“We all knew what it meant when a big car arrived,” says Philomena Lee, the namesake character of the Oscar-nominated film Philomena (starring Judi Dench), which tells the tale of an Irish Catholic mother separated from her son by one of Ireland’s infamous 20th century Magdalene Laundries. The laundries were convents-cum-reformatories where unwed pregnant women (or girls caught having sex, or girls who were raped, or girls just thought to be promiscuous), were sent to atone for their sins—usually through hard labor, washing laundry sent in from neighboring villages. They were also de facto adoption agencies, as Catholics from Ireland, but more often the United States, came to adopt the children delivered by pregnant Magdalenes.
What the big car meant, in Philomena’s case, was that an American doctor and his wife had come to adopt her son, Anthony. Like other children born in the convent, Anthony was labeled an orphan, abandoned by his mother, who, though she lived in close proximity to him in the convent, was only allowed to see him an hour a day. Like most other mothers in the laundry, Philomena had to watch as her son was delivered into strangers’ hands, while she remained to work in the convent to pay off her debt for being taken in: four years of labor in lieu of a £100 fee she couldn’t afford. Fifty years later, a modern generation of nuns, wearing friendly cardigans and pouring tea, offered Philomena sympathy, but no information on Anthony’s whereabouts, while residents of the local town whispered that the nuns burned documents to obscure how they’d “sold all those babies to America.”
This is the set-up that sends Philomena, along with world-weary journalist Martin Sixsmith, to America, to search out traces of her son. After they realize early on that he has died—a casualty of the AIDS crisis—the movie’s drama deals with how Philomena faces her grief, her worries that her son had forgotten or resented her, and her pained loyalty to the Catholic Church that oversaw their separation. Philomena, who in the movie and in real life remains a devout Catholic, ceaselessly defended the nuns who imprisoned her and the system they upheld, couching each tentative request for information with assurances that she doesn’t blame the church, and refusing that she was coerced. “I could have never given him a life like this,” she says, reflecting on the comparative opulence of her son’s upper-middle-class life in the United States.
At the end of the movie, Philomena encounters an unrepentant old-school nun who vehemently defends the adoptions—and her subsequent lies to both mother and son—as the just rewards for sex outside marriage. Martin becomes furious, but Philomena forgives, chastising the journalist for his “exhausting” anger.
Many would read this moral as a particularly Christian message. In any case, it’s one of forgiveness and acceptance. Although the abuses Philomena represented are far tamer than the sadistic cruelty depicted in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, when Philomena was released late last fall, New York Post reviewer Kyle Smith nonetheless panned it as “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics.” Shifting into an anti-abortion argument in a second piece on the movie, written in response to filmmaker Harvey Weinstein’s rebuttal of the review, Smith sneered at the suggestion that the adoptions at the Magdalene Laundries were anything but altruistic. “We all know how cruel it was for the mid-century Catholic Church to provide shelter for scorned women written off as dead by their families, help them give birth to their children and place the adoptees in loving homes,” he wrote. In an open comment to the real Philomena Lee, Smith reminds her that, in the movie, her character avows that the choice to relinquish was hers.
If anything, far from being an anti-Catholic film, Philomena may stray too far in the direction of letting bygones be bygones, and in suggesting forgiveness for a system—both religious and societal—that penalized women who got caught having sex with one of the harshest penalties imaginable: losing their children. (In fact, the emphasis on forgiveness may be poetic license: In the nonfiction book the movie is based on, Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Sixsmith writes that when she learned about the nuns’ obstruction of her and her son’s efforts to connect, the real-life Philomena was angry.)
But a more significant failing of Smith’s review, and his sarcastic follow-up, is his apparently total blindness to the historical reality that Philomena is based on. Not only was the adoption system of the Magdalene Laundries far from benevolent, it was far from limited to mid-century Ireland. The fact is, there are millions of Philomenas.
The “Baby Scoop Era”
Between the 1940s and 1973, when abortion was illegal and single motherhood taboo, unmarried women who became pregnant faced few, punishing options: a shotgun wedding to the father, an illegal abortion that could result in maiming or death, a pariah’s life as a single parent, or “going away,” to one of hundreds of homes for unwed mothers for the duration of their pregnancy, to relinquish their babies for adoption and return home as though nothing had happened. Overwhelmingly, women chose—or were forced to choose—the latter.
It’s a time that in the United States is often referred to as the “Baby Scoop Era,” and during it some estimates hold that a full fifth of all children born to never-married white women relinquished their infants for adoption. For women sent to maternity homes, that number rose to 80 percent, comprising anywhere from 1.5 million to 6 million women.
While, at least in the movie, Philomena maintained that she was never coerced into relinquishing her son, for many U.S. birth mothers or first mothers (preferred terms vary) who are now in their 50s, 60s, or older, the pressure they encountered at maternity homes was harsh and unapologetic. Severe isolation was normal, as was withholding information from women about their pregnancies and impending labor. Maternity home residents were forbidden visits with friends, family, or the fathers of their children, and weren’t allowed to receive letters or phone calls. They were sometimes dropped off at hospitals to labor alone, separate from married mothers, sometimes without pain medication, and pushed to sign relinquishment papers while they were still drugged or recovering from labor. Many were told to deny that they knew the fathers of their children, deliberately misled about their right to keep their babies or about services that could help them, and frequently refused a chance to hold their children after birth. Some had their babies taken while they were sedated or were told that the babies had been stillborn, but were never shown their bodies.
“They wanted to keep us scared to death,” said Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, the 65-year-old founder of the Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative, which compiles documents from the period. “They didn’t want us to be repeats. It was so traumatizing that many mothers don’t remember the births.”
As a 17-year-old unwed expectant mother, Wilson-Buterbaugh was placed by her Catholic family in a Washington, D.C.-area maternity home in 1966. Women sent there were expected to work for their keep, and there were locks on the doors of the floors housing women considered flight risks. To Wilson-Buterbaugh, the differences between the U.S. maternity homes and the Magdalene Laundries are few. In the United States, widely available baby formula allowed infants to be adopted almost immediately, rather than staying with breastfeeding mothers, and U.S. women were sent home quickly, to return to their lives as “born-again virgins,” unlike their Irish counterparts, who were penalized with further years of debt-bondage. But for many, the sense of lifelong loss is the same.
Lee Campbell, the founder, in 1976, of the pioneering organization Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), the first support group for mothers and fathers whose children were adopted, emphasized how catastrophic that loss could be. Many mothers who relinquished children suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some even experienced grief that researchers found to be more intense than the pain of women whose children died—their pain compounded by a paralyzing lack of resolution, as they wondered for years what happened to their child. Some mothers say the grief was so overwhelming that they couldn’t bring themselves to recognize their loss until years or decades later.
“Birthmothers were like members of a 1978 religious sect in Jonestown who followed their leaders’ command to drink Kool-Aid that had been laced with cyanide,” writes Campbell, in a CUB review of Philomena. “I admit that for ten years, I obediently drank from my own PTSD chalice of Kool-Aid. When its potency began to wane and my PTSD erupted in full, as textbooks say it will after eight to ten years, I started CUB.”
The problems didn’t stop with the end of the Baby Scoop Era in 1973, though the tactics became, in some ways, subtler. For my 2013 book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, I interviewed other mothers who relinquished children for adoption in the mid-80s in Catholic maternity homes, where they were threatened with lawsuits if they backed out of planned adoptions. I interviewed more mothers who’d relinquished in the 2000s, after being sent to modern evangelical maternity homes that coached young Christians to believe that relinquishing would bring God’s blessing.
The problems didn’t stop at U.S. borders either. Similar adoption programs occurred in other countries, particularly Commonwealth nations. However, some of these nations have begun to acknowledge their mistakes. In Canada, several churches have undertaken archival digs to determine what role they may have played in coercive adoptions. In Australia, the advocacy of Baby Scoop Era mothers resulted last year in a national apology from the prime minister for forced adoptions, modeled on the country’s previous apologies for human rights abuses—including forcible adoptions—of indigenous people.
The American Philomenas
For the New York Post’s Kyle Smith, this is apparently unknown history, papered over with the assumption that more adoptions are good, and therefore maternity homes that facilitate more adoptions are good. That’s not a big surprise, but even likely allies seem unaware of the connections between Philomena’s quest and the experiences of millions of U.S. women. Last week, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) partnered with the real Philomena Lee to call on Ireland to open its adoption records and grapple with its past (a call reflected in a recent Change.org petition aimed at the Catholic Church). U.S. birth mothers/first mothers have started a Facebook group called “We Are the American Philomenas,” and they share a sense of bafflement that most people are unaware of how common their story is.
“It’s just beyond our comprehension that they can’t connect those dots, especially after all the efforts we’ve made,” Wilson-Buterbaugh says. “There are millions of Philomenas out there, from just about every country. We’re just flabbergasted that people aren’t figuring this out.”
Like a number of Baby Scoop Era mothers I spoke to, Wilson-Buterbaugh worries that their stories may die with them. CUB’s Lee Campbell worries that, with fading media interest in their stories and a lack of outside support, “CUB’s growl has faded to a mew,” while problems in domestic adoption persist.
This fall, I sat in a room full of mothers at CUB’s annual retreat—women who had relinquished children for adoption ten, 20, or 40 years before. It was a room moved easily to tears, as panel after panel included personal testimonies from women who, decades later, were still hoping to reconnect with their now-adult children, or who had found their children and reunited, only to have them later pull away, overwhelmed by the weight of emotion. No matter how many years they were removed from that loss, the women I met still mourned. And many were still angry.
Representing that anger might have perhaps made Philomena a less palatable film for many mainstream viewers, but as the Post’s review suggests, even a modicum of anger over the sacrosanct institution of adoption can prompt blinding defensiveness.
I thought of this moment when I read that review, imagining that there was no way someone could sit in the midst of that much collective grief and come away to claim that what happened to these women was charity, or remotely a choice. And I thought about it again when I later watched Philomena myself, in a matinee screening in an outer borough of New York, where two women in their 60s remained in their seats, staring at the credits, long after the theater had emptied.