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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree August 2019 > Adoption Why do people from so many cultures make girls give up their babies? …

Adoption Why do people from so many cultures make girls give up their babies? …

Adoptee and lecturer in ethics, psychology and genealogy, Dr Penny Walters, explores the reasons why babies and children have been ‘given up’ for adoption through history and the emotional issues surrounding the search for biological families today


Children whose parents weren’t married when they were born have been labelled ‘baseborn,’ ‘illegitimate,’ or ‘bastard’, or people said that the baby was ‘born on the wrong side of the blanket’. If someone found out, then the baby was the girl’s ‘dirty little secret’. A more polite description might be ‘natural child’ – although this still distinguishes from a child born within a marriage. Because of inheritance laws, people born outside marriage would have been given these labels to clarify their status, but, as fewer people now have a baby within a marriage than in the past, these old terms can feel even more offensive now.


Shrouded in secrecy

Before adoption was legalised, women who felt they couldn’t keep their baby would secretly give their baby to a relative, maybe the grandmother, or an aunt or sister who couldn’t have children, or to a relative with lots of children. Although the baby may have been kept in the family, the mother would have to watch from the outside and have no say in the matter. Alternatively they might abandon the baby.

In the UK, from 1839, ‘bastardy cases’ were initiated by the mother, who had to produce corroborative evidence to convict the putative father. Bastardy Bonds/Agreements determined which adult male was to support a child. Bastardy cases were reported in local newspapers, and gave the names of both the mother and father. The Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act (1851) is widely considered the first ‘modern’ adoption law. Back in the British Isles, it was made legal to adopt from 1926: the Adopted Children’s Register was established in England and Wales on 1 January 1927; in Scotland in 1930; in Northern Ireland in 1931; and in the Republic of Ireland in 1953.

Many societies don’t ‘like’ an unmarried girl to have a baby. Religious families consider it sinful to have had sex before marriage, and it becomes the girl’s ‘fault’. Many cultures have the presumption that she won’t be able to care for the child ‘properly’, and this can be shown through sinister revelations. Some girls/women report that they were coerced into giving up their baby.

They went into institutions designed to care for them, but were reportedly tricked into believing that their baby was stillborn or had died immediately afterwards, when, in fact, the baby was given to a married couple, often from abroad, who paid expenses to the institution, effectively purchasing a baby, although nobody would have used that word. Because this became commonplace, it has been termed ‘baby scooping’.

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About Family Tree

If a picture tells a thousand words – what stories can our old family snaps reveal to us about our kin from times gone by? • Learn how to date your old family photos and unlock the clues to your kin with our bumper guide on ‘How to date family photos’ by vintage photo expert Jayne Shrimpton. • Discover how to trace long lost family with Dr Penny Walter’s advice on tracing adopted family members and tracing your own birth family if you were adopted. • Travel back in time two centuries to the time of Peterloo – when innocent ancestors were slain on the street, simply for peacefully marching for their hopes for democracy in Manchester 1819. • New to family history? And stuck? Get simple steps to discover more about your family tree Find all this and more in the latest issue of Family Tree!