The Association for Research on Mothering
May 5, 2001
Good afternoon. This speech is a message from the mothers of the Canadian
Council of Birthmothers, mothers who have suffered the trauma of having
lost a child or children to adoption and who are learning to understand what
happened to us and our children. Much of what I say here is a collection of
thoughts shared by the members of the CCBM. We are mostly first mothers and
some adopted persons who acknowledge the life-long suffering caused by
adoption and seek the truth. What follows is a work in process on this
journey which is just beginning. I will also acknowledge with deepest love
and gratitude the contribution of my son Doug with whom I have been
reunited now for 26 months and 7 days. Together we have spent hundreds of hours
processing our loss and the circumstances of our reunion. The day we met in
person we sat down together in my kitchen, he enfolded my hands in his and
asked, "What happened?" What follows is in part an answer to this question.
In the 19th century, race science, the belief that there are distinct
races that can be identified, and classified scientifically by judgements of
intelligence, emotional and moral capabilities, included blacks, poor
people, criminals and white women. Scientists poured beans into the skulls of
deceased members of such groups and then compared the sums found in each type of
skull to numbers of beans captured in more respectable skulls, white men of
substance. In a remarkable travesty of science, they determined that women
had intelligence which was less evolved than that of men and in particular,
poor women. Poor women, because of "poor moral fibre" and lesser intelligence,
produced children out of wedlock and hence became a "problem". Thus,
because of prevailing social prejudice and bad science, we were reduced by
circumstances to a class of social inferiors, fallen women. The theory of
"bad blood", associated with race science, assumed the heritability of moral
inferiority. It was assumed that "illegitimate" children would inevitably
inherit inferior characteristics and swell the ranks of the poor and criminal. The
powerful of the time determined that not only did the mothers have no right
to keep their children, but that the children would be better off without
Later, the theory of the "tabula rasa", assumed that a baby was a blank
slate containing no predetermined behavioural constructions. This was an
ideal platform on which to justify adoption practices and the removal of
children from their natural parents. The child could be molded by an
adoptive family with no fear of interference from the "inferior"
characteristics of the first mother. Eventually science wove its way into the laws of Canada on March 29, 1927 after the urging of adoptive parents who lobbied the government of Ontario
because they were distressed by the existence of their adopted children's
original identities on their birth certificates. The Adoption Act in
Ontario was amended and a clause added which sealed the adoption. Neither the
Toronto Star nor the Globe & Mail published any articles about this
historic moment for adoptees and their natural parents.
The maternal instinct is strong. How do you pry a baby away from her
mother? As you shall see, the secrecy provided for in the laws of early
twentieth century provided an ideal environment in which to make this
Separating mothers from their children, en masse, could only happen
climate of coercion. The creation of an entire subclass of people, fallen
women, made coercion possible. The fallen woman became situated in her
place of no power during the twentieth century. First, the prevailing social
opinion held that natural mothers of "illegitimate" children were inferior,
as I have said, and therefore incapable of raising their children. This, in
combination with shame paralyzed the mother. The application of shame,
coupled with poverty and the unacknowledged trauma of the mother, enabled
the circumstances leading up to the surrendering of her child. The laws of
Canada, one by one across the country, dignified this process by claiming
to act "in the best interests of the child" and for the good of the mother,
since secret adoption records also saved her from the shame. This was all
done across this land without consulting natural mothers or their
"illegitimate" offspring as to their opinions and the consequences of
adoption, secret or otherwise. It was done to them, for them, but not by
The face of shame and coercion changed over the years and often involved
force which rarely went detected. The language of adoption has always
marginalized us with legal adjectives to keep us separate, different than
and less than full mothers of our children. The "fallen woman" became the
"unwed mother" who became the "birthmother". We became legal non-entities
upon signing the government forms called "consent to adoption". We were no
longer parents. Institutional and governmental practices leading up to and
subsequent to our signing the papers ensured our acquiescence. For the most
part, it worked.
The adoption industry was created to support the systematic transfer of
babies from their original parents to their new homes with adoptive
parents. The industry engaged the social work profession, lawyers, doctors,
government workers, churches, the police etc., all of whom formed a
powerful web to secure their own interests which involved the transfer of large sums
of money to fill the pockets of these workers. How large this was and is in
Canada, I don't know. But I can give you an idea extrapolated from the
Found currently on the adoption site adoption.about.com:
Adoption Services Valued At $1.4 Billion
An industry analysis of Fertility Clinics and Adoption Services by Marketdata Enterprises
of Tampa, FL, has placed a $1.4 billion value on adoption services in the US, with a
projected annual growth rate of 11.5% to 2004. According to a report from
PR Newswire, this is the only analysis of this business sector ever undertaken.
Marketdata's analysis places adoption costs between
$30,000, and describes adoption as "complex, and stories of unscrupulous
operators abound in this loosely regulated field." If you could extrapolate this $1.4 billion dollars on a per capita basis to
Canada, you would project a sum of $156M involving the adoption industry in Canada.
This I admit is a crude projection and will no doubt vary because of Canadian
circumstances. But even if it's off by 25% or more, one can see the scope of investment in adoption
In her speech to The First National American Adoption Congress, Washington
D.C. on May 4, 1979, Margaret McDonald Lawrence encapsulated the need of
the adoption industry to manufacture the demonization of the natural mother as
the most pivotal and necessary requirement in the promotion of, and social
acceptance of adoption, when she stated:
"In order to bring the issues surrounding the intermediary system into
clear focus, it is necessary to examine the myths and motives that surround
the adoption experience. Outsiders need to realize that social agencies not
only control adoption procedures, but also control the information about
the institution which is provided to the courts, the legislature and the
public. It is the child welfare establishment that has provided the picture of
birth mothers as indifferent - as mothers who abandon their unwanted children
with a wish to remain forever hidden from them. They know that this is seldom
true, but it helps to facilitate their work for the public to believe this.
Society does not dismiss the importance of the natural family as readily as
the social planners, and so it is useful to portray relinquishing parents
as different from caring parents.
The birth mother must be different, an aberration; for if it were true
she had the same degree of love for her child as all other mothers, the
good of adoption would be overwhelmed by the tragedy of it."
The following is from Fallen Women Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers
and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890 - 1945 by Regina G.
Kunzel (1993). It is the basis of how we were seen and how we were treated
in the 1960's and early 70's: "...social workers placed unmarried mothers at the vortex of a
constellation of larger social problems that revolved around the state of morality and
family life. By various interpretations, the unmarried mother functioned as
cause and effect of those problems; that she was embroiled in this
maelstrom, however, was uncontested. To Judge Benjamin Lindsey, for
instance, unmarried mothers, 'are in society a part of its problem and its
filth. They are responsible for many of the divorce cases, for its broken
homes, desertions, sorrow, misery, blighted faith, despair, and the great
mass of social ills which infect society.' In Lindsey's view, shared by
many of his contemporaries, unmarried mothers were not victims but rather agents
of larger social problems. Taking up the issue of out-of-wedlock pregnancy,
social workers began to see unmarried mothers not as endangered but as
"The task of inventing their own modern, professional identities led social
workers to contribute to new sexual discourses that stigmatized
working-class women's sexuality as pathological and criminal." (p.64).
In the 1940's to the 1960's we are labeled neurotics. Anne Petrie in
an Aunt's", 1998, reports that at a conference of psychologists in 1964
named bizarrely the Out of Wedlock conference, we were described as having a
deficient ego or an unresolved electra complex as well as being
"psychically weak.". Social workers argued that sex delinquents were unfit to be
mothers, and neurotic unmarried mothers were considered no more competent
to care for their children. In the 1940's, social workers took a more active
role in encouraging unmarried mothers to put their children up for
adoption". (Regina Kunzel, 1993 P.155) "In my experience," wrote LeontineYoung, a prominent psychologist who wrote
Out of Wedlock in 1954, asserted, "the majority of unmarried mothers are
not strong, mature, well adjusted people, and the reality is that only such
a person can assume and carry out responsibility for an out-of-wedlock
child without serious damage to both herself and the child."
The Medical Profession - doctors and nurses In her book about the moral regulation
of single mothers 1920 -1997, No
Car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit, Margaret Jane Hillyard Little, 1998. In the late
50's: "The debate inside Queen's Park was only part of a larger controversy that
continued concerning morality and premarital sex. Unwed mothers became the
scapegoats for much of this societal turmoil about moral standards. Dr.
Marion Hilliard, Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Women's College
Hospital in Toronto believed that an unwed mother should be punished by
having her child adopted: 'When she renounces her child for its own good,
the unwed mother has learned a lot. She has learned to pay the price of her
misdemeanor and this alone, if punishment is needed, is punishment enough.'
Other social workers and officials representing homes for unwed mothers
echoed Dr. Hilliard's philosophy" (1998, p.135).
It never seems to have occurred to any of these professionals that we were
normal people who were caught in a web of social taboos with no way out.
Our problems were political; we just needed support, not analysis.
Families There is an old Scottish saying, "Take care of your own." How could this
basic strategy to survive have been forgotten by families? How can shame be
this powerful? Families more often than not colluded with the institutions.
They accepted the social construction of the great shame and expelled their
daughters, sending them to maternity homes, which themselves played out the
secrecy in rigorous and punitive ways, or they sent their daughters to live
with other strangers or relatives. Daughters were separated from all of
their support systems - friends, relatives and fathers of their babies even
if they wanted to be supportive. The church and state were supreme. In
these ways families reinforced our own sense of unworthiness as mothers to our
own flesh and blood.
Losing a child to adoption is a trauma unlike any other. It is a sentence
of endless unresolvable loss and grief for most. The consequences of this loss
play themselves out it ways too vast to adequately explain here. For the
mother, she may become infertile herself. Some 30-50% do. She may find
herself practising destructive behaviours which ensure that she never has
to trust anyone again, or she may become ill and/or suicidal. If she has
more children in a "legitimate" family, they too may suffer from her
unresolved sorrow. Here are some examples of the experiences of our own
members: one mother in Montreal in 1959 was forced to sign "the paper" on
Christmas eve less than two and a half hours after giving birth so that the
staff could go home early. Later, when she got her non-identification
papers, they stated that the form was signed three weeks later than it
actually was. Where was legal counsel to advise her of her rights? In 1978
Cathy Henderson was thrown out of her home onto the front lawn on the
advice of the family priest. She was 17 and seven months pregnant. She wanted to
marry her baby's father but was prevented. She wandered around the city
until she found a maternity home. Cathy has the scars to prove that she was
abused by a hospital nurse yielding a razor blade when she gave birth, and
when she finds her son she expects to see scars on the crown of his head.
She never signed "the papers" but had her baby removed from her by court
order. Another mother was raped on her eighteenth birthday. The rapist was
never punished but she was also ostracized by her family. Many of us were
injected against our will with the lactation-suppressing drug DES which
caused cancer or we were subdued in hospital with other drugs. We were
often treated badly by hospital staff who refused to let us see or hold our
babies even prior to our signing the papers when we were still the legal guardians
of our babies. In the Toronto General Hospital in 1963 I was refused access
to my son yet had to endure the indignity of reading a note attached to his
basinette which read: "Mother does not want to see baby". The coercion of
the mother, shamed and blamed, made her feel inadequate to parent her
She wanted a good home for her baby. This meant having a father, which
couldn't provide. But without the support of family, friends and the child
welfare institutions, where was the choice?
Now what about "the best interests of the child"?
Sandra Jarvie, a CCBM member wrote in a private e-mail:
"'Best interests of the child' is really a brainwashing technique that has survived
through the decades ... It forms the picture of the 'child at risk' with his/her natural mother
therefore demeaning and devaluing the mother not only to society but also to us...
Today it's used like a weapon. Imagine in an open adoption the young woman will never
be 'good enough'. If she is poor and the adoptive family is wealthy she will be continuously
reminded of her lesser value, because in the 'best interests of the child' parents with money
are better. So 'the best interests of the child' ... supports adoption 'choice' into the future.
In the past it was our morals and poverty, today it's poverty...
It was for me in 1968, times haven't changed."
The feminist establishment ignores us. Why is there virtually nothing
us in feminist literature? Could it be that they too are conflicted about us? Have the
imperatives of "pro choice" eclipsed our true history? Today young unsupported pregnant women are lured into plans to surrender
their children, sometimes in so-called "open adoptions" where the mothers have no legal
rights to see their children. The grief and loss is the same for such mothers.
Sanctioned by our governments, the internet abounds with pictures
advertising children for adoption without any regard for their future. Some of them will come to
feel as commodified as cattle or slaves in the past.
We do not accept the definitions which ripped our children from our breasts
and damaged ourselves and our children under the hypocritical guise of
"the best interests of the child". We claim our place as mothers of our children
who were taken from us by deceitful acts of coercion.
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