This was originally published in The Adoption Constellation's Winter 2014 Issue 10.
The recently released film Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, has earned widespread acclaim and multiple award nominations. It’s been inspiring and hopeful to watch an adoption-related film receive a mainstream viewership; and it has prompted rich conversation both within and outside adoption communities.
Philomena is the poignant story of a woman’s search for her son who was taken from her in the 1950s and sold for adoption by the Irish nuns of Sean Ross Abbey. While never explicitly stated as such, I worry about one woman’s story giving the impression this was a tragic isolated incident, the result of harsh judgment by a single group of nuns. This couldn’t be further from the truth, nor is this a matter of history long-since resolved.
The baby-scoop era (1940s-70s) was a time of pervasive coercion in adoption, and not just in Ireland. Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away is a stunning, unforgettable look into the time between World War II and Roe v. Wade in the United States, during which a million and a half women placed their children for adoption. Religion, poverty, social stigma, and limited contraception access resulted in generations of women and their children separated by adoption practices that perpetuated the dichotomy of the “haves” and the “have-nots” when it came to worthiness of raising children. Workers within adoption were seen as benevolent rescuers of otherwise ill-fated children. The shame associated with these pregnancies and adoptions was overarching and facilitated pervasive, damaging secrecy amongst biological mothers and adoptive families. Moreover, the industry was (and is) financially oriented; and couples struggling with infertility were positioned vulnerably in their own urgency to have a child. These dynamics continue to impact families today, many who do not have access to adoption records and encounter massive barriers—social, psychological and systemic—that prevent them from gaining basic information or pursuing reunion with their biological families. Furthermore, adoption of present day is deeply influenced by this history—it is among the roots of adoption and we mustn’t assume it resolved.
While adoption ethics have improved since mid-century, we have many miles to go. The landscape may have changed, but economics, race, privilege and power remain intimately connected to our beliefs about who is/isn’t a worthy parent; and those judgments, of course, influence adoption and its participants. Furthermore, adoption is a global issue. While I cannot speak with authority on the intricacies of adoption-related matters in each part of the world, I am in solidarity with my fellow activists worldwide.
In South Korea, where severe prejudice against single mothers often prevents them from raising their own children, activists are promoting family preservation by increasing access to sex education, improving supportive resources, and addressing intolerance toward unwed mothers. Additionally, they strive to eliminate the use of baby boxes (see #BuildFamiliesNotBoxes #BabyBox), which the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child finds in violation of children’s rights. Mobilizing around these issues is fundamentally about dismantling the reductive, uninformed belief children are simply saved by baby boxes and/or adoption without lifelong consequences. In support of this work’s crucial goals centered on family preservation and adoption ethics, we must join by challenging the prominent idea that good intentions are enough. It’s essential we engage a deeper understanding of both historical and current root issues impacting family separation.
Advocates are organizing from the Philippines, to Guatemala, Ethiopia, in the U.S. and on. Adoption is an intersectional issue that includes poverty, religious influence, war, colonialism and economics—we cannot talk of one without the others. Philomena’s single story brought this reality to the big screen, and I urge us to consider its broader relevance to our own adoption stories and adoption practices around the world.
You can learn more about activist efforts in South Korea by visiting KoRoot.