Return to the Baby Scoop Days?

Today HDNet is running an hour-long documentary about women who lost their babies, against their will, to the U.S. adoption machine of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s great to see some attention to this in sort of mainstreamish media (as mainstream as an obscure cable channel gets). In honor of that, I’m cross-posting a recent piece I did for BlogHer:

There’s nothing quite like an election year to bring the whackjobs out of the woodwork, is there?

2012 is no exception, and really how could it be, after the past 8 years of a GOP race to the bottom? They “won” by disenfranchising numerous legal voters in 2000 (and getting lucky with a Supreme Court that was seemingly too tired to wait for a recount). In 2004 they turned out the bigotry vote by putting “gay marriage” at the bottom of various state ballots. They tried something similar with “gay adoption” in 2008 to notably less success, but Sarah Palin’s right-wing extremism and anti-intellectualism and the rise of the Tea Party distanced them yet further from civil, moderate discourse.

Now there is almost nowhere (right) left to go. In 2012 we’ve managed to regress so far intellectually, that Nina Fedoroff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently claimed that the anti-intellectual political climate in the United States, particularly among republican presidential candidates and big corporate political funders, had her “scared to death.”

When you think about it, it’s only logical that a party this out of touch with reality would also consider women’s access to a fundamental health need, namely contraception, to be debatable.

Rick Santorum, who has claimed that birth control in general is “not okay” (like, ever, including within marriage) was one-upped in the extremist comment department by his own billionaire supporter Foster Friess who suggested that the “pill” women needed for birth control was an aspirin between their knees.

Rush Limbaugh liked that one and repeated it in his three-day personal attack on Sandra Fluke after she testified to the U.S. Senate democrats that lack of access to hormonal contraceptives had caused a friend to lose an ovary. Limbaugh went Friess one even further, of course, calling Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute and cajoling that she and her friends ought to put sex videos on the Internet for Limbaugh and his friends to watch.

Limbaugh’s radio advertisers have been pulling their support from the show lately and this may be his last stand. But if saying slut and prostitute out loud about women who use contraception becomes Limbaugh’s downfall, it won’t be for crossing a line — it will be for making the line Santorum and company have already crossed too obvious to ignore.

That line is wide and blurry, sliding from sex workers to victims of rape to young women exploring their bodies and desires to married women who just don’t want to have any more babies, to women for whom pregnancy could be life threatening to women who need hormonal treatment for conditions unrelated to contraception at all. All of these women, according to the right-wing side of the current debate, should be ashamed for needing birth control. All of these women need to be controlled but certainly cannot be trusted to control themselves.

A couple of amusing — though logical — subtexts of this line of thinking have been pointed out. Rachel Madow’s cogent read of Rush Limbaugh’s attack indicates, for example, that Limbaugh doesn’t really understand how “the pill” works. Jezebel recently drew the conclusion that republican men were trying to make vaginal sex so dangerous that women would be more willing to have anal sex.

But the subtext of this “debate” that jumps out for me is adoption. After all, people have been having sex — shame or no shame, birth control or no birth control, ever since God said, (in renaissance English) “be fruitful, and multiply.” They’ll go on having sex, whether women can enjoy it safely or not, and when they do, sometimes, unplanned babies will be born. (In the Brave New Birth-Control-Free World, there will be of course, no abortion. Witness the latest prong of the anti-choice attack that suggests women — compared in the argument to farm animals, such as pigs and cows — should even be forced to carry dead fetuses “to term.”)

And in a world where single parenting (read “single mothering”) is being pathologized by law as leading to child abuse, those unplanned babies will have to go somewhere.

In the 1950s and 1960 and in the early 1970s, when women had little access to reliable birth control, little education about where babies come from (besides being admonished to keep an aspirin between their knees, presumably), the routine for white, middle-class unmarried girls and women who had babies was shame, silence, and the all but forced separation of mother and child by adoption laws that erased the mother’s existence and rewrote a child’s history “as if” born to adoptive parents.

These, seemingly, were the good old days to the likes of Santorum and his billionaire backer Friess. But they were not the good old days for those of us in the progressive adoption reform movement. We call them the “Baby Scoop Era,” when babies were unceremoniously taken from their mothers and often lost to them forever after.

These days, though adoption placement coercion is still far too common, the notion that a woman is unfit to parent her child simply because her sexuality exists outside of legal marriage is most often dismissed. Being young, single, even poor, are not reasons in and of themselves to place a baby for adoption and more and more girls and women — Bristol Palin, for example — know this and have resisted adoption for their children.

But more and more married couples are having fertility trouble these days too, and the wait to adopt a healthy white infant is long — often many years long — and the international adoption market is in flux, frequently disrupted by child trafficking scandals or rumors of them and political upheaval.

I am not suggesting there is a smoke-filled room in which red-faced republican men are plotting a fresh supply of healthy, domestic-born, white babies for the adoption market. But there is a certain symmetry in the push for adoption and the beatification of adoptive families in right-wing circles and this desire to keep women’s fertility in men’s control. The people opining about aspirin between the knees would be more than happy to suggest that the babies of fallen women be adopted by the “right” people — middle-class married couples. They would be proud of such a solution, no doubt.

But those who survived the baby scoop era (for example, the women whose voices fill The Girls Who Went Away) know better than to believe the pretty picture of adoption as a perfect solution in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. Assured that they would forget their babies and move on with their lives — marry, have more children — many of the women who relinquished their children to adoption in the mid-twentieth century tell stories of lifelong anguish, shame, guilt, hiding, even hiding the truth, sometimes from spouses and other children. The children of those women — the ones adopted — tell stories of searching desperately for something as simple as the name their mother gave them at birth, before it was sealed by the court and they were given a new one by adoptive parents.

These are not times anyone should wish to return to. The open records movement is made up of adoptees, first parents, and adoptive parents who believe adoptees have a right to their original birth certificates — the basic information of how they came into the world that non-adopted people mostly take for granted.

But most importantly, the adoption reform movement wants to see fewer babies separated from the mothers who bore them in the first place. Hard as that might be for people waiting to adopt a baby, (and I have been one, so I understand how it feels), it is better for mothers, for children and for our society and its view of women overall, when we acknowledge that women — and girls — have a right to both their bodies and their babies, regardless of when, where, how, with whom and even simply if, they have sex.

I like to think that the worms are out of the can and there can never be a return to the Baby Scoop era. And perhaps there can’t — not exactly in that original form — but there can be something new that is just as bad in its own way. To prevent that we need to shout to the skies that not only do women have a right to have sex without having babies, but when they do, they have a right to raise their children — with or without the dubious benefit of the GOP’s blessing.

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