Before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, >LINK Time magazine carried an article – What History Teaches Us About Women Forced to Carry Unwanted Pregnancies to Term by Kelly O’Connor McNees on Sept 30 2021. She is the author of The Myth of Surrender about two young women in a maternity home back in 1961.
Her article was motivated by Texas’ severe abortion law back in 2021. Reproductive rights advocates are justifiably concerned about a potential increase in unsafe abortions and adoption activists are right to be concerned about more adoptions taking place that will leave more people dealing with the trauma of separation from their original mother.
The image of coat hangers may seem obsolete in an era where medication abortions can be safely self-managed at home, but we also know that there will be some women who lack access to health care. They will resort to desperate measures to avoid the physical, psychological, emotional, social and economic trauma of being forced to complete their pregnancy and give birth against their wishes.
We have been here before. In the decades from 1945 to 1973, now known as the “Baby Scoop” era, more than 1.5 million pregnant girls and women in the US were sent away to maternity homes to surrender children in secret. In realizing that my adoptee mom conceived me out of wedlock in 1953, it has become to my own heart a minor miracle that she did not get sent away to have and give me up for adoption. I will always believe I have my dad’s adoptive parents to be grateful to for encouraging him to do the right thing when he had only just started at a university in another nearby town. This is why I was born in Las Cruces NM but I am happy to claim I am a native of that state.
It was believed back then that both the child and the birth mother would be better off. It would be a win-win scenario: the baby would be saved from the stigma and shame of illegitimacy, and the birth mother could put the unpleasant chapter behind her and make a fresh start. Meanwhile, the young men who shared equal responsibility for the pregnancies typically carried on with their lives unfettered by social stigma.
Birth mothers sent to these homes received little to no counseling on what to expect from labor and delivery, and were not advised of their legal rights once the child was born. They endured psychological abuse from nuns and nurses, and gave birth alone in sometimes terrible conditions. This is the scenario I imagined my paternal grandmother endured at a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers when she gave birth to my dad. Many women still foggy from the effects of anesthesia following a birth under “twilight” sleep were coerced into signing papers terminating their parental rights. That was a tactic employed by Georgia Tann during her baby stealing days up until her death in September of 1950. Those who wanted to keep their babies were threatened with financial penalties, since many homes only covered the cost of prenatal care and room and board if the child was surrendered. Some women who refused to give up their babies were committed to mental institutions.
The promise that birth mothers would surrender their babies and “move on” turned out to be a lie. They did not go back to normal; they did not forget. Many were haunted for the rest of their lives by the uncertainty of their child’s fate and were prevented by strict adoption statutes from acquiring any information that might ease their minds. My maternal grandmother, exploited by Georgia Tann, reverted from her married name of Elizabeth to Lizzie Lou, the name on my mom’s original birth certificate, and even has that name put on her grave stone, when she died many years later. She never had another baby after my mom.
Unplanned pregnancies create a complex constellation of decisions that resist a tidy narrative. Sometimes they are the result of love, sometimes casual sex and sometimes rape. That was true in 1945, in 1965, and it’s true today. Given a different set of circumstances—access to legal abortion and open, non-coercive adoptions—the women caught up in the Baby Scoop era might have chosen to terminate their pregnancies, carry their pregnancies to term and make a plan for adoption, or keep and raise their children, and they would have made these decisions for all kinds of individual and personal reasons. In that more humane version of midcentury America, the decisions would have been theirs alone.
Women with unwanted pregnancies are no longer physically warehoused, but many of them are still trapped by what happens when they lose the freedom to choose whether or not to give birth. The overturning of Roe v Wade, and the rush in almost half these United States to totally ban any access to abortion regardless of the circumstances that caused the pregnancy, now guarantee that more women will face the same formidable future that women were facing back in the Baby Scoop Era.