“Empowerment” & The Modern Birth Mother

I wrote this in response to an assignment for one of my courses in my MSW program.  I thought some who follow my blog might be interested in it, too.


On page 87 of Pullen-Sansfacon & Cowden (2012) we read, “Empowerment, in a neo-liberal ideological worldview, thus becomes about accepting ‘personal responsibility’, and while this idea is appealing at one level, it obscures the impact of the social dimensions of power, based on class, gender, race, and ability/disability.” This passage is a long-sought for answer as to why I have experienced so much cognitive dissonance when it comes to the rhetoric of “empowering” young single expectant mothers in their “choice” to relinquish a child for adoption, and is but one example of how this modern interpretation of “empowerment” may be dangerous for a client.

In the decades since birth control was made available to women regardless of marital status and with the passing of Roe v. Wade, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of adoptable newborns in the United States. At the same time, there has also been an increase in infertility and women seeking to build a family through adoption. In an effort to address this issue, the National Council for Adoption (NFCA, the nation’s largest adoption lobbying group) conducted multiple studies involving women who surrendered a child for adoption during the Baby Scoop Era. Mothers of this era were frequently shamed, coerced, and even forced into relinquishing a child for adoption (for more information about this time period, read “The Girls Who Went Away” by Anne Fessler). One of their primary findings was that these mothers experienced a great deal of emotional turmoil because they felt powerless to affect the outcome of their unexpected pregnancy.

The National Council for Adoption took this information and created a campaign aimed at increased the number of available infants for adoption through the guise of “empowering” expectant mothers. For expectant mothers, the campaign was called, “Birthmother/Good mother: Her Story of Heroic Redemption.” For adoption professionals, it was called the Infant Adoption Training Initiative (IATI).

Both of these campaigns were based on “empowering” a single expectant mother in an effort to guide them to choosing to voluntarily terminate their parental rights and relinquish her child for adoption instead of raising her child. The tactics used in both campaigns aimed at “empowering” expectant mothers violate principles of medical ethics, Title X guidelines, and in some instances, are clear examples of coercive persuasion techniques. For example, the training for adoption professionals, workers are taught specific techniques on how to break down a mother’s resistance to adoption, ways to convince uncertain mothers adoption is a good choice and “best” for their child, and how to instill pride in the decision to voluntarily terminate their parental right.

The “Bravelove” campaign is a recent example of this neo-liberal application of empowerment in adoption and how the problem and the solution are both located in the individual. Indeed, it is the very embodiment of what Pullen-Sansfacon & Cowden (2012) refer to when they say “to be empowered comes to be defined as the capacity to act effectively within a market of consumer choices” (p. 74). The life-altering experience of relinquishing a child for adoption is treated as if it were simply another “choice” in the market place.

The individual empowerment perspective approach to counseling single expectant mothers places all of the responsibility of the “choice” on to her shoulders, ignoring the impact her class, gender, race, and the power differentials between her and the wealthy (almost always White) adopters have on her “brave” decision. Thus, when she later experiences periods of adoption-related grief  (which she will throughout her lifespan, as research shows), society as a whole and the adoption professionals can further marginalize and silence her by telling her she “chose” this grief when she “chose” adoption and therefore has no right to complain because “no one held a gun to her head.” Society, adoption professionals, the adoption industry, and even to an extent adoptive parents are provided with absolution from their part in a birth mother’s life-long grief because she made an “empowered” choice when she decided to be the “hero.”

This type of “options counseling” instills a false empowerment in a single expectant mother as it guides her to an outcome that has been predetermined for her by adoption agencies and professionals. These same adoption professionals view single expectant mothers as “problematic individuals” who need to be instructed and motivated on how to get their “projects of the self” started (Pullen-Sansfacon & Cowden, 2012, p. 78). In this instance, the “project of the self” is the carefully scripted process of motivating and instructing a single expectant mother that a “good mother is a birth mother” and that adoption is the path towards redeeming herself and becoming a hero. This approach of false self-empowerment can be dangerous to the long-term mental health of the relinquishing mother and her child as she is frequently not told of the true impact adoption loss and adoption related trauma can have on both her and her child.

In short, I agree with the Evan B. Donaldson Institute’s report “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process” when they argue that women do not need more pressure to place their babies for adoption, they need better advocacy. Part of that advocacy is counseling from a place of true empowerment, from a perspective that addresses how race, class, gender, and power all came together in a woman’s life to bring her to the point where she is, to assist her in identifying barriers to parenting, and then helping remove them if possible. Instead of focusing on waiting families and how her decision would be a “brave” choice for people waiting for a baby, it should provide special protections to ensure there is not a misunderstanding of the nature and consequences of her decision and from the regret that might come.

Pullen-Sansfacon, A., & Cowdwn S. (2012). The ethical foundations of social work. London: Routledge.