The statistics are in: Few natural mothers (“birthmothers”) who “voluntarily” surrendered a baby to adoption over the last 50 years did so (or are doing so) as an act of free will. Very few were allowed to recover first from birth, unpressured by social workers, lawyers, family members, or people hoping to adopt. Few were provided with all the resources they required in order to keep their babies (unless, as Solinger (2000) pointed out, they were African American and their babies were not in demand on the adoption market). Few in “open adoptions” are not pushed into “pre-birth matching” which automatically puts a mother into a position where emotional coercion may freely occur, where she is unprotected from it.
I feel that coercion really is black and white: The decision whether or not to surrender is so monumental and life-changing, and the bond between mother and child so important, that the dynamics that go into the separation of mother and child must be carefully examined.
“Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” — Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Given the immense financial and social power of the adoption industry and the many years and thousands of dollars that have been expended on finding out ways to get more mothers to surrender their babies — given the power differential between the industry and a vulnerable (e.g., young, poor, unsupported, or unmarried) mother — the position must be taken that a mother’s decision regarding the surrender of her child must be freely made, fully-informed, and non-coerced in order to be a decision or “choice” at all. It is black and white. There are no grey areas.
Analysts of sexualized violence against women and children now agree that coerced sexual intercourse is not sex, it is rape. Unless there is a clear “yes,” ethically it is “no.” “Anything other than Yes means No” is the new phrase that defines rape and other types of sexualized violence. There is a new recognition of coerced sex as being violence, when a woman or child is pressured into saying “yes” to intercourse or a sexual act when she does not want to. Forced or coerced sex is always rape.
“An emerging factor from this research was the striking similarity of feelings associated with sexual abuse and relinquishment.” – Logan (1996), p. 619.
Just as with the trauma that is known to result from forced sexualized violence, and the recognition that this crime is has major consequences, in the same way the mother-child bond is also of equal importance. Just as a woman’s body is to be protected from violation, the relationship between a mother and her newborn is sacred and needs to be considered equally important and protected from violation.
Given the importance of her relationship with her child and the tremendous potential lifelong consequences of separation for both mother and child, a true “decision” or “choice” only exists when a mother (1) is free of any emotional, psychological, social or financial coercion, (2) has been provided with all the facts regarding the emotional and psychological consequences of surrender, (3) has been given enough time to recover from the birth to make an informed decision, and (4) when her human rights have not been violated.
Just as rape is rape and “anything other than YES means NO,” a mother who “make an adoption plan” resigned to the idea that no other viable options exist, or whose ability to make that decision post-birth and post-recovery has been compromised or negated, is not making a decision.
When others have orchestrated and influenced the act of separation to increase the chance or ensure that she surrenders her baby, coercion has occurred. Particularly if these others have a vested interest in seeing this mother surrender:
- They may be adoption agency or maternity staff whose agencies or organizations depend on the revenue from brokering babies in order to remain open, whose paycheques depend on a certain number of surrenders per year. No surrenders = agency bankruptcy. (This is the main reason why open adoption was developed.)
- They may be people eagerly hoping to adopt her baby.
- They may be priests or nuns who feel that they are carrying out the will of God in ensure that an infant “born in sin” is “redeemed” by being adopted into a “good Christian family.”
- They may be the mother’s own parents, who want the “shame” of a “bastard grandchild” to be removed from the family ASAP (“What would the neighbours think?!”).
- They may even be “birthmothers” themselves, recently surrendered, who seek emotional justification of their loss by convincing other mothers to surrender their babies.
Coercion includes the emotional coercion that comes with having potential adopters involved in a mother’s life during pregnancy or birth. She is left with no way to make that choice without their presence, their affluence, their desire, their childlessness, their need, influencing her. A freely-made decision, or choice, in this situation is thus impossible.
“Almost everyone believes that on some level, [mothers] made a choice to give their babies away. Here, I argue that adoption is rarely about mothers’ choices; it is, instead, about the abject choicelessness of some resourceless women.” (Solinger, 2001, pp. 55‑56)
Coercion comes in many many forms. But what is definitive is that once a mother’s decision whether or not to surrender has been affected by coercion, it is no longer a freely-made choice. There is thus no decision. We can see how many years of adoption industry research on how to get more mothers to surrender and acceptance of this pressure, has ensured that those natural mothers (“birth mothers”) who have actually “chosen adoption” are few and far between.
Whenever a mother surrenders her baby because it is “of last resort” and she feel she has no other choices, no other viable options, then there is no choice at all. It is not a “choice” if there is only one option, if a mother feels she has no right or no ability to say “No!,” has expressed that she wants to keep her baby but no-one is listening, or has been silenced.
No decision = no guilt = no self-blame. A mother can hold the truth in her heart: I was not responsible for what was done to me that resulted in me feeling I had no choice.
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In contrast, what a non-coerced surrender look like? Picture this scenario:
A mother is pregnant and gives birth. Throughout her pregnancy and aftrwards, she has access to all the resources she requires in order to be a parent. Her child will not suffer and poverty will not be a stressor. She recovers from birth with her baby, breastfeeding that child, taking her baby home, caring for her child, receiving the support and love of her family. Weeks pass, and she has recovered from the birth. The mother finds she does not love or want her baby. She goes to a counsellor provided for free by a provincial government Ministry (such as the Ministry for Children and Family Development here in B.C.) or child welfare agency whose paycheque or funding does not rely on some PAP’s “adoption fees.” No money changes hands in exchange for a baby. The counsellor explains the risks of PTSD, unresolved grief and loss, major depression, anxiety disorders, relationship difficulties, parenting difficulties, and secondary infertility. The counsellor explains the emotional, social, legal and developmental difficulties faced by adoptees. A government-appointed lawyer, again whose income does not depend on the surrender, explains the legalities of adoption, especially that open adoptions are not enforceable and her baby’s birth records will be changed. The mother signs surrender papers but receive more counselling. She has a month in which she can revoke her consent. After that month, her baby is in the custody of the province. A government social worker, protecting the right of the child to his family and heritage, examines the possibility of kinship care. If this is not possible, the mother begins interviewing prospective adoptive parents presented to her by the social worker, eventually choosing which set will adopt her baby. Case closed.
Mothers are protected by the same system that is in place in Australia. No adoptive parents have influenced her decision with a “pre-birth match,” financial coercion has not played a role, and adoption is used for its true purpose: to find a home for an unloved and unwanted child.
- Gerow, D. (2002). Infant adoption is big business in America. Retrieved November 23, 2006 from http://www.originscanada.org/infant.pdf.
- Logan, J. (1996). Birth mothers and their mental health: Uncharted territory. British Journal of Social Work, 26(5), 609-625.
- Solinger, R. (2000). Wake up little Susie: Single pregnancy and race before Roe v. Wade. New York: Routledge.
- Solinger, R. (2001). Beggars and choosers – How the politics of choice shapes adoption, abortion, and welfare in the United States. New York: Hill & Wang.