Few books have hit me with the emotional wallop of Ann Fessler’s 2006 study, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. I’d recently done an online search for books, either fiction or non-fiction, about the ongoing abortion debate in the United States. Publicity is mounting about increasingly restrictive abortion laws in some states. One or more related cases will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. I wanted to re-inform myself about women’s options before the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.
Ann Fessler is a visual artist and author born in 1949. She has always known she was adopted. Her adoptive parents loved her and nurtured her to adulthood. However, well into her adulthood, she’d thought little about the perspective of the woman who’d relinquished her for adoption shortly after Ann was born. Then, in 1989, Ann attended an art event where she was approached by a woman who thought Ann might be the biological daughter she’d given up 40 years earlier. Ann began to consider the possible emotional and physical consequences to the original mother of giving up a child. Her subsequent work has chronicled the stories of these child-surrendering mothers. As she continued her research, Ann also began taking tentative steps toward finding her own biological mother.
As a girl child born in 1947, I’ve lived through the period of Ann’s research. Growing up in a small Maryland town, I was always somewhat aware of social pressures to conform—“What will the neighbors think?”—but I didn’t understand the full brunt of the ruptures such pressures could cause until I was in my late teens and had started seriously dating. Reading Ann Fessler’s book resurrected insecurities I’d almost forgotten I had.
In the young women’s sexual lottery, I was lucky: my mother practiced birth control and explained the rudiments of sex to me before I became sexually active. Once I did decide to have sex, my boyfriend and I were less careful than we should have been, but no pregnancy resulted. However, there were millions of girls, many from families like mine aspiring to become middle-class, who were not so fortunate. They did become pregnant. Very few had a legal option to terminate their pregnancies. Most had limited financial and emotional resources and were under tremendous societal pressure to conform to the stereotype of the “good girl,” one who presumably did not have sex.
Before Roe, a major option for a pregnant young woman was a rushed marriage, typically to the baby’s father and typically before the bride began to show external signs of the impending birth. Anecdotal evidence from classmates and friends of my generation suggests there were many such marriages, though definitive statistics seem hard to come by. Another possibility was to attempt to self-abort, or to obtain an illegal abortion. Either could have serious legal and health repercussions. Estimates of the number of “stealth abortions” in the U.S. before Roe vary widely, but such abortions did occur, along with related maternal injuries and deaths.
Ann begins her narrative with an estimate of the number of young women who surrendered infants for adoption during the pre-Roe period 1945-1973 (pegged at roughly 1.5 million). She then personalizes the statistics through individual oral histories of the experiences and trajectories of over a hundred of these mothers who were willing to be interviewed about their lives—before, during, and after their adoptive pregnancy.
Ann tells us: “In June of 2002, I began tape-recording the oral histories of women who surrendered a newborn for adoption between 1945…and 1973. … These years were a time of enormous change for young women. … And though premarital sex was certainly not a new phenomenon, it became increasingly common… For women born after 1949, the odds were that they would have sex before they reached age twenty.
… Fearing that sex education would promote or encourage sexual relations, parents and schools thought it best to leave young people uninformed. During this time, effective birth control was difficult to obtain. … The efforts to restrict information and access to birth control did not prevent teens from having sex, however. The result was an explosion in premarital pregnancy and in the numbers of babies surrendered for adoption.”
The era of the 1950’s and 60’s had a severe double standard about the consequences of sexual activity for young men and young women, some of which persists. As Ann remarks:
“Hearing these women tell their stories today, one can’t help but acknowledge the unfairness of calling them ‘bad girls’ and of the social scorn that was inflicted almost exclusively on them, and not on the young men with whom they had conceived.”
Through her interviewees, Ann paints a vivid picture of the emotional shaming of young women who “got in trouble”:
“This was in that period of time when there wasn’t much worse that a girl could do. They almost treated you like you had committed murder or something. —Toni”
Most girls who acceded to societal pressure were sent to homes for unwed mothers to wait out the remaining months of their pregnancies, give birth, and almost immediately decide on the future of their newborn child. Conditions in homes for unwed mothers varied, but most in postwar America exerted strong pressure to relinquish the infant. Ann found that:
“The degree of pressure put on the women to surrender sometimes crossed the line from persuasion to outright coercion. Many of the women I interviewed recalled high-pressure campaigns waged by the maternity-home staff.”
“Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby, or explained the options. I went to the maternity home, I was going to have a baby, they were going to take it, and I was going to go home. I was not allowed to keep the baby. I would have been disowned. …Joyce I”
Few women were given any counseling about the sense of bereavement they’d feel on surrendering their infants. For many, this has left lifetime scars:
“Giving up my son was a seminal moment in my life. People will say, ‘Get over it.’ I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘Aren’t you ever going to get over it?’ Never. You never get over this. Men often go to the military and fight in wars and they never really get over what they see. This is like one of those huge tragedies in your life. That’s how I look at it, as a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because it didn’t have to happen. —Maggie”
“I couldn’t (move on) and I can’t. It’s a big issue to those who lived it. There are women out there who lost their firstborn child and never got to grieve. I can’t even put it into words. —Suzanne”
No single solution can heal the scars that remain. Partial palliatives exist:
—The stigma of unwed motherhood has diminished as societal norms have evolved, so more mothers are keeping their babies.
—Some women’s access to well-paid work has increased to the point that they are able as single mothers to provide for a child.
—Registries for adoptees and their birth parents have expanded.
—Some restrictions to accessing original birth certificates have been loosened.
—More women who relinquished infants for adoption have been able to reestablish contact with their now-adult children, many with families of their own. Most, but not all, reunions have been healing.
Despite some progress, we as a society have much remaining work to do, both to help heal past wounds and to reduce the extent and severity of the new wounds we create. Further restricting abortions will not make abortion go away. It may further fracture an already fractious society around this difficult issue.
Perhaps we could work more consistently and conscientiously to create social structures to reduce the likelihood of unintended pregnancies:
—provide better sex education
—provide more widely, more equitably available contraception
—withhold judgment of those whose prior sexual conduct we may disagree with
—learn to listen better
—instill in young women, and young men, a sense of self-worth
—instill in young women, and young men, a sense of responsibility for their sexual conduct
Then, we could support whatever decisions a mother-to-be is able to make, with as little coercion as possible. If the mother (and maybe the father) decide to keep the child, we could provide extra mentoring and support for the young parent(s).
Abortion law in and of itself will remain a very small part of the work that needs to be done. I’m most grateful for Ann Fessler’s pioneering work at helping us see a bigger picture.