AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I have had a relationship with the National Organization for Women since the early 1970s. I am a founding member of the old Stark County (OH) NOW and presently a member of Columbus (OH) NOW where I have served as secretary and vice president. I am currently a board member at large. Local organizations have been energetic, politically aware, compassionate, and dedicated to improving the lives of all women. Members “get” adoption issues. The same can’t be said for the National office, which for as long as I can remember, has ignored the political implications of adoption and its effects on mothers and the children they surrender. In the 1970s NOW rejected natural mothers (and potential surrendering mothers) as women worthy of political support. As the organization approaches its 40th birthday it appears not much has changed. On September 14, the National office will honor Maria Elena Salinas as an “intrepid woman.” Salinas supports the exploitation of women through legalized anonymous baby abandonment laws. Below is the letter I emailed to the national office objecting to the award. I am speaking for myself only and represent no one else in NOW locally or nationally.
What in the world is NOW thinking honoring Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas with a 2006 Intrepid Woman Award?
Maria Elena Salinas may be a big hit on Univision, but she is no friend of women. If she were, Mary Rose Rybak at the National Review Online wouldn’t be jumping in her jammies over NOW tagging Salinas and gushing over the newscaster’s support of Baby Moses/Safe Haven laws that “permit,” and even encourage mothers to anonymously and legally dump…er, I mean “surrender”… their newborns without informed consent or personal and legal counseling, at fire stations, ERs and other designated spots. No questions asked. “No blame, no shame, no name.”
Salinas, in her October 9, 2005 newspaper column, the one admired by NRO, praised anonymous legal baby dumping with as much knowledge of the issue as George W. Bush has of fourth generation warfare. Using logic borrowed from irrelevant “reproductive rights’”arguments, Salinas framed safe haven dumping in happy consumerist terms. “Women who give birth to unwanted babies have already passed the biggest hurdle: deciding to have a child instead of having an abortion.”
The problem with this is that “choice” has little to do with it.
The Problem with Choice
Dangerous abandonment and neonaticide are rare. Its causes are usually shame, denial, untreated mental illness, poverty, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and substance abuse. The majority of women who pursue such measures deny their pregnancy and the birth, often going into a dissociated state during delivery and after. What appears to Salinas and her ilk to be “birth” choice doesn’t exist because the pregnancy doesn’t exist for them. There is no “pregnancy therefore there would be no abortion. When the baby arrives by “surprise” it is a “thing” to be gotten rid of, not something to be dropped off “rationally” at the nearest baby abandonment station.
Despite the laws, neonaticides have not decreased. California, with a well-publicized safe haven program for instance, still has 13-15 dead abandoned and murdered newborns a year, the same number it had before the law was enacted.
Though hundreds of newborns have been turned into safe havens, there is no evidence that any were in dumpster danger or that one life has been “saved.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that parents who utilize safe haven laws are not at risk of abandoning or harming their newborns, but those looking for a fast and easy way out of parenthood; moms who want to cut out dad; undocumented workers afraid to seek assistance and unfamiliar with US child welfare practices; and the lazy who find traditional relinquishment procedures tiresome. Newspapers are full of accounts of newborns “saved” from the dumpster who arrive at the ER in cute Baby Gap onesies, accompanied with extra diapers, stuffed animals, rattles and loving notes from parents. Some mothers, in fact, are reportedly already in adoption plans and decide safe haven is more “convenient.” In the saddest cases, “choice” is as meaningless as those in denial, when weeping mothers, some with little command of English, hand over newborns to firefighters or EMTs saying that they cannot afford to keep their babies. And under the “no shame, no blame no name” legal guarantee baby receivers are barred from offering assistance and referrals, thus keeping moms ignorant of public and private help that would give them the opportunity to preserve their families or surrender their babies in an educated and ethical manner. If this is an acceptable feminist response to women in desperate need of assistance, then I’m Karen Hughes.
Safe haven pushers make no secret that drive-by dumps are their response to uppity adoptees who demand the restoration of their right to identity. The laws were enacted starting in 1999 when adoptee rights activists such as myself began to overturn archaic state laws which seal our original birth certificates and other government-held records from us. Safe havens are pushed by big buck conservative adoption industry lobbyists and agencies who want to corral a stock of highly marketable babies unencumbered by pesky birthmothers portrayed variously a courageous “givers of live” or dangerous harpies intent on destroying the “integrity of adoption.” One prominent sealed records adoption lobbyist viewing pregnant women and new mothers as potential murderers mired in sexual shame, wrote that “disappearing privacy rights” [the restoration of the right of adult adoptees to records and personal identity access] has led most states to pass safe haven laws so that women and their babies have the life-saving option of anonymously taking a baby to a hospital or other safe place.“ Incredibly, adopted persons who have supposedly benefited from adoption are framed as a danger to women and babies.
Baby dump laws strip infants of their identity, culture, heritage and medical histories. They deny non-custodial parents—usually fathers with little legal redress–the right to know or rear their own children by permitting mothers to hide children from them. How long these laws would stay on the books if anonymous fathers suddenly began dropping off “unwanted” newborns?) They keep children from being reared by extended family members by throwing infants into the stranger-adoption system. In some states, third party dumpers are authorized to drop off infants with no questions asked, letting embarrassed grandparents and others to get rid of family mistakes with no accountability and responsibility. In a couple states babies up to 1-year of age can be dropped off.
Baby dump laws can kill. They discourage women from seeking pre-and post-natal care for themselves and their children by telling them that a secret pregnancy and unattended birth in a bathtub or bedroom or over the toilet– where a woman can bleed to death or a baby can die– is OK since it’s “our little secret” that “nobody will have to know.” Ironically, Maria Elena Salinas worries about “desperate young women who find themselves alone, with no one to offer advice and counseling” but on the other hand advocates the secret and anonymous safe haven “no questions” policy that literally encourages “desperate young women who find themselves alone, with no one to offer advice and counseling” to remain that way since “nobody will ever have to know.”
Baby dump laws, reject 100 years of evolved best practice in adoption and child welfare by telling women that they don’t have to seek ethical, responsible, and accepted channels of child surrender. Safe havens are condemned by adoptee rights activists, adoption reformers, and social welfare professionals. They are Constitutionally suspect and likely to be overturned if judicially reviewed. And that review IS coming.
A Little Bit of Herstory
For the most part, newborn stranger adoption is a middle class white phenomenon that brings in lots of money to a basically under-regulated industry that preys on the misery of others. Unfortunately, NOW has a long history of ignoring the intra-class politics of adoption and the oppressive treatment of mothers and their surrendered children by that industry.
Adoption is not a reproductive right. Adoption involves a born, separate live person with fundamental rights. But under some twisted branded definition of “choice” NOW and other so-called progressive organizations seem to consider surrender and the legal act of adoption just another consumer option for women. The adopted are viewed as not much better than a coffee table or a cute kitty to be passed around to whoever wants us. Our surrendering mothers are viewed as handmaids, popping out sprog for privileged women who want children and can‘t have them.
NOW’s complicit approval of safe havens through its award to Maria Elena Salinas is just the latest example of bad behavior towards women who have surrendered children.
NOW’s treatment of natural mother activists, Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), in the 1970s is a stain on the organization that purports to support the rights of all women no matter their childed status.
Founding CUB activists were well-educated, articulate, and politically aware. Many made their political bones in the civil rights and anti-war movements and Women‘s Liberation. With their personal experience as mothers who were “not mothers” often due to coerced or pressured surrender of their children to adoption and the silence that surrounds adoption practices (identity erasure, sealed records, maternity homes) they developed a radical analysis that linked surrender and adoption to patriarchy. As CUB co-founder Carole Anderson said, “the real issue for me was losing my son. I thought of that as a feminist issue. I couldn’t think of a worse way to oppress a woman.”
Feminist historian Rickie Solinger in her book Beggars and Choosers: How the politics of choice shapes opinion, abortion and welfare in the United States covers the whole shameful story of the lousy treatment feminist CUB birthmothers received when they went to NOW for support. (p.113-118)
Here is an excerpt:
In Boston, several years later, Libbi Campbell remembers that Lee Campbell spent a great deal of time trying to build an alliance between CUB and NOW and failed, specifically because NOW members “couldn’t see exploitation in adoption. They refused Lee’s claims that birthmothers in her era had lacked options, had experienced coercion and have been used to profit others. Instead NOW members insisted that adoption was a personal choice in the case of both the birthmother and the adopting parents. Libbi recalls that “feminists were taking the position that women should be able to get children any way they could; they didn’t want to participate in anything that would curtail their options.” Carole Anderson met members of feminist groups at this time who stressed that adoption was not a feminist issue because women benefit most from getting adopted babies.
The CUB women attempted to challenge what they encountered as the prevailing perspective, “that if a woman wasn’t able to raise her child [on her own] she should have an abortion, and that failing to have an abortion when appropriate proved that she wasn’t responsible enough to raise her own child.” Anderson was particularly aggrieved when one ‘outspoken feminist’ expressing her ambivalence about motherhood and her fixation on autonomy told Carole she should “feel grateful to the adoptive mother for letting me be free an equal.”
Sidenote: Not much has changed. A few years ago I received an email from a member of New Jersey NOW who opposed the restoration of identity rights to adopted adults. She smacked my fingers and accused me of lacking “feminist credentials” and respect for women, especially “courageous” birthmothers.” I should shut up and be grateful that somebody adopted me and I wasn’t tossed in a dumpster.
Relinquishment and adoption are life-changing and life-long events for both parent and child and should be done with the utmost care and concern, not at the prompting of a cheap safe haven poster in a high school bathroom, or a PSA on MTV. When the process is transparent and informed, adoption can be a positive experience for children genuinely in need of parents, natural parents who for whatever reason cannot parent, and for those who want to parent through adoption. The idea that women are not exploited by the adoption industry– that adoption is just another way for some women to get children at the expense at other women– has no place in the largest feminist organization in the US.
Bottom feeder safe haven laws, with their quick-fix permanent solution for what is usually a temporary problem, encourage dangerous secret pregnancy, perpetuate female sexual shame, strip infants of their identity and history, strip mine women of their children, and deny the parental rights of “non-custodial parents.” The real purpose of safe haven is not to altruistically “save babies” but to plump up the domestic newborn adoption cash cow with desirable and expensive infants whose origins are impossible to track down.
NOW has been one of the leaders in the redefinition of “family.” NOW and other “liberal” pro-rights organizations have fought for the right of families to define themselves, yet draws the line at birthmothers and adopted persons. The perception of feminists in general, and of NOW in particular due to its history, as elitiest and classist supporters of the transfer of babies from the “unworthy” to the “worthy” runs through birthparent political and support groups. As I said, the local NOW chapters “get it. But the road needs repaired, bridges need rebuilt through a serious revist by National.
Unfortunately, the National Organization for Women, by honoring Maria Elena Salinas, by implication, honors the exploitation of women through baby harvesting. By honoring her, no matter how many other positive things Salinas may have done, NOW slaps the face, every woman who has ethically surrendered a child to adoption and every adoptee whose civil rights have been torn asunder by state-sponsored identity erasure.
We owe mothers, their children and the adults they grow in to more than an unproven law than can literally harm and kill its “beneficiaries.”
I am blogging this letter on The Daily Bastardette. If you care to reply I will be happy to post it to my site.
Exe. Chair, Bastard Nation: the Adoptee Rights Organization.