Baby Scoop

Kathryn Joyce answers a question I’ve wondered about – yes, the way unmarried mothers were treated in the US (and elsewhere) was as bad (or almost as bad) as the way they were treated in Ireland, and yes, there were a lot of them, and yes, their babies were taken away from them.

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.

And so on. It was bad.

“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.

It is a big difference that they weren’t kept locked up for years or decades. But that said – they were still treated like shit. Yet another chapter in the expanding volume Neglected Histories of the Ways Women Were Treated Like Shit.

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.

Not a volume, not even a set; a whole shelf.

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 onIreland to open its adoption records and grapple with its past (a call reflected in a recent 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.”

Ok. Time to fix that.


  1. Guess Who? says

    I can fully believe there was pressure in the maternity homes to give up healthy white babies. Even today, there’s a real attitude from people looking to adopt a (white, healthy) newborn that they *deserve* a baby, unlike those Slutty McSlut-Sluts who “got themselves” knocked-up and don’t deserve to have a baby.

  2. Trebuchet says

    I grew up in that era and even as a very naive male teen I heard the stories and noticed girls suddenly go missing from school. They became unpersons, simply never spoken of again. The fathers of the babies, of course, suffered no consequences at all and went right on playing football or whatever.

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