In recent weeks, the Australian Senate inquiry into past adoption practices urged the government to apologize for separating thousands of families in the decades following World War II. The inquiry, which began in 2010, revealed that illegal and unethical tactics were used to convince young, unmarried mothers to surrender their babies to adoptive homes. In some cases, mothers were drugged and forced to sign papers relinquishing custody. In others, women were told that their children had died. Single mothers did not have access to the financial support given to widows or abandoned wives, and many were told by doctors, nurses, and social workers that giving away their children was the right thing to do.
Books like Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away and Rickie Solinger's Beggars and Choosers remind us that the tactics used to procure adoptable babies in Australia were no less of a problem here in the United States. Stories abound of young mothers who were sent to maternity homes, denied contact with their families and friends, and forced to return home without their babies. Single, American mothers were also denied financial support and told that their children would be better off without them. In some cases, they too were told that their babies had died. Many signed away their rights while drugged and exhausted after child-birth. Others were threatened with substantial medical bills if they didn't surrender. These unethical practices were used against an estimated 4 million mothers in the United States.
Where is their apology? Where is the apology for their children?
While it's true that mothers in Australia fought hard for the recognition they've begun to receive, American mothers have organized similarly. When I first began researching adoption fifteen years ago, mothers on both continents had already been working for years to gather information, raise awareness, and seek restitution. Exiled moms in America vastly outnumber their Aussie counter-parts, and yet, their tremendous losses are scarcely acknowledged here.
There's one very simple difference, however, between the two countries. Though both have seen a drop in the number of infant adoptions taking place since the early 1970s, social and governmental attitudes toward adoption are quite different. While some politicians have recently tried to revive adoption in Australia, infants are seldom adopted away from their families. Young women not only have solid access to contraception and abortion services, but those who choose to continue unplanned pregnancies are encouraged to keep their children. Welfare programs support this goal as well. Adoption itself isn't a big business in Australia.
The United States, on the other hand, continues to promote adoption. In 2001, it was estimated that the business of adoption brought in $1.4 billion a year, with an estimated growth percentage in the double digits. Maternity homes have made a sickening comeback, and anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” (often affiliated with profitable local adoption agencies) promote adoption as “the loving choice” even over parenting. Despite what professionals know about the negative psychological impact of adoption on surrendering parents and adopted children, Americans as a whole tend to view it as a positive institution.
Admitting that mothers and their children were wrongly separated in the decades preceding Roe v. Wade could, conceivably, open up modern adoption practices for public criticism as well. Having worked with mothers and fathers who have lost children to adoption in the past ten years, I can confidently say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today, open adoption is commonplace. Parents are assured that they can maintain some contact with their children over the years. Some are promised pictures and yearly updates while others are told that they will be treated as members of the family. Few are warned that open adoptions are frequently closed by the adopters in the weeks or years following finalization. I've encountered more than a handful of mothers who say they never would have surrendered had they known this could happen.
In addition to false promises, other coercive tactics are still alive and well. Some professionals – doctors, nurses, social workers, and even school counselors – advocate adoption even to clients who have expressed no interest in giving up their babies. Young women are still told that if they love their babies, they will give them away. Prospective adopters advertise for babies in magazines and online, and expectant mothers are encouraged to “make an adoption plan” and meet the would-be adopters before the baby is born. In some cases, the adopters even join them in the delivery room. None of this is done in Australia, where it's wisely acknowledged as putting undue pressure on the mother to go through with an adoption she may no longer want.
If Americans admit that adoptions were conducted unethically or illegally in the 1950s-1970s, they may just have to admit that the industry is still as rife with corruption as it ever was. The numbers may be lower now, but if anti-choice, anti-contraception politicians have their way, they will be on the rise again soon. An apology for past practices is warranted, but what we need even more than that are safeguards for the future.