© 2016 Rudy Owens. All rights reserved.
When my birth mother relinquished me for adoption in Detroit in 1965, society took little notice. Tens of thousands of other children that year in the United States joined the club of newly born adoptees. Nearly all of us shared a common story as illegitimate and out-of-wedlock infants. Society, families, churches, and social and medical services that were created to address unwanted pregnancies had determined that having this select group of newborns leave their mothers for new families was best for all of us. My beginning is also the complicated story of my birth mother’s experience giving birth and relinquishing her child. Though a profoundly personal event, her life-changing decisions followed a pattern taking place in every state across the country and Canada, largely hidden from public view and public debate.
Social historians E. Wayne Carp and Barbara Melosh and adoption legal scholar Elizabeth Samuels have all documented these major shifts impacting millions of women and their out-of-wedlock children in the decades following World War 2. During that time, the practice of adoption underwent a massive transformation. Melosh calls it social engineering, which implies organized efforts to make large-scale changes to society involving groups with influence and political power.
In the pre-Roe v. Wade years before 1973, white women comprised the majority of pregnant women who were forced into hiding during their entire pregnancy. They also were burdened by societal stigma that labeled them as having mental health issues for their supposed sexual indiscretions. The impact of these stereotypes is hard to measure, but we know the impact was widespread given the sheer number of adoptions and out-of-wedlock births.
The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), an influential non-profit organization that played a key role in shaping U.S. adoption law and policy, published its Standards for Adoption Service in 1958. It is a slim book at 78 pages that details prescriptions for agencies, adoptive parents, vital records keepers, birth mothers, adoption agencies, medical specialists, and all of the participants in adoptions. The medical, social, and legal ground rules it framed would impact the lives of my mother, my adoptive sister, me, and hundreds of thousands of other birth parents and adoptees.
The book’s goal was to inform public opinion, influence judges and lawyers, and guide adoption agency practices nationally. Instead of highlighting the harm of removing biological children from their blood kin—as social welfare professionals had done for decades before—it offered a manual that recommended having illegitimate kids put up for adoption as a beneficial act for their well-being.
The league’s manual notes, “Many young women who become pregnant out of wedlock have serious personality disturbances, need help with their emotional problems, and in most social groups encounter serious social disadvantages if they keep their children with them.” The guidebook encouraged adoption agencies to accept the surrender of children born out of marriage when birth parents were emotionally ready, not when suitable adoptive parents were available. The manual was skeptical that societal views that harshly judged single white mothers would allow them to have a successful life with their child because of “illegitimacy.” The stain of that label, in the agency’s view, would cause lasting harm: “Although there has been considerable modification in society’s harsh attitude toward her it still remains extremely difficult for the unmarried mother to raise her child successfully in our culture without damage to the child and to herself.”
I cannot say if this manual and other publications of the era influenced work practices of the social workers assigned to my birth mother and adoptive parents. Neither side of my family divulged these pre-birth tales to me, but it is very likely this climate of secrecy and stigmatization around unplanned pregnancies prevailed in Detroit, as it did in other major American cities.
In the Motor City and other metropolitan areas, well-established institutions managed the transfer of infants like myself to families with whom I had no genetic relations—in other words, strangers. I doubt my birth mother or adoptive family knew they were part a nationwide approach to address unprecedented numbers of unplanned infants and a desire by tens of thousands families to raise these children. Half of those adopted would end up with families with whom they had no biological connection. The other would with families who shared some biological relation to adoptees.
Return to Chapter 1: Meeting my Half-Sister
Read More: Chapter 3: A Place for Unwed Mothers