I try not to read Ross Douthat (pronounced, in my head, “Doubt-that”), or to post about topics other front pagers have already covered. But Douthat’s current attempt to justify the commodification of human infants is, to use one of the Glibertarians’ worst insults, ahistorical:
In every era [my emphasis], there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.
Some of this shift reflects the growing acceptance of single parenting. But some of it reflects the impact of Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.
In the world outside Douthat’s head, the transfer of newborns from poor white single mothers to “deserving” middle-class couples, via a legislated system to enforce the
lie platonic ideal of “a fresh start for all parties” through the falsification of birth records, is a historically recent invention:
Closed adoptions began in the late 19th century and remained popular until the early 1980s. They protected biological mothers and adoptive parents from the social stigma that surrounded adoption at the time. Biological mothers who pursued adoption were often viewed as social outcasts by society. Many adoptive parents were also seen as outcasts due to their inability to bear their own children. This led to the popularity of closed adoptions, which protected the identities of both biological and adoptive parents. By the 1980s, as the social stigmas had decreased and benefits of openness became better understood, openness in adoption became much more common.
Although open adoptions are thought to be a relatively new phenomenon, in fact most adoptions in the United States were open until the twentieth century. Until the 1930s, most adoptive parents and biological parents had contact at least during the adoption process. In many cases, adoption was seen as a social support: young children were adopted out not only to help their parents (by reducing the number of children they had to support) but also to help another family by providing an apprentice.
Adoptions became closed when social pressures mandated that families preserve the myth that they were formed biologically.
The modern American “sealed record” adoption was conceived as a “turn-of-the-century social welfare movement [that] helped shape the professionalization of social work, and changed social attitudes about motherhood and the role of women in society” under “a special act of Congress in 1898, signed by President McKinley”. It came to full legal fruition during the Coolidge Administration; the Depression provided a vast supply of desperate “single mothers” incapable of supporting their offspring (or legally declared to be incapable of such support). By the post-war period, such “fresh start” adoptions had become a key component of the new, improved American Dream — a suburban house with a white picket fence, a car in the garage, and one or more perfect, gurgling infants in the nursery. With the all-American “can do” attitude, if the offspring that would certify a couple as a real family didn’t arrive naturally, then a perfect family could still be engineered. At its most coercive — when, as Douthat understands it, the “tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility” was nothing but “a gap to be bridged” — this system of economic transfer would later be known as the Baby Scoop Era:
Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, illegitimacy began to be defined in terms of psychological deficits on the part of the mother. At the same time, a liberalization of sexual mores combined with restrictions on access to birth control led to an increase in premarital pregnancies. The dominant psychological and social work view was that the large majority of unmarried mothers were better off being separated by adoption from their newborn babies. According to Mandell (2007), “In most cases, adoption was presented to the mothers as the only option and little or no effort was made to help the mothers keep and raise the children.”
Obviously, there were (are) many, many thousands of “good” adoptions, families where adults desperate to nuture formed seamless bonds with children who thrived in circumstances far better than they could otherwise achieve. But even at its best, adoption is never a simple transfer between independent economic entities, a logically impeccable marketplace solution to the messy biological Fertility Gap. Of course, given the opinions expressed in his prior writings, Douthat would not consider the feelings of the birth mothers to have any weight in this equation (don’t play if you can’t pay, Chunky Reese Witherspoon!). But some of the members of Bastard Nation might choose to disagree with his hand-waving, as well.
If this were Redstate, I could order you all to send Ross Douthat copies of The Baby Thief via the BJ Amazon link. But I don’t get a cut of Cole’s Amazon kickbacks, and besides, we’re liberals here. I can still recommend Barbara Raymond’s book as an excellent guide to a part of America’s history that’s been too often flushed down the memory hole, for all the worst reasons.