Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unwed Pregnancy, Teen Pregnancy & Teen Parenting: The Solution

OK, the followup to the part of the article talking about the problem -- here's the part about the "solution" for teen/unwed pregnancy.

B.  The Solution

Attitudes toward unwed pregnancies and teen pregnancies have changed over time, as have the perceived solutions for the problem.  Social and public policy has always focused on prevention – either prevention of pregnancy through abstinence or through access to birth control or prevention of childbirth through abortion.  But once a pregnancy occurred, and was likely to be brought to term because of the unavailability of abortion, solutions varied over time. During the Puritan era, the solution for an unwed pregnancy was typically marriage, thus avoiding single child-rearing for the most part. Again, during the late 18th century and early 19th century, a hastily-arranged marriage was the solution for premarital sex that resulted in a pregnancy.  With increased urbanization and industrialization and the increased mobility it brought, it became easier for fathers to avoid marriage, so new solutions needed to be found.

Adoption did not become a perceived solution to the problem of unwed or teen pregnancy until after World War II.  Prior to that point, social and public policy called for keeping unwed mothers and their children together.  “Family preservation was the creed of early twentieth-century child welfare reformers.”  Separating mother and child was thought to be damaging to the child, harmful to the mother, and dangerous for the adoptive parents.  Adoption would deny the child the “real mother love” it was entitled to, and would deny the birth mother an “incentive for right living.”  Adoptive parents would be saddled with children genetically predisposed to bad behaviors “which cause family heartache.”  There was little interest in adoption at this time because of strong beliefs in behavioral heredity – the children of women who had sex out of wedlock were thought to have “bad blood,” and consequently, “blood will tell.”

Until the 1930s, unwed mothers were encouraged by social reformers, evangelical maternity homes, and social workers to keep their babies.  Several states joined in, enacting legislation designed to discourage the separation of mother and infant. One form these laws took was mandatory breast-feeding and bonding laws that required unwed mothers in maternity homes to remain with their children for a number of months before the children could be relinquished for adoption.  Even in states without such regulations, many maternity homes required expectant mothers to agree not to relinquish their children,  and to remain in the maternity home for at least six months following birth even if they intended to relinquish the child for adoption. In Minnesota, adoption placement by unwed mothers was allowed only “if it seems necessary under all the circumstances.” Thus, the expectation before World War II was that teen and unwed mothers would parent their children.

There was a change in attitude toward adoption by social workers as they “professionalized” in the 1930s and 40s.  While social reformers saw the child of the unmarried mother as “a tool in the redemption of the mother,” social workers began to see their client as the child, separate from the interests of the mother. Increasingly, social workers saw the best interests of the child to be served by adoption. Social workers began to pressure unmarried mothers to surrender their children to adoption instead of parenting them:

When a Door of Hope resident expressed her desire to keep her baby, her social worker “worked with her, trying to show her how important it would be that the child be given every possible consideration.  We tried to point out to her that possibly if the child was placed for adoption, it would get things that she could not possibly give to him.” Another unmarried mother recognized the influence social workers could exert, even when trying to remain neutral: “It’s not what Mrs. K. says exactly, it’s just that her face lights up when I talk about adoption the way it doesn’t when I talk about keeping Beth.”

One scholar describes this time in American adoption history as a time of “pressure, coercion, and inhumanity in procuring consents.” The underlying attitude of adoption professionals was that an unmarried woman and her child did not constitute a family, as evidenced by the following quote from an agency head:

An agency has a responsibility of pointing out to the unmarried mother the extreme difficulty, if not the impossibility, if she remains unmarried, of raising her child successfully in our culture without damage to the child and to herself . . . . The concept that the unmarried mother and her child constitute a family is to me unsupportable. There is no family in any real sense of the word.

In denying parent/child dyads the status of family, social workers privileged the normative family, and viewed these dyads as “’a blow at the solidarity of the family’ itself.” Unmarried mothers were seen as unfit, and expected to relinquish.  One agency head decried the lack of “skills and techniques” to obtain relinquishments among his social worker staff, and the “fearfulness in being aggressive in securing a release, as I feel, for the best interests of the child, they should be in many instances.” Thus, the expected outcome of an unmarried pregnancy was placement for adoption, and social workers and agency professionals felt duty-bound to ensure that unmarried mothers relinquished their children for adoption.

As social workers changed their attitudes about unmarried mothers placing children for adoption, there was a concomitant growth in interest in adoption after the war. The American eugenics movement tapered away and the importance of parenting – especially mothering – emerged with the post-war baby boom. Infertile couples wanted in on the baby boom, and with less concern that behavior was biologically determined, adoption became an appealing option.  While maternity homes prior to the war worked to prepare unwed mothers for single parenting, after the war the homes anticipated that the girls would place their children for adoption by infertile couples. Thus, from the period following World War II until Roe v. Wade ushered in legalized abortion, the solution for minors’ pregnancy was adoption. By placing a child for adoption, an unwed mother could redeem her transgression and contribute to her own rehabilitation.

With Roe v. Wade, abortion became an additional solution for unmarried women’s unintended pregnancies. Adoption placement continued, but there was a significant decline starting in the late 1970s.  Whether the availability of legal abortion caused that decline is a highly contested matter, since the legalization of abortion did not occur in a vacuum.  At the same time abortion became legal, stigma associated with unwed pregnancy and illegitimate birth started to decline as well:

Social scientists may eventually understand fully why attitudes toward sex and marriage changed so profoundly.  Whatever the mechanisms, in less than a decade a shameful condition was transformed into a personal choice.  The rise of the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the greater availability of abortion (which made out-of-wedlock childbearing truly a choice), and the increasing fragility of marriage all no doubt contributed to the astonishing shift in the social meaning of illegitimacy. 

By the end of the Roe v. Wade decade, 90% of unmarried mothers were choosing to parent their children rather than place them for adoption.  By the late 1980, 97-99% of unmarried mothers were choosing to parent their children. Given the availability of abortion, “choosing to continue a pregnancy means choosing to raise a child. Today, the decision to keep a child is one that tends to be made before the baby is born.”

            With this changing landscape, fewer pregnant minors are relinquishing parental rights and consenting to adoption.  One scholar describes as most common the view of adoption expressed by this 16-year-old mother:

Sure I thought about it, but I never could do it.  I know a lot of people could do a better job than me of being a mother and they can’t get pregnant, but that’s not my fault.  I’m not going to go through nine months and then give someone else the benefit.

With the decrease in stigma associated with out-of-wedlock birth, minor mothers feel less pressure to relinquish parental rights.  Placing a child for adoption appears to them to be privileging material gain over the familial love that a poor and young mother might feel is the only thing she can supply. This reluctance to place a child for adoption can been seen in a positive light: “These young mothers express a commitment to moral values over material advancement, a passionate attachment to children, and a willingness to try to sustain a family (albeit a nontraditional one) whatever the social and financial cost.”

            While the increase in adoption placement after World War II coincided with the increase in adoption among parents, the opposite has occurred in recent time.  With delayed childbearing and increased infertility, the demand for adoption has increased at the same time the supply has decreased.  In this environment, some adoption professionals are returning to the potentially coercive “skills and techniques” of the past to encourage teen mothers to relinquish their infants. The National Council for Adoption, spearheaded legislation to create and fund the Infant Adoption Awareness Program, which offers free training to those who might come into contact with pregnant teens at health clinics, to encourage adoption.  The NCFA also offers the training to school nurses and counselors, abstinence program personnel, crisis pregnancy center counselors to encourage girls to consider adoption placement. Although the law requires counseling to be nondirective, there is considerable evidence in the training materials that the counselor is expected to direct the girl toward adoption.

One method suggested in the training materials is that a girl resistant to adoption is self-deceived and selfish, is behaving “inhumanely.” Consider this statement from the training materials:

Of course, if others are living inhumanely, they will not benefit from what we offer until they change their hearts—until they give up their self-deceptions. At the least, our humane obligation is to be relentless in showing those seeking help how to create and maintain a humane way of being in the midst of their seemingly overwhelming circumstance.
* * *
So before answering these kinds of questions, we must also be living in the principles and assumptions that guide our adoption philosophy. For example, this curriculum invites adoption counselors, unmarried young women who are pregnant or have borne a child out of wedlock, biological fathers not married to the woman, parents of the young woman, and potential adoptive parents to consider the best interests of the infant as paramount. This principle stands in contrast to granting every person connected to the infant equal claim on the child. We are pursuing adoption as a process that provides parents for a child who needs them. It is meeting that need in the best possible way for the child that invites us to take the adoption option seriously.

So the nondirective adoption counseling should start from the proposition that the birth mother must “change her heart,” and recognize that she has no better claim to the child than any other person – any other attitude is self-deceptive and self-centered. This is a shocking statement, given the way we ordinarily frame parenthood and parental rights. Indeed, if the decision of who was the rightful parent of the child rested solely on “best interests of the child,” any number of biological parents would lose their children to wealthier, more stable parents!

What does the training material suggest to put these ideas in practice?  Recall the statement illustrative of why so many teens are resistant to adoption:

Sure I thought about it, but I never could do it.  I know a lot of people could do a better job than me of being a mother and they can’t get pregnant, but that’s not my fault.  I’m not going to go through nine months and then give someone else the benefit.

The training materials suggest that the counselor respond as follows:

This statement can be declared from a self-centered or other-centered perspective. A variety of starting points are possible here, and must fit the counselor’s own sense of how to discuss realistic possibilities. . . .

Counselor: “It sounds as if that is a statement where you are acknowledging the value of this baby— that the child means something to you. Is that right?”

If the young woman acknowledges her meaning is that she would have become attached to the child, you could ask, “When you first made the decision to carry the child, do you sense you did it for the child or for you?” [This is, of course a question that can be answered in four ways: I did it for the child; I did it for me; I did it for both; I don’t know (or none of the above).]

A humane decision will always include being for the other, and being for the other in a humane way will always reveal that you are simultaneously “for” yourself.

And in a section entitled, “What do I say if my client says. . .,” counselors are told to answer the statement, “I could never give my baby away,” by encouraging adoption: “Adoption can be a courageous and unselfish decision because you are putting the child above yourself.” A video of a birth mother discussing her decision to relinquish illustrates that the technique is employed.  She describes that she told her counselor emphatically that she was not at all interested in adoption placement.  But it seems her “nondirective” counselor pressed the idea, because she found herself working through an “adoption workbook.” It is hard to square this with “nondirective” counseling touted by the training materials.

            It is against this backdrop of history, social practice, and ideology about teen pregnancy, unwed pregnancy, teen parenting and attitudes toward adoption that a pregnant minor is asked to make a decision about adoption placement.  Thus, it is instructive to consider how minors’ decision-making differs from the decision-making of adults, how the law has traditionally viewed the decisions of minors, and how the law treats the decisions of minors in abortion and adoption.


Anonymous said...

Very well done - you have shown that there has been a return to the types of pressure used during the era I was surrendered. Very sad indeed.

One small critique back up at the Roe vs Wade - there was also the influx of contraception (the pill) and court cases allowing an unmarried female the right to obtain that contraception - Ct vs ? as well as the change to Ma law prohibiting contraception and most likely other state laws.

jj said...

I agree with the adopted ones - you really summed it up well.