Nurse weighs baby in the nursery of the Cairns General Hospital at the FSA (Farm Security Administration) farm workers' community. Eleven Mile Corner, Arizona.

The Racialized History of Adoption Practice

By Rickie Solinger

The racial and gender coercions at the heart of adoption clarify the violence inherent in Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s wish to revitalize adoption in America as a substitute for abortion.  

The mass practice of adoption, which started in the U.S. in the post-World War II era, pressed white unwed mothers to surrender their babies to a four-faceted cause: preserving the face of white chastity in the era of emergent feminism; bolstering the fraying institutions of white male authority; reinscribing the hegemony of the white family (as this institution, itself, began to weaken); and crucially, underscoring the difference between Black and white.

The dawn of institutionalized adoption in the U.S. began in the era before contraception and abortion were legal or fully accessible, and before most rape victims had functional legal standing. All of these factors rendered girls and women profoundly vulnerable socially, sexually, and reproductively. 

Adoption practices in post-war America depended on this relatively resourceless class of specifically white women. The adoption of “illegitimate” white babies was invented as a reform: in place of social expulsion, unmarried white women and girls could cover their shame with secrecy, as they clandestinely transferred their out-of-wedlock babies to other, married parents, sustaining their own appearance and identity as chaste and white.  

The laws, policies, and social norms that aggressively linked the status of all women to sexuality and reproduction were key to adoption-logic. In effect, these norms, and the adoption practices they justified, bolstered white male supremacy in the United States.

To construct the desirability of white adoptable babies, psychiatrists and social workers countered a line of argumentation that attributed white unwed pregnancy to what were considered heritable factors such as “low intelligence,” and instead assigned individual mental disorders and psychological maladjustments as causes of pregnancy outside the bounds of acceptability. These white unwed mothers were typically said to have “gotten themselves pregnant.” This shift positioned white, unmarried, pregnant women as “not-mothers,” while marking their babies as untainted, valuable commodities. 

This mass practice of adoption for white people at the dawn of the Civil Rights era constituted a feature of “making race” in the U.S.: re-enforcing racial difference and white supremacy. The racial politics of this scheme left public, “illegitimate motherhood” to Black and other “non-white” girls and women. White social and medical theorists, practitioners, and politicians tarred Black women as ruined by racially-determined, biologically inbred, unbridled sexuality.  When white experts defined Black girls and women as lacking the psychological structures that fueled the behavior of white women, they emphasized that this was a key component of being Black.  

Historically, centuries of American slavery depended on state laws enforcing the non-existence of the Black family: the divisibility and commodification of its parts. Mid-twentieth century adoption practices echoed this past, with some vicious inversions. Now that Black babies did not represent monetary value to enslavers, Black women were punished for giving birth to another valueless child. They were also punished for sexual and reproductive divergences from prescribed white norms regarding sex and “family” forms. Black infants were fixed as unadoptable and as prospective dangers to white society, to the tranquility of white families.   

Experts collaborated to devise social policies — punishments — specially targeting Black and other “non-white” unmarried mothers on the basis of their race and poverty and the “valuelessness” of their babies, who, experts argued, cost U.S. taxpayers too much. Punishments included expulsion from school, public housing, and other public-provision programs, intimate surveillance by public employees, and rafts of additional punitive state and municipal laws, regulations, and funding schemes.  

In short, white babies derived their adoption-value racially, in distinction to the valuelessness of other “unadoptable” infants. In addition, only white women could make families, under the legitimating supervision of white men. Adoption theory and practice shored up racial difference during the period when federal law began to chip away distinctions.

This history lays bare three key themes that remain central to adoption logic to this day. 

First, the incidence of adoption is a key index of the vulnerability of girls and women in a particular society. 

Second, the incidence of adoption is also a map of institutional and legal initiatives that create and enforce sexual and reproductive distinctions between various, demographically-defined groups of people. 

Finally, adoption programs always reflect a willingness to use the reproductive bodies of especially vulnerable people, usually racially defined, to aid in the “family-building” of other people who are, racially and economically marked as less vulnerable, and more socially valuable. (When Americans began to adopt non-white babies from far-away countries in the late 1960s, these parents were often praised for their civil-rights courage, even while these babies had been born to some of the most resourceless women on earth, powerless to claim even their own children — and even while white adoptive parents largely continued to eschew the adoption of children of color in the U.S.)

Just as no country in the world both denies the abortion option and guarantees (or aims for) gender and racial equality, so the reimposition of the adoption logic is incompatible with reproductive dignity, safety, and justice, and inimical to human rights.

Rickie Solinger is a historian, and the author of Pregnancy and Power: A History of Reproductive Politics in the United States (2007), Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the United States (2002), and Wake Up, Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade (2000).

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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