The Baby Scoop Era was a period in world history when many babies were born to unmarried mothers. Because of societal pressure, adoption.

What was the Baby Scoop Era?

Note: This article focuses on the United States specifically, but the Baby Scoop Era also affected Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom around the same time period. 

1939 to 1972. In just 33 years’ time, so much of our country had gone under radical changes. These few decades of United States history were filled with so many impactful historical events and technological advancements, it would be quite the timeline to make. Taking into account the end of World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, advancements in television and entertainment (particularly music and writing), and social rights activism across the board, there is a good reason history classes break this era up into several different units. 

However, one aspect of this time period is often overlooked by mainstream high school education (and even higher education, in many cases). Unless you are actively researching or looking for it, you might not ever encounter the topic, which is sad considering how many people were affected by this social development. 

I am talking about what has been named “The Baby Scoop Era.” 

What Was the Baby Scoop Era?

For the adoption community, this was an era of great concern (and for those directly or indirectly affected by it, it still is a concern today). This time period marked the start of an alarming increase in premarital pregnancies, which then led to an increased rate of newborns being placed for adoption. 

For the record, it was not necessarily adoption itself that was the problem—adoption in and of itself is a wonderful way to start a family. The problem stems from the psychological and emotional issues that surrounded women and motherhood during the 1900s due to societal pressure. It was a vicious cycle that began with a combination of a more relaxed societal view on sexual morality (in general) and a higher restriction on birth control access. Those two things were the main reasons for the increase in premarital pregnancies. 

Ironically, even though sexual morality views had lessened slightly, the most prevalent pressure was still that unmarried women were unfit to be mothers and that they would be “better off” by placing their newborns for adoption as soon as possible. Oftentimes, unmarried birth mothers were taught that adoption was their only option and would be pressured into it. If they decided to raise the child, they were still met with opposition, as most people would put little to no effort into helping them. 

The Impact

As you can imagine, the psychological effects on birth mothers, adoptees, and families overall lasted for years. There were birth mothers who wanted to raise their children but faced oppression, there were birth mothers who were simply too young and scared, and there were birth mothers who tried to raise the child as well as they could on their own. 

Due to the societal shame associated with these situations, closed adoptions were preferred over open adoptions back then, and there was also a higher rate of adoptive parents simply not telling their child that they were adopted at all. If and when the children discovered the truth, the process of coming to terms with it and searching for answers was an even longer, more difficult road than it is now. 

With today’s genetic technology, social media platforms, and openness towards adoption, adoptees who want to pursue their biological parents can often do so. That is not to say the process is easy nowadays, but imagine how much harder it is for those who were affected by these pressures. It left too many parents feeling broken and too many adoptees feeling lost. 

The Baby Scoop Era is part of the reason why openness in adoption has become more accepted and even encouraged. Just look at some of the statistics from the era: 

  • Overall, approximately 4 million birth mothers placed their newborn children for adoption (this is just for the United States). 
  • 2 million of those adoption placements were just within the 1960s. 
  • In 1951, non-relative adoptions had a yearly average of 33,800 (estimated). By 1970, that number increased to 89,200. 
  • Research done shortly after the era indicated a significant increase in depression and grief that was specific to the Baby Scoop Era birth mothers. 

The double standard of “unmarried women cannot be mothers but we will make birth control methods and resources extremely difficult to access” crippled the adoption community for over three decades, and it continues to do so—however inadvertently—today. Not only that, but the issues that were caused by the era are very rarely, if ever, addressed by those who were not directly impacted. Even those who probably find themselves without a proper name for these issues, and thus go without proper support. 

The Decline of the Baby Scoop Era

This rather dark age in adoption history began to decline in the 1970s and significantly dropped in the 1980s. In the year 1970, it was estimated that about 80% of the children born to single moms were placed for adoption. By the time 1983 rolled around, that percentage had plummeted to a mere 4%. How did this number drop so dramatically? 

There were a couple of different factors. Firstly, the birth rate had since decreased, so there were fewer children being born overall. Secondly, birth control and abortion laws were undergoing major changes that were making it easier for people to be safe and prepared (this also included the availability of family planning services to those who had low income or were young). Thirdly, a societal shift had begun, allowing for more acceptance towards single mothers. They began to experience a sense of freedom and choice in being able to keep their babies instead of feeling like they had to relinquish them. 

There were also many new laws enacted in order to protect mothers and their children. Here is a quick timeline for some of the most significant ones: 

  • 1972: The Supreme Court states that unmarried people have a right to contraception in the Eisenstadt v. Baird case. 
  • 1973: Roe v. Wade case convinces the Supreme Court that safe and legal abortion is needed and a human right. 
  • 1974: The Social Security Amendments provide more protection and enforcement around child support payments. Congress also passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The act made it illegal to discriminate against credit users based on their age, marital status, national origin, race, receipt of public assistance, or religion. This allowed women to have credit cards and use loans without a spouse. Also in 1974, Congress amended their Fair Housing Act from 1968. Originally, women were allowed to be excluded when trying to buy or rent properties, but then “sex” was added under the protected classes. 
  • 1975: After reevaluating women’s due process rights in the Cleveland Board of Education v. LeFleur case, the Supreme Court decides that pregnant women cannot be coerced or forced into unpaid maternity leave if it is after the first trimester of the pregnancy. 
  • 1978: Per the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed by Congress, employers cannot discriminate against pregnant women. This includes firing them for being pregnant, denying them a job or promotion because they are pregnant, and forcing them to take pregnancy leaves (assuming she is able to work). 

With so many new legal changes for women in America, in came a new era of women’s economic, social, and educational independence. These changes provided them greater personal confidence and power, which led to a wave of societal change. The social norms for women were beginning to change, and soon the things that had seemed normal during the Baby Scoop Era were regarded as taboo and unfathomable. 

However, just because the overall views on adoption and marriage had been remade, that did not mean that the effects went away. Luckily, there are people dedicating their time and resources to helping others who are still feeling those effects. 

The BSERI

The BSERI (Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative) was founded by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh in 2007.  Its sole purpose is researching the Baby Scoop Era and educating people about it in order to help people seeking healing from that time. The group is also adamant about spreading recognition and awareness for what happened to the adoption community overall, since (as I mentioned) it is rarely talked about by people outside of this community, or even within it to a degree. 

The Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative website holds a collection of scholarly articles, books, and research developed by the team, should anyone want to explore deeper into this topic. People can also contact them and join the group to find support and join their cause, if they want to. More details, research sources, and information on the Baby Scoop Era can be found on the BSERI website

Conclusion

Millions of mothers and families were left lost during those years of emotional turmoil, and even years later, there are still people looking to piece together their family histories. 

If you are struggling with the aftermath of the Baby Scoop Era, consider using some of the resources and forums provided by the Gladney Center for Adoption. You can also learn more about the time period and women involved through books, such as: 

The Baby Scoop Era by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh. Using her own experience, research, and interviews with other birth mothers, the author documents and exposes the coercion and grief many families were hurt by during the time period. 

Evil Exchange by Joe Soll and Lori Paris. A mystery novel about the character Todd Walters, who found out that as an infant he was sold into the black market and had had his birth certificate forged. Todd teams up with a man named Boots Beaumont, who used to be a private investigator, and the two of them begin searching for the answers to Todd’s mystery of an upbringing. 

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler. A great book constructed from many interviews the author held with women who were able to share their stories about why they placed their children for adoption. Fessler also conducted years of research about the political, social, and psychological climate during the Baby Scoop Era in order to accurately portray the situation that women found themselves in. She expertly unravels the ridiculous double standards of society and the huge amounts of peer pressure and grief that were present in this time period. 

Adoption Healing, A Path To Recovery For Moms by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh and Joe Soll. This book is a guide for mothers who were directly affected by the Baby Scoop Era. It starts with an introduction to the ways women were deceived and manipulated by society into placing their children for adoption, regardless of their own thoughts. It then suggests different methods of emotional and psychological healing that include learning to manage anger, soul searching, visualizing, and using kind affirmations. There are also personal exercises, summaries, and sections for debunking myths surrounding adoption. 

Adoption Healing, A Path To Recovery by Joe Soll. This book is more centrally focused on adoptees. It goes into detail about an adoptee’s potential psychological development, different milestones they may experience, and then it goes into a similar structure as the last guide book (methods of healing via introspection, emotion management, healing words, et cetera). It also has the familiar sections for myth debunking and personal exercises. 

Unlearning Adoption by Jessica DelBalzo. DelBalzo demonstrates ten years’ worth of research in this book. It’s all about how adoption practices have changed from the past to the present, as well as the effects of adoption for birth parents and adoptees. She also goes into many of the unethical laws and unfortunate lies that are still issues within the adoption community today. 

Are you ready to take the next steps on your adoption journey? Visit The Gladney Center for Adoption to learn more.
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Mahli Rupp