Between 1945 and 1973, single mothers in the United States gave birth in an era of secrecy and shame that historians of adoption call the Baby Scoop Era (BSE).1 During this time, millions of unwed mothers gave birth to children who they often unwillingly relinquished for adoption. Although precise numbers are elusive, as many as four million single mothers relinquished their children to adoption agencies, state child welfare departments, or directly to adoptive parents through private adoptions.2
The nuclear family ideal of the post-war era reflected new gendered and racial ideas about social stability and cultural conformity. To help the nation return to normalcy after the war, single white women were expected to perform traditional gender roles to uphold family honor. Most importantly, they were expected to wait until marriage to have children.3
Medical practitioners helped define appropriate behavior for young women. Doctors and psychiatrists diagnosed out-of-wedlock birth as tangible evidence of social deviance and pathology. Psychiatrists pointed to “illegitimate” births as a sign of the mother’s psychological neurosis. Psychiatrists at Harvard University characterized unwed mothers as “psychiatric problems” and as “victims of … severe emotional and mental disturbance.”4 Social workers also drew on the medical language of the idea of pathology to promote adoption as the ideal scientific solution to the problem of unplanned pregnancy and child welfare.
Young single white women who strayed from these ideals threatened new social norms of family respectability. As a result, they were ostracized and shamed for their transgressions. Some families threw their pregnant daughters onto the streets out of fear that friends might find out. Others quickly shipped them to maternity homes and told the neighbors that their daughters were “visiting a sick aunt” for several months.
Social workers, doctors, families, and clergy pressured, bullied, and coerced unwed mothers to relinquish their children for adoption as quickly as possible, often despite their pleas to keep their babies. The wishes and rights of fathers of relinquished children rarely mattered.5
As a result, secrecy became a cornerstone of modern adoption practice. Surrendering a child erased all evidence of an unwed mother’s sin and sexuality, but required secrecy to facilitate the charade of unsullied female purity and family honor. Maternity homes in distant cities and states allowed mothers to wait out their pregnancies and give birth far from the prying eyes of friends, families, and nosy neighbors.
After relinquishing their children, adoption professionals instructed mothers to return home and behave as if their children never existed or had died. Adoption agencies often promised mothers that no one would ever find about their greatest shame. Many mothers never revealed the existence of their surrendered children to anyone, never speaking of them again.
Responding to social mores and cultural concerns about the stigma of illegitimacy, states first began sealing adoption records in 1917, the majority after 1945. All states, with the exception of Kansas and Alaska, eventually followed suit. After adoption, the adopted child was issued an amended birth certificate with a new name, and the names of the adoptive parents listed as the child’s parents as if they had given birth to the child. The child’s original birth certificate was legally sealed from everyone, including the adopted child, even after reaching legal adulthood.
Sealing records facilitated the creation of a new legal family of genetic strangers that resembled a “natural” family. Closed adoption records gave adoptive parents the power to choose whether to even tell adopted children the truth about their origins and entry into the family. Adoption professionals and courts believed that sealed records would “normalize” adoptees, giving them no choice but to embrace the adoptive family as their own.
Adoptees were expected to make a clean break with their supposedly pathological birth mothers and shameful origins. Sealing birth records of adoptees left them with no legal option to recover information about their original families and made the idea of searching for them unthinkable and nearly impossible.6
Closed records and secrecy in adoption remained the norm until the 1990s. Today, secrecy in adoption seems outdated. Cultural and social norms have shifted, making single motherhood a more acceptable choice. Many people have families that seem far from the nuclear family ideal of the BSE, including families with same-sex parents, half-siblings, and family members of different races. Ninety percent of adoptions are “open,” meaning that birth and adoptive families know each other.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the era of shame lives on through records that are still legally sealed today. Only seven states allow adopted adults legal access to their adoption records. In over forty states, adopted adults are still legally prohibited from accessing or even seeing their original birth certificates.
Although birth mothers and adoptees have long pressured legislators to change state laws to open adoption records, these efforts have been painstakingly slow. Many lawmakers and adoption professionals reflexively argue that opening adoption records may cause irreparable psychological harm to the mothers who never told anyone about their relinquished children.7
These arguments portray women of the BSE as fragile, vulnerable, and in need of laws to protect them from their lost children. Arguments for keeping adoption records sealed also imply that adopted people cannot be trusted with information about their origins, as they may stalk or harm their birth parents. Adopted people, meanwhile, argue that factual knowledge of one’s origins constitutes a fundamental human and civil right.8
States have often tried to skirt around the issue of sealed records by cobbling together clunky compromises that claim to “balance” the rights of mothers and adoptees. Many closed records states provide mutual consent registries, although many people remain unaware of them, which hinders their effectiveness. Other states attempt to bridge this issue through expensive confidential intermediary (CI) programs. CI programs charge adoptees (or searching birth mothers) a fee to open their sealed records and perform a search on their behalf.
If found, intermediaries make initial contact with the person being sought and ask if the person would welcome contact from either their birth parent or relinquished child. All communication then must take place through the intermediary. In some states, non-refundable fees for a single search can cost upwards of $800.9 Confidential intermediaries are prohibited from disclosing any information about birth records to either adoptees or birth mothers.
Legal scholar Elizabeth Samuels examined seventy-five surrender documents from twenty-six different states. Her analysis shows that in most cases, surrender documents did not make promises of lifelong anonymity to birth mothers. In fact, she found the opposite: that birth mothers were often made to promise that they would never interfere with the adoptive family or search for the adopted child. She argues that the paternal language of “protection” for the identities of birth mothers reinscribes the earlier culture of shame.10
Although sealed records have protected mothers’ identities, they intended to protect the integrity of the new adoptive family. Closing adoption records assured adoptive parents that remorseful birth mothers could not find their children or interfere with the newly created legal family. States seal records upon adoption, rather than relinquishment.
In other words, until adoption by a new set of parents, adoptees have full legal access to their original birth certificates and identifying information about their families of origin. Only after adoption do adoptees lose their legal claim to the identities of their birth parents.
Finally, outdated, sealed records laws reinforce the unequal relationship between women and the state, mirroring gendered inequalities. They position the state as the paternal arbiter of truth, supposedly protecting women of the BSE from the mistakes of their shameful pasts. Closed record laws insert the power of the state into personal relationships between mothers and children, effectively making their identities state secrets.
Closed record policies also treat adopted people like perpetual children, too irresponsible to understand the truth of their pasts and identities. Allowing women, rather than the state, to make decisions about their pasts threatens state control over women’s lives, giving them the power to make decisions about how to reconcile the painful injustices of the past. Sealed records policies also disregard the wishes of the majority of mothers of the BSE who want to know what happened to their lost children.
Where there is secrecy, there is shame.
Amy Wang, “New Oregon Law Makes Adoption Records Easier to Access than Ever” The Oregonian, December 12, 2015.
- Historians of adoption generally periodize the Baby Scoop Era as 1945-1973. The term refers to the spike in pregnancies of unwed mothers and soaring rates of newborn adoption, which lasted until legal abortion became available in 1973. Adoption statistics are not exact, but those collected by the U.S. Children’s Bureau estimate 50,000 domestic, non-kinship adoptions in 1944 to a high of 175,000 in 1970. See Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First mothers have also written about their experiences during this time. See the Baby Scoop Research Initiative. Return to text.
- Ellen Herman, “Adoption Statistics,” The Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 23 , 2017. The practices I describe here are not unique to the United States. Irish adoption practices of the time were depicted in the 2013 film Philomena. Australia also practiced forced adoptions from the 1950s to the 1980s, for which the former Prime Minister offered a national apology in 2013. American Indian tribes in the U.S. and First Nations peoples in Canada also have been targets of forced adoptions, often couched in language of cultural assimilation. Return to text.
- Rickie Solinger and Elaine Tyler May, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1-19. Solinger argues that adoption policies directed at white unwed mothers reinforced racial differences, as unwed black mothers often kept, rather than relinquished their children. Return to text.
- Ibid, 87. Return to text.
- Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade (New York: Penguin Press, 2007). Return to text.
- Ellen Herman, “‘Proposal for Analysis of the Sealed Adoption Record Issue,’ 1973,” Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 24, 2017. Return to text.
- “National Council for Adoption, “’Protecting the Option of Privacy in Adoption,’” The Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 23, 2017. Return to text.
- Ellen Herman “Bastard Nation, ‘Open Records: Why It’s an Issue,’ 1999,” Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, accessed August 24, 2017. Return to text.
- In 2013 in the state of Colorado, the cost for a confidential intermediary to conduct a single search on behalf on an adoptee was $875 with no refunds or guarantees of success. Additional searches were $200 each. Author’s personal experience. Return to text.
- Elizabeth J. Samuels, “Surrender and Subordination: Birth Mothers and Adoption Law Reform,” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law 20, no. 1 (2013). Return to text.