From approximately 1940 to 1970, it is estimated up to 4 million mothers in the United States surrendered infants to adoption. Most of these women relinquished their babies under societal pressure while being told to forget what happened to them.
This shameful period in our history was shrouded in secrecy. With the overturn of Roe in 2022, adoption was offered as a fix to the reduction of reproductive rights. As this happened, women from what is known as the Baby Scoop Era began reliving the horror they experienced in the institutions that existed before Roe.
In maternity and Florence Crittenton homes, single unwed mothers were shunned from society to deliver their babies in solitude. While there, they heard the daily mantra that their baby would have a better life without them. By relinquishing, they would go on to marry and have a family of their own.
Their coerced secrecy ensured that forced adoption remained hidden. However, a few determined and brave women have done the work to expose this disgraceful part of our history. In turn, they have given voice to the voiceless.
Ann Fessler’s book, The Girls Who Went Away is required reading on this topic. As an adoptee, adoption was central to Ann’s life. However, her understanding of the experience changed in 1989 when she had a seemingly casual greeting that changed her life. A woman approached her, believing she could be her long-lost daughter. While they eventually determined she wasn’t her mother, during this conversation, Ann learned that many women from the previous generation surrendered their children under societal pressure. She was one of those infants.
In the 60s, when Ann’s mother was pregnant, being a single mother was taboo and unacceptable. An unexpected pregnancy was seen as a threat to the family’s reputation. Ann says in our AYM conversation, “I knew what happened if you became pregnant—you got out of town as fast as possible because you would be absolutely ruined. If anyone knew, your reputation would be ruined. You were told, ‘No man’s ever going to want you.’”
Ann leveraged her curiosity and artistic talent to expose the hidden history of adoption in her film, A Girl Like Her, which led to the publication of her book. Finally, someone gave these women— who had endured tremendous pain while carrying their secret— a place to share their stories.
Another essential book on this topic is The Baby Scoop Era by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh. In 1965, at 17, Karen became pregnant and was sent away by her family to deliver her baby in seclusion.
She was determined to understand how many girls like herself were forced to experience such trauma, embarking on decades of research to uncover the policies and people that supported the forced adoption movement.
One such finding notes the beliefs behind the practice, “Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, illegitimacy began to be defined in terms of psychological deficits on the part of the mother (Solinger, 2000, p. 88).”
Another resource highlights the pressure instilled on parents, “It is essential that the parent most involved, psychologically, in the daughter’s pregnancy also be dealt with in a manner identical with the one suggested in dealing with the girl. Time is of the essence; the maturation of the fetus proceeds at an inexorable pace. An ambivalent mother, interfering with her daughter’s ability to arrive at the decision to surrender her child, must be dealt with as though she (the girl’s mother) were a child herself (Out-Of-Wedlock Pregnancy In Adolescence, Marcel Heiman, M.D., p.70).”
In Karen’s desire to understand her experience, she was able to uncover and document the principles that permitted this to happen to her and millions of women.
The perfect storm of societal ideology, lack of reproductive options, and adoption institutions led to a horrific time in America. Not only did these mothers experience appalling trauma, but their pain is rippling through society today as DNA testing exposes secrets that can no longer be kept.