The ‘Good Old Days’ Weren’t So Good for Reproductive Justice

by Jill Morrison, Senior Counsel, 
National women’s Law Center 

Cross-posted from NWLC’s blog.

The Washington Times did a feature piece called “The Last Days of Adoption,” written by Cheryl Wetzstein. It focused on the decline of a specific form of adoption—that of unrelated families adopting newborns birthed by unmarried women. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that the “good old days” weren’t so good for reproductive justice. Just a refresher, the reproductive justice movement advocates for (1) the right to have a child; (2) the right not to have a child; and (3) the right to parent the children we have. For more information on RJ, click here.

As briefly alluded to by Ms Wetzstein, before 1973 (the year abortion was decriminalized in the U.S.) unmarried middle and upper class white women who got pregnant were shamed into hiding. They were sent away by their parents to give birth, and then give their babies up for adoption. As told in the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler, some of these adoptions were anything but voluntary.  Some of the single women who wanted to raise their children were denied that choice by their own parents, who placed “saving face” above all else. 

This book also provides some historical context for another phenomenon emphasized in the Washington Times article: the number of Black children adopted into unrelated families is miniscule.  In her book, Fessler explores how common ideas about race, class, gender and sexuality resulted in the much higher numbers of the adoption of white babies by unrelated families. While Wetzstein correctly notes that Black families are more likely to have relatives assume the care of a child in need, this “tradition” as she calls it, is actually a lasting legacy of our enslavement. Children were routinely sold away, never to be seen again, so our culture places (in my opinion) an extraordinary value on extended family. I have seen “informal adoption” within my own family, and I happen to think this is a good thing. 

This history provides just one example of the deeply personal, complex factors that go into each woman’s reproductive decision making. While it is naïve to think that single parents have it any easier today than in 1972, reproductive justice demands that they have the freedom (and accurate, nonbiased information) to make this choice.

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  • marysia

    I used to work in maternity services and adoption. I am white but part of an interracial family, and have spent most of my life in a majority-Black community. I really do agree that the kind of informal, in-family adoption which is accepted and practiced among African Americans is not always but often better for everyone involved than adoption between unrelated families.

    Especially under the shame-ridden, denial-ridden, punitive system of closed adoption that has scarred so many human beings.

    At the same time, I do feel that (ethically conducted) open adoption between biologically unrelated families is a good option for many birthparents. While the loss of a child through adoption is never easy, being able to choose and meet the adoptive family, and being able to stay in touch after placement really do for many birth families ease the heartache of it.

    As for how adoptive and birth families can relate to each other in this situation over whol lifetimes–I think they can learn a lot from informal, in-family adoption in the Black community.

    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • realturk