhouse, so to speak, has been another adoption secret and is usually omitted from official genealogies of adoption” (O’ Shaughnessy, pp. 68-69).

Child adoption was considered a “progressive” social policy at the time, and other states and countries (the U.K., Australia, Canada, etc.) soon passed their own similar laws. By the 1930s, almost every Western jurisdiction had some form of adoption law.

That child adoption is a modern invention is often a surprise to people who believe that it has existed since time immemorial. The fact, however, is that it was relatively rare and legally limited throughout history, and while it has been common practice throughout history for children to be fostered, legal adoption in most nations and situations was usually reserved for adult males to adopt other adult males for inheritance purposes.

As opposed to fostering or legal guardianship, adoption involves a complete legal severing of all legally recognized family relationships (“filiation”), inheritance rights, and parental rights. Before the 20th century, with high child mortality rates being the norm worldwide, adopting an adult to be a legal heir was a much surer bet.

One example of this distinction between fostering and adoption is the case of Moses in Jewish and Christian religious tradition, for whom a strong argument can be made that he was fostered, not adopted. At no time were his birth records changed to indicate that an Egyptian princess was the mother who had given birth to him, nor were his legal ties and legal family relationship with his Hebrew family severed. Aaron remained recognized as his brother, and Jochebed as his mother..

There was also little demand for adoption prior to WWII, as the historical norm up until the 20th century was for women to marry in their middle to late teens and began their reproductive careers long before the progressive and inevitable decline in fertility due to age. Thus, the late 20th century “infertility epidemic” did not exist.

Adoption laws since then have not changed significantly since they began a century and a half ago, other than to close and seal original birth records in most jurisdictions and issue new official birth records falsely stating that the adoptive parents gave birth to the child (beginning in the 1920s and going onwards). Other minor changes have included gradual elimination of inheritance rights from natural parents, modifications to the legal process of surrender, and a few jurisdictions that have re-opened their records again under highly restrictive circumstances. None of these changes affected or questioned the underlying assumptions on which adoption was founded.

But adoption as a legal and social institute assumes that the child is unloved and unwanted, or that the parent is devastatingly unfit. That’s the social problem adoption was created to address. No matter how one fancies it up, this is the reason behind it. Find a home for an unloved and unwanted child.

And adoption would likely have stayed this way except that after WWII, the interest in adopting newborns grew. In part because the emergence of social work as a profession defined unwed mothers as neurotics who could be “cured” with separation from their babies, and defined the unhappiness and “empty homes” of childless couples as an equally important social problem to address. Add to this mix the rise of J. B. Watson’s behaviorist psychology (“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select … regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.“) which left the former universal belief in “bad blood” in the dust, and a market demand for newborns emerged.

And on it went. But adoption laws still assume that the mother and father do not love or want their baby. Read almost any state or provincial adoption statute and it is evident that the law is built upon the assumption of complete legal and emotional cut-off from the original family. The complete absence of the natural family from legal statutes after the surrender has taken place reflects the assumption that this family has no continuing interest in the welfare of their lost child. The loving mother’s interest in the continuing welfare of her child, her love for her child, and the mother-child bond forged during nine months in the womb, are all assumed to not exist.

And, tragically, moms who love and want their babies, and assume that a continuing connection will be guaranteed through open adoption (as the industry began to promised them as it worked to persuade more moms to hand over their babies), get caught in the middle. Those who buy the promotional hype that “Adoption is the Loving Option” and surrender their babies on this assumption find out the hard way to their surprise that they are suddenly judged by both the law and by society to be “heartless abandoners,“as one adoptee so eloquently put it.

Is it any wonder that many (most?) adoptees feel abandoned and/or rejected on some level?

One hundred and fifty seven years of continuity in adoption law is not going to change any time soon. Especially because the underlying legal principle that adoption was founded on (child abandonment) is never questioned by politicians or society in general. And especially as adoption is now used by child protection departments to “save” children from parents who have been judged unfit and abusive in a court of law.

It is a tragedy that we who are natural mothers of adopted children got caught in this trap, of believing what we were told by adoption industry workers: that adoption was what it wasn’t (loving) and would provide what it legally can’t guarantee (a lifetime of happiness for our child and a continuing connection with us). We were sold a bill of goods. Adoption was created to provide homes for “children with no parents,” abandoned children, and unwanted children. In essence, it is a form of legalized abandonment. No matter how you dress it up, this fact will always remain.

But if you are an 18 year old mother, lying there in your hospital bed with your precious and much-loved baby in your arms, the facilitator and the “waiting parents” standing there wanting you to hurry up and sign the papers, has anyone told you any of this? You are but one signature away from signing into a system that assumes your baby is unloved, unwanted, and to being willingly abandoned into another family’s hands.

Recommended Reading:

  • Brace, Charles Loring. (1872). “The Life of the Street Rat,s” an excerpt from The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them.
  • O’ Shaughnessy, T. (1999). Adoption, Social Work and Social Theory : Making the Connections. Ashgate Publishing, Limited, ISBN 1-85628-883-8.
  • Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (Nov. 2006). “Aging and Infertility.” Fertility and Sterility, Vol 86, Supplement 4.
  • Samuels, Elizabeth J. (2001). “The Idea of Adoption: An Inquiry Into the History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records” Rutgers Law Review #367.
  • Solinger, R. (2000). Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Routledge. ISBN: 0-41592-676-9.

Copyright 2009 Cedar Bradley. All rights reserved.


11 thoughts on “Why adoption is how it is

    Mei-Ling said:
    March 11, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    “But adoption laws still assume that the mother and father do not love or want their baby.”

    I am so SICK of this myth.

    Scarab said:
    March 11, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Many a new mother does not ‘fall in love’ with her newborn instantly, most especially where childbirth has been medicalized (read: utterly UNnatural where laboring women are on their backs, drugged, numbed-out, butchered and bleeding). Many many dads-to-be deplore the pregnancy and don’t want any more kids… but do eventually come ’round. The whole notion that pregnancy is blissful is another impossible myth to make moms-to-be feel like monsters. Worse, the idea that labor and delivery can’t be blissful is another lie.

    Mei-Ling said:
    March 12, 2009 at 3:13 am

    “Many a new mother does not ‘fall in love’ with her newborn instantly”

    But doesn’t that have to do with pregnancy hormones and a primal urge to bond with the child?

    KarenWB said:
    March 13, 2009 at 12:05 am

    “There was also little demand for adoption prior to WWII, as the historical norm up until the 20th century was for women to marry in their middle to late teens and began their reproductive careers long before the progressive and inevitable decline in fertility due to age…”

    Not to mention that prior to WWII maternity homes were set up to help unmarried mothers KEEP their babies. It was social workers (caseworkers) and the adoption industry who convinced the public that surrender was the best “choice” for these mothers so that these social workers could then give her baby to “more worthy”) people (i.e., married) and therefore take donations and payments to further their careers and shore up their industry.

    Thank you for this great piece!

    Laurel said:
    March 13, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks for this. Adoption is the way it is because those who benefit from it benefit and those who don’t see no reason to question the myths.

    unsigned masterpiece said:
    March 19, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Thanks for the history lesson.

    I feel we are voices crying in the wilderness sometimes but maybe someday people will see adoption for what it really is.

    Cristy said:
    March 27, 2009 at 2:21 am

    Hello…. I just found your blog. Thanks for sharing.

    Bill said:
    December 9, 2011 at 6:52 am

    I am a male and have no illusions about what it is like to be a mother. I am a father that desperately loves my 2 boys. They are everything that anyone could ever hope to have, and more. When I think about my sons and the love that is, I have to project my own feelings into the situation that my mother was in when she gave birth to me. To have everyone that you hold dear, betray you in your hour of need, and have them pretend like it never happened deserves to be shamed, and trodden through the hell their daughters were. I hope to all that is a commanding force, that I can hold my mother close someday and tell her I love her. DAMN YOU FOR NOT GIVING ME MY CHANCE, Dyers Eve.

    Bev said:
    January 10, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Ohhh Bill, my heart aches for your pain. I would give anything to hear those magic words but a blank christmas card with a gift voucher has convinced me that my son is more emotionally damaged by this than he is willing to admit. I was abandoned then by everyone who I loved and trusted and now 32 years later they have once again tried to bully me then left me to flounder in the pain of reunion. Your mother will be one lucky lady when you find her – my heart hopes it will be soon, stay strong – one day the sun will shine for you.

    kathleen mann said:
    February 25, 2012 at 7:13 am

    I am also interested, besides because of the rise in “social work” which may not have been the sole cause of the increase in adoption, to hear what caused more couples infertility? Is it true that war veterans may have rendered their wives infetile due to diseases they brought home from war?

      stfuadoptoraptors said:
      May 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm

      Probably a combination of waiting too long (fertility for women begins to decline in the mid- to late-twenties), war injuries, diseases, and medical experimentation done by the army on its soldiers. Probably we’ll never really know. And let’s not forget that plenty of people who do/did adopt had their own children either before or after.

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