Concerned United Birthparents

Source: Courtesy of Concerned United Birthparents

The CUB logo depicts a mother bear and her cub, symbol of both power and nurturance.

Founded in Massachusetts in 1976, Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) is currently headquartered in Encinitas, California and has 10 chapters and over 400 members around the United States. Its original mission was “to provide support for birthparents who have relinquished a child to adoption; to provide resources to help prevent unnecessary family separations; to educate the public about the life-long impact on all who are touched by adoption; and to advocate for fair and ethical adoption laws, policies, and practices.” A 2003 revision of this statement formally extends CUB’s supportive mantle to cover “all family members separated by adoption” rather than birth parents alone.

CUB has offered vital organizational resources and a political voice chiefly to those birth mothers who felt most disempowered in the era before the sexual revolution normalized premarital heterosexuality and Roe v. Wade made abortion legal: young, unmarried white women whose middle-class families considered their out-of-wedlock pregnancies a source of terrible shame and moral failure. Many were packed off to maternity homes in the 1950s and 1960s, where they waited out their “confinements” in isolation and loneliness and then surrendered healthy newborns to childless couples under policies of confidentiality and sealed records. These infant placements were in great demand and often conformed to matching, which aimed to replicate nature so closely that natal relatives were made to disappear altogether. This kind of adoption promised to permanently solve two problems at once: infertility and illegitimacy.

CUB came into existence at precisely the moment when this promise was no longer convincing. Members were inspired by search and reunion pioneers among adult adoptees, particularly Jean Paton, founder of Orphan Voyage, and Florence Fisher, of the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). At the same time, the second wave of feminism was forcefully pursuing reproductive rights and arguing that “the personal is political.” Although white feminists were more closely identified with the struggle for safe and legal abortion than with the protection of women’s childbearing rights, the logic and rhetoric of reproductive choice encompassed birth mothers, at least in theory. Why should women be pressured to give up their children forever simply because they were unmarried, or young, or poor, or without adequate support? Didn’t equality require the freedom to decide when to have children as well as when not to have them?

Lee Campbell, a banker’s wife, placed a personal ad in the Boston Globe, hoping that others who had surrendered children would reply. The result was a meeting at a Cape Cod church in July 1976, and a new organization was born. The women who attended came together out of personal need. They did not all share an ideological commitment to either women’s or children’s rights and frequently disagreed on matters other than the suffering caused by having given up a child. Yet they discovered they had a lot in common, just as members of feminist consciousness-raising groups did at the time. Gradually, their shared experience of surrendering children under extreme pressure evolved from a personal complaint into a subject of social analysis and a matter of social justice.

“Birthmother” was the term they coined to describe themselves. They considered it a compromise of sorts between “natural mother,” prevalent at the time, and “biological mother,” which many adoptive parents preferred but CUB members found insultingly mechanical. The term’s emphasis on birth reclaimed without apology an important place in an adoption process that had too often rendered them invisible and irrelevant. In addition to Campbell, other CUB pioneers included Mary Anne Cohen, Susan Darke, Gail Hanssen, Kathy Leahy, Joanne McDonald, and Sandy Musser. (Musser later became a celebrated and controversial figure as the first search consultant to go to jail. She was convicted on thirty-five counts of fraudulently obtaining confidential records and spent four months in federal prison in 1993 and 1994.) Carole Anderson joined CUB two years after its founding and became one of the group’s most important theoreticians. These women articulated an adoption narrative that was empowering but also full of pain and frustration. Their feelings about the permanence of biological kinship were heartfelt, and so were their views about the devastating, long-lasting effects of surrender on parents and children.

This was a far more ambivalent view of adoption than the sunny picture prevalent between 1940 and 1970, and it revived themes that had a long history: that natal families should be preserved whenever possible and that adoption was extremely risky, unwise, and damaging. Adoption, these women suggested, was not a choice, but proof that they had been deprived of choice. Surrender was a product of material deprivation, social stigma, and political powerlessness rather than a voluntary act.

At a time when feminists emphasized the common plight of all women, CUB’s analysis exposed cracks in the gender consensus even as it revealed changing demographic patterns among birth mothers themselves. Married women who occupied privileged class positions were most likely to be adoptive mothers, whereas women without money were punished for their poverty and girls from middle-class families were ostracized for their premarital sexual activity with pressure to give up their babies. A majority of birth mothers before World War II were married women, but statistical analyses have shown that by the mid-1960s, single women had taken their place. Class privilege divided these two categories of women. CUB represented the latter.

The consequences of adoption for children were as negative as they were for mothers, according to CUB. Adoptees were destined to live without crucial knowledge of their genetic origins and family background, and were disadvantaged by growing up in families where they did not resemble their relatives or “fit in” in other ways. Adoptive parents might provide love and care, and these were precious resources in cases where children had been abandoned by chaotic and dysfunctional natal families. But in most cases, CUB members believed, adoption could not compensate for children’s loss of essential, natural connections.

This suggested that family preservation was CUB’s top priority. CUB never opposed adoption outright, but its argument was that the vast majority of adoptions could and should be prevented. This echoed a position staked out by professionals and policy-makers involved in placing-out and social welfare early in the twentieth century. Instead of adoption services, vulnerable young families should be given the support they needed to overcome their challenges and stay together. Ironically, CUB emphasized family preservation at just the moment when the American welfare state was beginning to contract under effective attack by the right. The expansive safety net they envisioned might have been an alternative to surrender for those women who placed children mainly for economic reasons. But that vision did not survive the Reagan revolution. Recent welfare reform policies have concentrated simultaneously on decreasing out-of-wedlock births and promoting heterosexual marriage as anti-poverty measures. But family preservation programs have been decisively subordinated to policies emphasizing faster terminations of parental rights and adoptive placements.

CUB began as a support group, reaching out to new members with a newsletter, the CUB Communicator. It also attracted a great deal of mainstream media attention from newspapers, women’s magazines, and television. Lee Campbell, CUB’s first president, made four appearances on the popular “Donahue” talk show, for instance. But the first time she was interviewed, by a Boston television station, she was hidden in shadows, evidence of how difficult it was even for committed activists to go public with their stories. Lorraine Dusky, author of the 1979 memoir, Birthmark, was told by other birth mothers that they could not bring themselves to purchase copies of the book even though they wanted to read it. Embarrassment that cashiers might believe they were “one of them” was more than they could bear. Coming out as a birth mother was still cause for severe disgrace.

It was in this judgmental atmosphere that CUB mobilized to promote adoption reform. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the group cooperated with other organizations interested in ending secrecy and promoting search and reunion, including Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). More recently, it has worked with Bastard Nation. CUB members testified at some of the earliest hearings about open records in state legislatures around the country and before the U.S. Congress. Many members of the organization believe that openness is preferable to secrecy in cases where adoption is unavoidable, and the organization went on record in favor of open adoptions in its early years. But it withdrew support after seeing evidence that adopters were reneging on their agreements, most of which are not legally enforceable. CUB members worry that “openness” may simply be a new way to pressure vulnerable girls and women into surrender and make adoption more palatable.

CUB made good on its critical view of adoption and its defense of family preservation by sponsoring a number of programs that aimed to keep young mothers and newborns together through practical help with housing and jobs. In 1978, CUB was also involved in establishing the American Adoption Congress, an umbrella group representing individuals, search organizations, and others devoted to adoption reform.

CUB is still largely identified with the cause of birth mothers. The fact that large numbers of unmarried mothers today keep their babies proves that the stigma of illegitimacy has been reduced very dramatically in recent decades. But birth mothers’ stories still evoke shock and condemnation in a culture that cannot forgive women who surrender children, whether their decisions were made freely or under pressure. In comparison, birth fathers have attracted little notice.

Now almost thirty years old, CUB’s recent activities suggest that the group hopes to advocate effectively for a new and different generation of birth parents. There have been efforts to incorporate more men, publicize their stories of search and reunion, and address their needs. Even in the twenty-first century, however, men have not yet made the dramatic transition from paralyzed privacy to public engagement that CUB pioneered for the women who first gave life to children and then had to live with the pain of giving them up and living without them.

* * *

With special thanks to Lee Campbell, Mary Anne Cohen, Lorraine Dusky, and Jane Edwards.

 

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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© Ellen Herman