WE DO NOT CONDONE THE
USE OF THE “BIRTH” TERMS SUCH AS “BIRTHMOTHER”
"birthmother" is a derogatory, degrading and inhumane term
which was devised by adoption professionals to relegate a
natural mother to a biological incubator for
The term "birthmother" was created by adoption
professionals to relegate the natural mother to a biological
function. This term marginalizes mothers and creates a role
for them in society which separates them from their lived
experience. The use of this term implies that the sacred
mother-child bond ends at birth and that the natural mother
is secondary to adoptive parents and other mothers in
The earliest recorded use of the terms “birthmother”
and “birth parents” are in articles written by adoptive
parent Pearl S. Buck in 1955, 1956, and 1972. They were
further used in articles published between 1974 and 1976 by
adoption workers Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor and social
work professor Arthur Sorosky (Origins Canada, 2011).
Prior to the use of the term “birthmother,” mothers of
adoption separation were “natural mothers”. Most
provinces in Canada still use this terminology in their
adoption laws. Adoptive parents were uncomfortable
with the term natural mother as it was felt it made them
unnatural. “We use the term "birth family" instead of
using "natural parent" as this implies that there is
something unnatural about adoption.” (Snodden2009).
The term natural mother was also challenged as “it
recognized that the sacred mother-child relationship
extended past birth and even past surrender” and “it
indicated respect for the mother’s true relationship with
her child” (Turski, 2002).
adoptive parents and further to imply that the
sacred bond of mother and child ends at birth in order to
facilitate and further the adoption agenda .”
“Language is powerful. It is a tool of oppression.
Groups that control the lexicon (words people use) can
control a society’s thinking subversively”
LANGUAGE OF ADOPTION
“Language is very powerful. Language does not just
Language creates the reality it
describes.” Desmond Tutu
For the adoption myth to work effectively, adoption and
adoptive mothers could not be perceived as unnatural.
Adoptive parents were promised that the child would be “as
if born to” and that “no one will ever come for the child.”
The secrecy of closed adoption records was for the benefit
of adoptive parents, not for the benefit of natural mothers
as governments protecting closed records would later
attest. Calling a natural mother by her true name was
intimidating and threatening to adoptive parents. The
“natural mother” had to be destroyed. Adoption
reformer Dian Wellfare explains, “Adoption practice works on
the premise that, in order to save the child, one must first
destroy its mother.” (Wellfare, 1998)
The work of Marietta Spencer, a social worker at the
Children’s Home of Minnesota St. Paul and co-director of the
Adoption Builds Families Project, became the model for the
adoption language in use today. Her work strongly supported
the use of the adjective “birth” for mothers, fathers,
sisters, and any other relatives of a child who was being
adopted. These terms were meant to assign the mother’s
relationship with her child to that of simply giving birth,
relegating her role to that of a biological event. In
Marietta Spencer’s work, she applauds any term that implies
only a biological tie, such as birth mother or bio-mother.
In addition, it was suggested by Marietta Spencer that the
term birth mother or “the women who gave birth to you”
was useful in explaining birth to a young adopted child; and
in so doing became part of the psychological warfare used on
adopted children by minimizing their mother.
The adoption industry embraced these birth terms calling
them “Respectful Adoption Language” (RAL), although they
were hardly respectful to natural families, and in
particular natural mothers.
This new language not only psychologically destroyed the
existence of the natural mother, but also became a tool in
the arsenal of the adoption industry for use on pregnant
youth and women for coercion. By labelling a pregnant woman
a “birthmother” BEFORE birth, the adoption industry had a
new, powerful weapon in hand.
While pregnant, a woman given this label is instantly drawn
into coercion and given a psychological role to fulfill by
the adoption industry. A pregnant woman is not a
“birthmother”, but simply an expectant mother.
However, once labelled a “birthmother”, the natural
progression of her pregnancy is impeded. She is
psychologically changed through this label and is expected
to produce her child for someone else. Pre-birth
matching, a practice where mothers choose adopters and bond
with them prior to birth is common in modern domestic
adoption. This is reproductive exploitation.
The adoption industry is fully aware of the transformative
nature of birth, however a woman who is pregnant for the
first time is unaware of how she will feel when she holds
her newborn baby for the first time. In most cases,
adopters are present in delivery rooms and hospital waiting
for “their baby” and the mother feels pressured and
obligated to “complete her assignment”. This is why the
adoption industry encourages mothers to have a “hospital
plan” to ensure mothers do not change their minds once they
see their child. Mothers labelled “birthmothers”
during pregnancy have a job to do, and that job is to create
a baby for someone else, and to “deliver the goods” upon
delivery. “The only thing I was ever told was that it was
best to begin separating now... To think of myself as a
birthmother rather than a mother.” (Heather Lowe, natural
mother, quoted by Axness, 2001)
A lucrative satellite industry has grown from the term
“birthmother.” This industry promotes “Birthmother Packages”
(offering everything from all expense paid trips to designer
maternity wear), “birthmother” jewellery,” birthmother”
stationery, “birthmother” gifts, and more. Marketing firms
aid prospective parents in drafting “Dear Birthmother
Letters” designed to catch the attention of a
vulnerable pregnant woman in a sea of desperate infertile
couples. If lucky enough to catch one, she is referred to as
“our birthmother” similar to their car or other chattel.
The celebration of Mother’s Day was created to honour
mothers. For mothers of adoption separation, Mother’s
Day is rightfully and equally their day to reflect upon,
celebrate and acknowledge their motherhood as they choose to
do; they stand equally with all other mothers on that
day. In contrast, “Birthmothers Day” was created to
marginalize natural mothers, and to perpetuate the message
that mothers separated from their children by adoption are
not considered to be mothers. Separate social
celebrations called “Mother’s Day” and “Birthmother’s Day”
perpetuate the marginalization of natural mothers and
undermine their position in society. This blatant separation
of mothers is often embraced by young, unsuspecting mothers
who may not fully understand the implications of their
The “birth terms” are part of the insidious psychological
coercion and have been derived to break the bond between
mother and child. A mother cannot be a mother and a
“birthmother” at the same time. This term keeps her
separate and apart, in her separate sphere. The use of
this term is synonymous with past practices such as
preventing eye contact between mothers and babies in
delivery rooms, sealing original birth certificates, and
changing the identity of children.
The term “birthmother” which is widely used by media,
governments, and even by mothers themselves, is similar to
many other words which we do not use in society today. The
difference is that groups have rallied together and fought
against inappropriate terms applied to them by society, and
have had new terms applied to their status which are
acceptable to them.
For example, terms such as African American, disabled,
challenged, Little People, and First Nations are terms which
have replaced others that were felt to be inappropriate,
degrading, and disparaging for those groups. Society has
responded appropriately to various groups when they have
insisted they be identified differently. Groups and
individuals in society should have self determination with
respect to any term applied to them.
Once it is understood how and why the term
birthmother was coined, how it is used today to coerce women
before and during birth, and how it is used to marginalize
women after birth, it becomes impossible for us as a group
to embrace this term in any way. This is not a term that we
created for ourselves, but is a term that was created for us
by the adoption industry to break our bond with our
children, to destroy our identity as mothers, and to
relegate us to the sidelines of their lives.
We are mothers. We are simply mothers... and if
differentiation is required, we are natural mothers.
Even though we may be separated from our children by
adoption, our motherhood remains. It is time to abolish the
“birth terms” in our modern vocabulary.
Axness, M. (2001). When Does Adoption Begin? . The
Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and
Origins Canada. (2011). The Development of “Birth
Terms” to Refer to the Natural Mothers of Adoptees (1955 to
1979). Download PDF.
Snodden, Catherine, Communications Coordinator,
Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, 2009.
Spencer, M. (1979). The terminology of adoption. Child
Welfare, 58(7), 451-459.
Turski, D. (2002). Why “Birthmother” Means “Breeder”
. Mothers Exploited By Adoption.
Wellfare, D. (1998). A Sanctioned Evil.
Submission to the NSW Australia Parliamentary Inquiry into
Past Adoption Practices.
Copyright © Valerie