The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
by Ann Fessler
Paperback, Published May 4th 2006 by Penguin Press HC, The

Before I read this book I had a vague sense of the way unplanned pregnancy was handled before abortion became legal: a young woman either married the father of the child or quietly bore it, usually in a home for unwed mothers in another community, and gave it up for adoption.

Abortion was not an option; neither was raising the child on one’s own. This book examines the experiences of birth mothers who surrendered their children during the years between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade. Fessler briefly notes a change (nearly) concurrent with Roe, which dramatically altered the experiences of –and options available to — women who became pregnant after 1972: Title IX made it illegal for any school receiving federal funds to expel a woman who became pregnant. This made it possible for high school and college students to continue their educations while pregnant, without having to disappear from their schools and communities and then return. This is worth noting because many of the women interviewed stressed that they wanted to have and raise their children, but in the cases where the father would not marry them, or simply where one or both sets of parents didn’t approve of the union, they were not given the option of raising the child — even if they were adults.

Surrendering mothers had no rights at all — or rather, were not informed of, or permitted to exercise, the rights they had. Even women who became pregnant as adults were not given the opportunity to consult with legal counsel, and generally were not told they had any option but to surrender their children. They were simply badgered by parents and social workers into signing the relinquishment paperwork. One interviewee — married to a man whose parents disapproved of her — was anesthetized during birth and told on awakening that the baby she’d expected to take home was going into foster care, that she had no choice but to sign the relinquishment papers.

Fessler’s done her research; she does an excellent job explaining the socioeconomic contexts in which these women lived. For instance, most of the women she spoke to were from newly middle-class families; upper-class women had easier access to safe abortions, and in poor and minority communities the taboo against unwed motherhood was evidently not as strong. She also discusses the history of social work leading up to the period of her focus, noting an abrupt change in the default attitudes toward, and options available to, young women who became pregnant out of wedlock in the 1930s and ’40s, versus the period immediately after the war.

But the emphasis is on the women’s stories; a good half or more of the pages of the book are narratives adapted from interviews. Each story is, in its own way, heartbreaking; the cumulative effect, far more so. While Fessler only briefly touches on the rights and experiences of birth mothers in the 21st century, the book was enough to cast my own interest in adopting children one day into a very different light. My position — shared by a notable contingent of my friends — is that there are too many hungry children in the world to justify having my own, something that I am, to the best of my knowledge, capable of doing. While I’m no closer to relating to the specific desire that my children be genetically bonded to me, I’m no longer convinced that my desire to adopt — motivated largely by a desire for a clean conscience — is any less self-absorbed when it may or may not come at the expense of another woman’s enormous grief.

The women interviewed, while not coming from an enormous diversity of backgrounds (again, it was largely white, middle-class women who were coerced into giving up children at this time), are notably diverse in terms of their personalities, world views and careers; all are thoughtful and articulate, and give lie to the stereotype of young, unmarried pregnant women as psychically broken or desperately in need of love.

While the Western world at least has pushed toward greater transparency with adoption records, toward open adoptions, and other options that would seem to lessen the psychic pain experienced by birth mothers, and while birth mothers for the most part have more rights than before, it’s still hard for me resolve that adopting children is automatically a more ethically sound choice than giving birth to them. This isn’t to say that I consider it an unethical choice, simply that it’s a far, far more complicated ethical issue than anyone might imagine.

For instance, I’ve heard discussions of a natural maternal urge, or the attachment feelings women form during pregnancy and birth, dismissed by some of my peers as something that has a minimal basis in biology and more likely the result of conditioning by a society that (wrongly) expects women to automatically want and love babies. Caveat? These women experienced those feelings, coupled with feelings of major grief, for children they were conditioned and coerced explicitly not to want, not to think about, not to talk about. And while the psychological effects of surrendering children for adoption have been studied widely (and seem, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be far more devastating than the effects of abortion, contrary to the claims of the anti-choice right), there is currently no widely accepted therapeutic model for treating women who have had this experience. None. And in general, progress around improving the transparency and lessening the wounds of adoption has been very slow.

Of course, I read this book thinking of environmentalists and other future-minded folks for whom “Just ADOPT!” is often the reflexive response to anyone considering becoming a parent. But adoption is also often prescribed by those opposed to abortion as a more ethically sound alternative. It’s been pointed out elsewhere (on an amazing Feministing post that is apparently no longer online) that it’s awfully disingenuous of right-wing groups to give so much press to the psychological pain experienced by women who’ve had abortions, and so little attention to the women who’ve given up children for adoption (even as those women have worked with conservative, religious, pro-life agencies during the surrender process). But the anti-abortion right — or which I am emphatically not a member — is not alone in committing this disservice against birth mothers. We’re all doing it. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who cares about women, families and parenting options.

(adapted from a review already posted to Goodreads)