Adoption, Blood Kinship, Stigma, and the Adoption Reform Movement: A Historical Perspective

By Carp, E. Wayne | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Adoption, Blood Kinship, Stigma, and the Adoption Reform Movement: A Historical Perspective


Carp, E. Wayne, Law & Society Review


Katarina Wegar, Adoption, Identity, and Kinship: The Debate over Sealed Birth Records. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997. xv + 169 pages. $30.00 cloth.

I. Introduction

Adoption touches upon almost every aspect of American society and culture and commands our attention by the enormous number of people who have a direct, intimate connection to it. Some experts put the number as high as six out of ten Americans (Thomas Foundation for Adoption & Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute 2002:5). Others estimate that about one million children in the United States live with adoptive parents, and that between 2% and 4% of American families include an adopted child (Stolley 1993).

According to partial estimates, in 1992 there were 126,951 domestic adoptions; 58% were non-kinship adoptions (Flango & Flango 1995).1 Partially because of the dearth of healthy white infants available for adoption, 18,477 adoptions in 2000 were intercountry adoptions, slightly more than half coming from Russia and China (U.S. State Department 2002). In short, adoption is a ubiquitous institution in American society, creating invisible relationships with biological and adoptive kin that touch far more people than we commonly imagine.

Adoption is also one of the most controversial issues in the United States. Recent articles have accused prospective American adoptive parents of being complicit in Cambodian black market baby-buying rings (Corbett 2002; Sine 2002).2 In 1994, Congress enacted the Howard M. Metzenbaum Multiethnic Placement Act (Pub. L. No. 103-382), with the intention of prohibiting adoption agencies from using race or national origin as a basis to deny or delay the placement of a child in transracial adoptions.3 Many adoption activists commonly believe that adoption is a system that causes pain and lifelong suffering to all the parties involved (Verrier 1993). In 1995, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Florida law banning gays from adopting (Gibson 1999).

One of the most contentious topics affecting all members of the adoption triad-birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents-is whether to open adoption records to adoptees. This was not always the case, however. As late as the 1950s, most Americans would not have considered the subjects of adoption or closed records controversial. In fact, most Americans viewed them solely in positive terms because they seemed to solve many social problems. Single women escaped the stigma of having a child out of wedlock and were able to get on with their lives, which usually meant getting married. Children escaped the stigma of illegitimacy and found a good home with two loving parents. Childless couples found a solution to the problem of their infertility.

Another fact was certain: In the 1950s, most Americans, social workers in particular, did not anticipate any ethical or moral problems with this arrangement. Sealed adoption records protected everyone. Somehow, social workers failed to anticipate the nature of human development. Adopted children grew up, and many of them, especially women, wanted to know something about their biological families. Many also wanted to meet their birth parents, usually their mothers.

When adoptees discovered that adoption records were sealed, they plunged into the political process to change this practice. Thus, in the early 1970s, the adoption reform movement began-with the principal goal of abolishing the practice of sealing adoption records. However, opposition from birth mothers sprang up almost immediately. Most unwed mothers in the 1950s had relinquished their children for adoption. They believed that they were providing a better life for their babies and IMAGE FORMULA11

that they could avoid society's condemnation of having a child out of wedlock. They had received promises of confidentiality from adoption agencies that their identities would be kept secret. …

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