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Anti-adoption historical revision

These two articles about a museum exhibition in England highlight the not-so-subtle anti-adoption attitude among the intelligentsia in the Foggy Island.

The exhibit featured Victorian art about women who had children out of wedlock, their fate, and the fate of their children, with a special focus on the placement of the children in an orphanage for foundlings.

One article is called "Exhibition on Forced Adoption Prompts Outpouring From Women Moved By Loss." (I guess in the digital age, conciseness in headlines is no longer valued.) The other is called "The Victorian Women Forced To Give Up Their Babies." Here is the first paragraph of the piece from July:

Donations to fund an exhibition on unmarried women who were forced to give away their babies – dubbed “fallen women” in the 19th century – have been accompanied by poignant comments that show how deep the trauma still lies in many families, say organisers at the Foundling Museum.

Naturally, with all that lead-in, one assumes that the articles will be about women forced to give up their babies. What else would they be about?

But a strange thing happened somewhere between the actual historical details and the writing of the Guardian news stories about the exhibition: They got muddied.

When one reads the articles, one discovers that the tragedy surrounding these women and their babies was precisely not that they were "forced to give up their babies." On the contrary, what is outrageous (and I fully grant that it is outrageous) in the treatment of the women in the time period in question, and of their children, is that they had so much trouble giving up their babies for adoption! They were desperate to have their babies taken by someone else and cared for, fearing starvation both for themselves and for the child if they could not find an adoptive home or orphanage, but the foundling institution evidently changed its rules at a certain point in the 19th century and would not allow them to give their children up for adoption unless they could convince a board of inquiry that they had not conceived their child through willing sexual intercourse out of wedlock.

For a bit of historical perspective, see this piece (not mentioned in the Guardian) on the despicable practice of "baby farming" in Victorian England. Here's how it apparently worked: Women who had babies out of wedlock had a lot of trouble getting work and supporting themselves and their babies, unless they had family to take them in. There was a real chance that both they and their children would starve, freeze, etc., unless, of course, they turned to prostitution. If they could find someone to look after the child, they had some hope of getting honest work. Without reliable adoption agencies or options (see the above point about the change in the foundling hospital's policy), they turned in desperation to people (usually women) who would bilk the unwed mothers for a regular pittance while claiming to take on their newborn babies as boarders. What the baby farmers actually did was to drug the infants and then systematically underfeed them, making sure that they died of starvation, neglect, or illness in the earliest months of life, when so many children died anyway that no inquiry would be made about their "failure to thrive" and eventual death. How much the mothers knew about what was going to happen to their babies if they turned them over in response to advertisements by baby farmers is unclear. One presumes that an impoverished mother would not knowingly give her hard-earned money over a period of time to someone who was slowly and deliberately starving her baby to death. But on the other hand, the fear that one's child would not be cared for properly presumably drove them to want to find the best option possible. I would guess that the Foundling Hospital had a better reputation in the area of infant mortality than the baby farmers, which helps to explain women's desire to have their children taken in there. It also shows that a reliable orphanage or adoption system for these infants was gravely needed in that society.

In a bizarre twist of historical revisionism, what could in fact be a legitimate tale of hard-heartedness (through the refusal to take in the babies of fallen women) becomes a tale of "forced adoption," as though the tragedy was that the women needed to give their children up at all! Evidently the theory is that the 19th century benevolent societies ought to have invented our own dubiously wise and successful system of welfare for women who give birth out of wedlock, never worrying for a moment about possible perverse incentives in such a system, should have skipped over the adoption option, and should have encouraged or at least enabled women pregnant out of wedlock to keep and raise their own children at state expense. If that option was not offered, then these cases count in the liberal mind as "forced adoptions," despite the fact that the stories they themselves are bringing forward depict the women as wanting to give up their children and being refused.

Let me say, in case there is any doubt, that I do not agree with the apparent theory of those who made the change in the Foundling Hospital policy. (Assuming that the article is correct that it was a change, this point is interesting in itself. It appears that this was not a result of moral traditionalism, since the original founders of the institution had no such rule.) That theory, I am guessing, is that merely saving a woman's baby from starvation and freeing the woman herself to seek work to support herself created a perverse incentive to immorality. Quite frankly, that's nonsense. I agree (however hard-hearted it sounds) that society has an interest in allowing people who make destructive moral choices to suffer some negative consequences for doing so. But a) the baby is innocent and doesn't deserve to die, b) merely sending a woman on her way to get her living alone in the world as best she can after taking her innocent child off her hands is hardly a reward for bad behavior, and c) having to give up one's newborn child in order to survive, and in order for the child to survive, is itself a negative consequence, given the bonding that occurs during pregnancy. If the officials of the Foundling Hospital thought that they would be condoning or encouraging immorality by taking in newborns, regardless of the circumstances of their conception, they were wrong.

The entire casting of this art exhibit reveals a deeply anti-adoption agenda. The Foundling Hospital is apparently supposed to repent of its sin in taking in babies! To that end, the feminist revisionists are willing to use tales of pompous hard-heartedness in which a committee sits around asking women to convince them of their sexual virtue as a condition of taking in their babies. But the revisionists have to hope that you won't notice the illogic of the indictment. Wait, I thought the problem was that these were forced adoptions, but what you're telling us about now is denied adoptions. What gives? As long as one can be made to feel sufficient indignation against prudish Victorian males, hung up on the concept of female virtue, and as long as that indignation can be channeled into vaguely negative feelings about adoption, their mission is accomplished.

The sad part of that is that this mission may have very concrete effects in the real world. Where adoption is not encouraged, there is more probability that children will grow up with welfare moms, without fathers, and in unstable living conditions. Where adoption is actively discouraged and the number of couples of approved for adoption falls, leaving children who are given up in the limbo of the foster care system, women find it difficult to be sure that their children will be well cared for and may keep them when they would prefer to give them up for adoption. See here on Britain's blocking a Christian couple from being foster parents in view of their traditional moral views on homosexuality. This is an ominous sign for the approval of Christians for adoption in England, though I do not have any direct stories about parents denied adoption permission on similar grounds. What is undeniable is that faith-based adoption agencies in multiple places in the U.S. have been shut down because of "anti-discrimination" laws requiring them to place children with homosexuals, which has a probable effect of rendering adoption less accessible, especially for women who would prefer to work with a Christian agency that will place their babies with Christian parents.

Ironically, the devaluing of adoption may well lead to the modern West's own version, albeit a less stark and horrific version, of the 19th century picture in which unwed mothers are denied the option of safe, reliable adoption for their children. And that, not "forced adoption," should be the real story, and the real concern.

Comments (7)

A timely link I wish I had seen before publishing the post. It appears that adoption in the UK is being discouraged by a new court ruling that is taken to mean that authorities must sift through all possible extended family members to take custody of children before placing them for adoption.


Ahhh, yes, the Golden Age. When the color of your coin was more important than the color of your character - except when your character was irrelevant!

Talk about a perverse system. And a perverse exhibit, too. I find it nauseating that they are getting away with even CALLING this "adoption" related. Today we don't say that leaving a baby in foster care or an orphanage is "adoption", it is when the child leaves foster care or the orphanage to be with a FAMILY that we call this adoption. To so distort even the WORD by the historical events here, where no adoptive family was in the offing, is orwellian.

You are right, there is no motive here BUT the motive of suppressing modern adoption, and probably for no other reason but a bigoted hatred of the traditional family.

Something occurs to me about our recent changes in adoption practices here in the US. It used to be the case that a birth mother (and father if around) could explicitly state the religion they wanted for their child to be raised in, i.e. to "select for" the adopting couple based on religion. I don't know that anyone has made a discrimination court case out of this, that it is ILLEGAL to do such selecting. It seems slightly unlikely to me that even secular judges, as offensive as they have gotten, would explicitly forbid the birth mother to select for this.

If I have that right, then the anti-discrimination laws do not completely over-ride the rights of a birth mother to choose. But it seems to me that THIS FACT ALONE should be reason enough to enable Catholic (and other Christian) adoption agencies to operate. If a birth mother can select for religion, she can also select for the sex(es) of the adopting couple: if one, then the other. And so she can select for heterosexual couples. And she must needs have access to an AGENCY that will attend to her selection choices, rather than one which expressly professes to ignore all such matters.

Yes, I thought of that, too. Why are we calling it "adoption" to give a baby to a Foundling Hospital? I should have made that clearer in the main article. I wonder how many of those babies were eventually _really_ adopted, if any. I mean, it's still sensible to think that it was better for the baby to be taken in by an orphanage than to starve to death, which is presumably what the mothers thought, too. But it's not, actually, adoption, and not what anyone now would use the word to mean.

Adoption isn't all upside, though. Relinquishment and falsified documentation were hardly great for the mothers or adopted children subjected to those things. And those children would not have necessarily been better off in richer homes.

Temporary guardianship is fine, but ego-satisfaction for well-off white people is not really worth preserving. None of us are entitled to children, and raising those not our own should not be avoided, but it should also not be an excuse to self-aggrandize either.

I disagree with most of what you write, TPC.

First: Actually, it is better for the child if adoption is complete and carried out early. It is profoundly problematic for a child's bonding if his parentage is left up in the air. Hence, full adoption, with relinquishment of the mother's parental rights, is *all else being equal* a much better arrangement than some sort of situation where the mother still retains some parental rights, can interfere in the child's upbringing, or where the adoptive parents have only temporary guardianship.

Naturally, all else may not be equal. I'm not saying that these things would be better if the adoptive parents were bad parents while the biological mother was loving and good. But qua arrangement, I _strongly_ disagree with an adoptive policy based on a model of merely temporary guardianship. Parents should be parents, and a child needs unequivocal parents--preferably two.

As far as "being better off in richer homes," we are talking about possible death by starvation and, more importantly, no father. The children are obviously better off not starving than starving. Moreover, I'm afraid that I do think that simply maintaining unwed mothers at state expense, with their children, does create enormous perverse incentives. An orphanage, of course, does not give one a father, though it may keep the child from starving. The best situation would be the later arrangement whereby adoptions can be swiftly arranged by _couples_ into _families_.

Your references to "well-off white people" are absurdly anachronistic in relation to the original post. Everybody in those scenarios was white. We're talking about Victorian England, for crying out loud.

As for the present situation, if you object to international adoptions on principle, then you are wrong. Are there celebrities who aggrandize themselves by international adoptions? Yes, there are. Is that *in general* the nature of international adoption? No, it isn't. The demonizing characterization of international adoption as you do is merely a biased trope.

Adoption is not in general about ego satisfaction. No, of course, people are not entitled to children, but millions of children have reason to be profoundly grateful to adoptive parents, both in-country and internationally, for giving them a much better life than they would have had in every respect and a loving, stable, two-parent home, which they would not otherwise have had.

When one reads Pope Francis's comments on the family when he was in Philly, it is absolutely clear that, all else being equal, it is immensely better for a child to be in a normal 2-parent family than raised by his bio-mother alone. God created the family as an image of the Trinity. Among all the things God created, which were good, when he created man, male and female, and ordained them together to make and raise new persons, this alone is "very good". The father-mother-child family (according to the Pope) is the best thing in creation.

but ego-satisfaction for well-off white people is not really worth preserving.

The vast majority of adoptions are not primarily "ego serving" for white people. Some are by black people (or other races). Some are reluctant, not eager. Some are by families who have children naturally, and are capable of continuing to have children naturally, and expect to, but also want to give an child a home and family.

Adoption isn't all upside, though.

True enough. It has its trials and difficulties. But these are, by and large, lesser than the problems faced by children in single-parent families.

People have a legal right to the care and support of their parents when they are minors because their parents caused their state of dependency. People also have a legal right to medically accurate vital records and the government also has an interest in the medical accuracy of vital records. Parents loose their parental rights such as custody and control all the time without having their support obligations terminated when and if they work they must provide support even if the child is not in their custody. Parents loose their parental rights yet their offspring don't have their birth certificates revised or their names changed. It should be entirely possible for a parent to relinquish their custody and control without their offspring having to loose their identity and kinship and rights within their own family. This is truly the problem with adoption. The adopted person has their identity falsified and their rights reduced unnecessarily in exchange for their food and shelter while they are minors. Their loss of rights in payment for their keep outlasts their state of dependency. If you are to believe that its fair for minors to have to pay for their keep by taking on the identity given by those who adopt, is it justice that the the debt should outlast their state of dependency into adulthood and for the rest of their lives? In what way is it in a person's best interests to have their legal kinship severed and their rights terminated? In what way does it benefit a person not to have contact with their parents, siblings and grandparents? Is it necessary to treat them like property so that they might not starve? No. It's possible for people to raise someone else's offspring without changing their name, altering their birth certificate and while facilitating contact with their family out of respect for them as a human being and not property. It's possible, but if nobody is willing to do it because they'd prefer to buy a person and name them and cut them off from their family that's fine but we should not allow it. There are people who would help without needing to sequester or change anything about the person and its those people and only those people who should be allowed to be guardians of other people's young.

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