Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Book Review: The Girls Who Went Away
Baby Boomers might vaguely remember that one girl in their class. In the middle of the year, she suddenly disappeared for a couple months. The excuses for her absence were varied. "She's studying art in Paris." "She's on bed rest for mono." "She's visiting relatives in Florida." Whatever the reason for her absence, she'd come back to school as quickly as she left. Though she was gone for months, she was reluctant to talk about what she did on her fantastic adventures. Sometimes, she would barely be the same girl that she was before she left.
Ann Fessler explores their stories in The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden Story of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. Between the end of WWII in 1945 and the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973, thousands of pregnant, unmarried teenaged girls were forced to give their babies up for adoption. Fessler, herself an adoptee, interviewed women about their experiences.
One of the first things that struck me was that this was a largely middle class phenomenon. Upper class girls came from families that could afford to pay a reputable doctor under the table for an abortion, or send their daughters on "vacation" to a country where abortion was legal. Lower class girls tended to come from communities where single mothers were common. They had no reputations worth losing. It was the middle class girls who had parents that could not afford to pay for abortions or lose their hard-earned status.
Many of these girls were sent to unwed mother homes. Others stayed in host homes and were treated as servants and free babysitters. Others were essentially prisoners in their own homes. One woman recounted how her parents forced her to never leave the house and avoid walking by windows when she was pregnant. When she went to the basement to get something and a neighbor dropped by unannounced, her mother locked her in the basement for two hours until the neighbor left.
Many of the women described this time as feeling like they were on an assembly line. The only direction to go was forward, and other people seized control of their lives. Their parents decided the girls were going to give up their babies for adoption, and the matter was settled. At the unwed mother homes, the girls were given almost no information on what was happening to their bodies, their legal rights after their babies were born, or resources that would help them if they wanted to raise the babies themselves. The girls were not treated as individuals, but rather conduits for giving babies to older couples. One woman was resistant to adoption until her counselor said, "One day, your son will be on the playground and another child will call him a bastard. Is that what you want?" The girl decided then that adoption was the better choice. Later in life, she joined a birth mother support group and found out that other girls had been told the same thing, literally word for word. The conversation that changed this woman's life had been nothing more than a script.
Quite a few woman faced lifelong problems as a result of their experience. Some decided never to have children again, feeling that it would be unfair to the child that they "gave up." Others had many more children to fill the void left by their first child. Some women entered abusive relationships, convinced that they didn't deserve anything better, while others had lifelong guilt and depression Health problems are rampant in women who were victims of the Baby Scoop Era. When looking at the psychological and physical problems experienced by these women, one can't help but draw a comparison to the anti-choice movement's (repeatedly disproven) claims that abortion causes health problems and depression. These birth mothers are experiencing real problems, but for the longest time they were denied the right to even acknowledge what they went through.
It's no contest--this is the saddest book I ever read. The stories are heartbreaking, and it makes me wonder how many women I encounter from that generation are carrying this pain inside of them. I have also learned that these unwed mother homes and strong-arm adoptions are not just the product of the past. According to Kathryn Joyce's article from The Nation, "Shotgun Adoption," many Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) have relationships with Christian adoption agencies and unwed mother homes that funnel women to these agencies. For example, the CareNet location in Madison is connected with Elizabeth House. The ultimate goal of the CPC model is not just to use lies and scare tactics to convince women not to get abortions, but to coerce women into to placing their babies for adoption. Christian adoption agencies such as Bethany Christian Services, the nation's largest adoption agency, have been accused of withholding information on the mother's legal rights regarding adoption, lying about the availability of open adoption and counseling, luring the mothers to give birth in states that restrict birth parent rights, and refusing to connect women with resources if they ultimately decide to raise the child. These agencies call the mothers "saints" for "doing what's best for your child," but when the mother raises objections to how she is treated, they respond, "Well you should have thought of that before you spread your legs."
We have an anti-choice, anti-contraception governor who is committed to removing the Family Planning Waiver. If he succeeds, he will ensure that more women will face unplanned pregnancies and be at the mercy of these organizations. More than anything, I finished The Girls Who Went Away with a renewed commitment to fight so that women can continue to have access to accurate, non-biased information for every possible sexual, reproductive, and parenting choice. It is through access and information that women will be best equipped to make the decisions that are best for them and avoid the injustice that has afflicted a generation.