The Secret and The Shame

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 22:

"Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, THROUGH NATIONAL EFFORTS and INTERNATIONAL CO-OPERATION and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, SOCIAL, and CULTURAL rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality." (Agosin, xxviii).

A History of Adoption

Informal adoption stretches to the roots of Judaism, as Moses led an exodus from the lands of his adopted father. In ancient China, infertile couples formally adopted adult males to serve as heirs, carry the family name, and participate in religious ceremonies. According to English common law, inheritance passed through a system of primogenitor based on carefully guarded bloodlines. Abandoned children lived in almshouses, later becoming apprentices or indentured servants. (Pertman, 16)

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the American South revolutionized the process of adoption. The need for farm labor promulgated the practice of "informal transfer," placing dependent children with families in need of assistance. By the Industrial Revolution, the advent of a large immigrant population left a large body of children homeless. During this period, charitable organizations attempted to provide assistance to this displaced population. (Pertman, 16)

As these social forces gathered momentum, the government of Massachusetts answered with legislation outlining a strict procedure for the transfer of parental rights. The standard process "matched" children with parents that shared similar physical and personality traits. Agencies instructed the family to proceed as a biological unit. The system emphasized a secrecy that eventually led to the Minnesota Act of 1917, the first statute to seal adoption records. (Pertman, 30)

Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, courts regularly stamped birth certificates with the word "illegitimate." In turn, most states sealed adoption regards to protect children and their biological parents from this "disgrace" of unwed motherhood. By the 1940's, adoption experts stated that families formed the tightest cohesion without interference from biological parents. Nearly every state adopted legislation requiring a court order to obtain adoption records. In addition, courts regularly created new "original" birth certificates listing the adoptive parents--a practice that continues today. (Pertman, 31)

Adoption laws changed little for the following five decades. As a revolution spreads through the country, a number of organizations fight to keep the shroud of secrecy intact. The American Center for Law and Justice, led by Pat Robertson, remains an open proponent of sealed adoption. The National Council for Adoption (NCA) regularly lobbies Congress on the supposed behalf of biological mothers. Council members suggest that the current system insures secrecy for unwed mothers, a right supposedly guaranteed by state law. They claim further that any legal change increases the abortion rate in an area. They provide no scientific evidence for the theory and most studies suggest otherwise. (

American Mythology/ A General Issue as Gender Specific

At the turn of the century, American society developed the initial "satisfied exchange" theory of adoption. In this popular mythology, each participant gains from the process with a minimal loss. Biological mothers receive a sense of freedom, while providing a home for their children. Adoptive parents overcome obstacles of infertility or fulfill a social conscience, and children find a stable, caring environment. (Pertman, 16)

In practice, few women relinquish their children without a sense of loss or disconnection. During the initial stages of the process, adoptive parents often question their propensity for bonding with their children. Many adoptees struggle with issues of identity and familial grounding. Simultaneously, each member of the adoption cycle experiences the positive attributes and opportunities of the process. They, and a growing number of informed Americans, simply recognize the interplay emotions sparked by an exchange of parental rights. (Pertman, 19)

Today, most adoption experts view the participants as members of a triad: biological parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees. Many agencies work to balance the rights and needs of these vulnerable members.

During the middle of the twentieth century, more than eighty percent of unwed mothers relinquished their children to adoptive parents. The biological fathers rarely entered the process and attempted to claim responsibility even more infrequently. The women often sheltered with Christian organizations, where the staff members encouraged them to wear wedding rings to avoid social ostracism. Families often explained the absence with a visit to a relative or family friend in another state. (Pertman, 22)

During the same nine-month period, adoptive mothers wore pillows under their clothing and executed a similar family visit. Paths collided on delivery days, leaving both women spinning in opposite and sometimes unexpected directions. Society generally ignored the feelings of frustration and inadequacy tied to female infertility. Therefore, adoptive mothers frequently returned to a supportive male and attempted to proceed as a normal, biological parent. (Pertman, 32) In this manner, women bore the greatest burden of shame and social stigmatism from the inception of the process.

In addition, females comprise approximately eighty percent of the adoptees searching for their birth parents. (Pertman, 87) While males often cite a lack of interest, their counterparts become deeply involved in a search for family history and identity as they attempt to establish a home. In this manner, the issue represents the varying positions and desires of women within a broad culture context, the feminist movement, and the international human rights community.

The Matter Of Dignity

The baby boom generation inadvertently began the current adoption revolution. During the 1980's and 1990's, fertility clinics experienced an influx of patients. As women became increasingly career oriented, the desire for or ability to start a family developed proportionally later in life. Today, approximately ten percent of American women fail to produce viable eggs during their twenties, while the number jumps to ninety percent in their late thirties. In addition, almost ten percent of American couples cannot produce a viable fetus. (Pertman, 129)

For women, progress carried a cost. Society created the myth of the superwoman--tough businessperson by day and model wife by night. Those individuals failing in one area shouldered the weight of cultural guilt, especially on the issue of reproductive difficulties. Even in the contemporary era, many Americans view these women as selfish aberrations that deserve their fate. (Pertman, 130)

Fertility treatments fail to produce results in approximately seventy-five percent of the population, leaving many couples looking for an alternative source of parenthood. Many choose adoption and continually bring the procedure into mainstream society (Pertman, 131). Despite increasing education and recognition, adoptive mothers face shame and dehumanization on a daily basis. Many cultural messages suggest that the adoptive parental bond remains weak or "unreal." A number of films and television shows portray a child telling their mother or father, "You're not my real parent anyway."

During the adoption process, prospective parents continually open their homes, relationships, and sexuality for government inspection. They must reveal the nature of their fertility problems on page after page of applications. Home inspections monitor the number of arguments a couple experiences during a specified period. Once approved for adoption, couples spend thousands of dollars for legal fees, agencies, and pre-natal care. As the cost continues to stretch, judges accuse adoptive parents of buying children like a commodity. These women and men face additional pain and frustration, as birth mothers reverse their decision or courts declare the couples unfit.

For biological mothers, the shame and guilt cuts even deeper. In past decades, hospitals drugged and blindfolded women during delivery, removing the child directly after birth. Agencies informed the hospital staff to use only gender-neutral adjectives. Through this process, the women received absolutely no information about the child. Today, some Christian organizations lure pregnant teens into their care with the promise of non-judgmental refuge. As the mothers become increasingly dependent, staff members pressure the women into relinquishing their children (Pertman, 106). In several states, the law requires birth mothers to sign adoption papers within forty-eight hours, placing further emphasis on the completion of the process. During some private adoptions, the prospective parents invite the birth mother to live in their house. They provide shelter, clothing, and pre-natal care during the pregnancy. While the practice provides stability for the mother, it also creates a sense of expectation or obligation.

On the opposite side of the scale, many women receive counseling from the agency or organization that arranges the adoption. They maintain the right to choose the adoptive parents and receive a guarantee of some minimal contact. The counseling and other rights often stop after the delivery, however, leaving these women at their most vulnerable. Even with continuing support, birth mothers often experience feelings of amputation and emptiness.

Throughout the last four decades, the NCA advanced the prevalent stereotype of birth mothers--ignorant young teens ridding themselves of a problem. In reality, most birth mothers rest between their late teens and mid-twenties. They lack the financial or personal resources to provide a viable home for their child. This number includes rape victims, college students, and career professionals that view parenthood as a life-shattering event. Increasingly, older women turn to adoption when economically strained by previous children. These women generally possess a sound education and choose adoption as a responsible alternative to raising their children. (Pertman, 11)

While all members of the triad suffer discrimination, adoptees experience an intense daily scrutiny. Prior to the adoption revolution, a stereotypical dichotomy existed that parallels the view of Native Americans. If adoptees proved quiet and satisfied, the NCA portrayed them as innocents in need of protection. Once they initiated a search, they became stalkers bent on destroying the peaceful existence of their biological parents (Pertman, 12). >From early childhood, social and media messages reinforce the view of adoption as a form of punishment or alienation. A 1998 "Herman" cartoon featured a father threatening to give up his son for adoption as retribution for misbehavior (Pertman, 19).

In a standard closed adoption, children spend a lifetime wondering about their family history and ethnicity--especially if they stand in sharp contrast to their adoptive parents. In elementary classrooms, teachers force students to draw family trees, further emphasizing the alienation of adoptees. As a result, they occasionally form a sense of disconnection from their family and the broader society. (Pertman, 46)

In 1996, the police arrested and convicted John Gaul on charges of car theft and credit card fraud. A teenager adopted from Thailand at the age of four, Gaul returned to his "native" country after the INS issued a deportation command. Until recently, employers rarely provided automatic health insurance for children at the time of adoption. Instead, adoptees remained subject to a screen for pre-existing conditions. This presents a clear violation of human rights, as special needs infants receive less care under many insurance plans. Golf clubs that routinely provide free access for the children of members often deny similar benefits to adopted family members. Similarly, the hereditary board of a multinational chain recently prevented an adoptee from accepting the customary position (Pertman, 146). In the largest violation of human rights, an adoptive adult possesses no medical history information. They often spend years treating or preventing a disease common in their adoptive family, while remaining ignorant of a serious congenital disorder.

International, Transracial, and Gay Adoptions

In contemporary society, homosexual males play an important role in drawing attention to adoption rights and the gender barrier. As these couples attempt to raise children, they battle courtroom discrimination that deems them unfit for parenthood. Both the triumphs and the defeats raise awareness of changing attitudes toward the American family structure and masculine roles. In addition, these couples search for children outside the narrow boundaries of healthy, Caucasian infants--frequently opting to raise adolescents with special needs.

In a similar manner, international and transracial adoptions force society to confront and examine alternative manners of forming a family. The precedent began with Korean-American children abandoned by soldiers after the war. Infertile couples poured overseas to participate in the relatively inexpensive foreign adoption process. As Russia and the Eastern European Block fell, a second wave of international adoptions swept the country. Today, many couples adopt healthy female infants from China--raising international awareness for infanticide and offering possible preventative measures. Unlike the mid-twentieth century adoptions, these children rarely blend with the physical or mental attributes of their parents. Adoptees often stand as the only minority in their small, rural community. These alliances and shifts in the cultural landscape push beyond former boundaries, changing the perspective of a nation.

The Bastards

The term "open adoption" simply refers to any arrangement where the adoptee maintains contact with or possesses information from a biological parent. During the Seventies, Annette Baran co-authored "The Adoption Triangle," a seminal text on the effects of adoption in all segments of the triad. As a staff member for an adoption agency, she witnessed an influx of former biological parents and adoptees, as both parties came of age. Uniformly, individuals wanted information on the relatives they left behind, the missing pieces of their lives. Through the process of writing the text, Baran concurrently co-founded the American Adoption Congress (AAC). The Congress promotes open adoption legislation, lobbying against the well-funded efforts of the NCA.

When Bastard Nation began in 1997, the members only supported an "open record" policy--allowing adults to pursue birth records. Early that year, Shea Grimm, Marley Greiner and Damsel Plum created the website, the only central location for the collection and dissemination of information associated with Bastard Nation. Helen Hill, an adoptee in her forties, stumbled on the website while searching for her biological mother. Utilizing the assistance of author Betty Jean Lifton and an underground system of government moles, she eventually discovered her biological mother. The experience inspired Hill to support individuals in a similar position. In 1997, she attended the first Bastard Nation Conference. The keynote speaker encouraged Hill to initiate legislative reform in her home state of Oregon. Using the Internet, Hill collected thousands of signatures for Measure 58, a bill opening Oregon adoption records. (Sullivan, 2)

As the movement garnered attention, the NCA waged a brutal campaign to defeat the legislation. The organization inundated the media with stories of incest and rape victims. Hill continued with the proposition and eventually enlisted the assistance of Delores Teller, a model and biological mother. While living in Missouri, a closed system state, Teller became pregnant by her high school boyfriend. During the pregnancy, she lived with her mother in Oregon, eventually graduating and marrying. After reuniting with the child she lost, Teller appeared on several television shows in support of Measure 58. She and Hill conceived a series of ads featuring a dog; with a caption reading "Max has his papers. We want ours." In the days before the vote, Hill and Teller convinced six hundred birth mothers to record their feelings on the proposed measure. The Oregonian published the letters, and in 1998, the legislation passed by a sixteen percent margin. (Sullivan, 3)

The victory cleared the path for Tennessee, which opened adoption records the following year. On 6 October 2000, Bastard Nation recognized a second goal as the American government ratified the "Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000," a product of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children. These international standards call for a central adoption organization for each nation. The code also outlines the accreditation of adoption agencies and a set of privacy laws (Clinton, 1). Today, Bastard Nation fights the Uniform Adoption Act, which seals records for ninety-nine years and sentences a searching adoptee to fines or imprisonment. (

In the contemporary era, open adoption increasingly represents the standard operating procedure. Biological mothers choose adoptive parents and play a central role in the formation of personality and dignity in their children. As adoption rights continue to change and expand, gender roles and women's rights will continue to unfold and create new opportunities for American culture.


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