The Language of Adoption



“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality.
Language creates the reality it
describes.”   Desmond Tutu

Language can be discriminatory when we fail to consider the assumptions
which inform the words we use. It expresses cultural norms and belief systems which
are often so entrenched in language as to appear ‘normal’, or ‘true’.
“Watch your Language”, University of Melbourne


“Birthmothers” are a contemporary construction—in fact, “birthmothers” did not exist before the 1970s. The term “birthmother” was devised by adoption professionals in order to marginalize mothers, limit their role to the biological function of birth, and to create a role in society which does not allow mothers of adoption separation to fully embrace their lived experience as a mother. The term also implies that the bond of mother and child within adoption ends at birth.

Prior to the use of the term “birthmother,” mothers of adoption separation were simply called mothers or natural mothers. Many provinces in Canada used the term natural mother in their adoption laws. Adoptive parents opposed the term natural mother as they believed it made them unnatural.  Since the goal of adoption is to mimic heteronormativity and the nuclear family, adoption and adoptive mothers could not be perceived as unnatural. As Turski points out, the term natural mother was also problematic as “it recognized that the sacred mother-child relationship extended past birth and even past surrender…and indicated respect for the mother’s true relationship with her child” (Turski, 2002). 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 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).

During the 1970s, 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 endorses any term that implies only a biological tie, such as birth mother or bio-mother.  These terms were not developed with input from those to whom the terms would apply. 

In 1976, Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) embraced the “birthmother” term for natural mothers.  At the time, the term had not yet been widely used and was viewed as empowering for mothers separated by adoption who were finding their voices. The emphasis of the term on “birth” was felt to reclaim an important place in the adoption process for mothers who had  previously been rendered invisible.  These pioneering and courageous women brought forward many issues for mothers including the lifelong psychological consequences of adoption and the permanence of their kinship and lived experience as mothers. However, the influential adoption industry also recognized the power of the birth terms, not to empower, but to marginalize—and to increase adoptions.

Now in the power of the adoption industry, this term is used not only to psychologically destroy the existence of the natural mother, but also as a tool of coercion for use on pregnant youth and women.  While pregnant, a woman given this identity is instantly drawn into an adoption transaction, since she is given a psychological role to fulfill which is to produce a baby for someone else. A pregnant woman, or expectant mother is not a “birthmother”, but simply a pregnant woman or expectant mother. However, once labelled a “birthmother” by the adoption agency, the natural progression of her pregnancy is impeded as she is psychologically groomed to produce her child for someone else. Mothers begin to think of themselves as “birthmothers before they are aware of the transformative powers of birth. The title “Birthmother” becomes her identity. This is a form of reproductive exploitation.

Having a mother choose adopters and bond with them prior to birth (known as pre-birth matching) is common adoption practice. Adopters are often in hospital and delivery rooms waiting for “our baby” which increases the pressure and feelings of obligation on a newly post-partum mother to complete her assignment.  Adoption agencies encourage mothers to make “hospital plans” since they are fully aware that when mothers see and hold their babies they will have difficulty in surrendering them against their natural instinct, “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 be the one to catch the attention of a vulnerable pregnant woman in a sea of desperate infertile couples. If lucky enough to secure one, she is often referred to as “our birthmother” similar to their car or other chattel.

In recent years, the adoption industry has introduced “Birthmother’s Day”, to be celebrated the Saturday before Mother’s Day. The celebration of  Mother’s Day is one that was created to honour mothers.  Mothers who are separated from their children by adoption have the same right as all other mothers to be honoured on this day. Mother’s Day is rightfully and equally their day to reflect upon, celebrate and acknowledge their motherhood as they choose to do; and to 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 mothers worthy of being honoured on Mother’s Day. Separate social celebrations called “Mother’s Day” and “Birthmother’s Day” perpetuate the marginalization of mothers separated from their children by adoption and undermines their recognition in society as mothers. This blatant separation of mothers is often embraced by young, unsuspecting mothers and persons adopted who may not fully understand the implications of their complicity.

The “birth terms” comprise part of the insidious psychological coercion which continues in modern society and are 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 She resides in the borderlands. (Anzaldúa, 1999). Different classes of women are created when “birthmothers” or non mothers are accepted as a group in society. In addition, this term implies that the value of a woman can be reduced to her reproductive powers which perpetuates reproductive exploitation.  These concepts flourish widely in western society under the guise of adoption.

The term “birthmother”, which is widely used, was clearly not developed with those to whom the term is directed.  Groups and individuals in society should have self determination with respect to any term applied to them. Many have voiced the argument that “it is just language” and that “we have more important things to worry about”. The lexicon used by society is vitally important.  Language defines culture and norms within society.

The adoption industry allocates enormous resources and works diligently to promote their view of adoption language which increases reproductive exploitation. Therefore, adoption language becomes an extremely important issue. Adoption “counselling” by Agencies to new mothers includes instruction on how to refer to themselves and other family members, and what language to use when explaining and communicating about adoption. This has been identified by the industry as “Positive Adoption Language” and most Adoption Agency websites promote this language.  Most recently the term “reunion” is being promoted as negative language and “making contact with” as positive language since the term “reunion”  denotes a previous bond or relationship. According to the adoption industry,  a mother calling her child her “own child” is considered negative language, while “birth child” is positive. It is vital to push back against the destructive, disrespectful, and marginalizing language being promoted by the adoption industry which works towards separating women from the truthful expression of their lived experience.

Example:  From Holt International Website

POSITIVE LANGUAGE                                                                  NEGATIVE LANGUAGE

Biological   Parent Natural/real   parent
Birth   father/mother Real   Natural Father/Mother
Birth   Child Own   Child
Parent Adoptive   Parent
Making   Contact With Reunion
Search Track   down parents

Once we learn about the history of the term birthmother and how it is used:

a) as a tool of coercion by the adoption industry to obtain babies for adoption
b) to marginalize women from their lived experience as mothers
c) to create “birthmother” borderland identities
d) to market goods and services for the adoption industry
e) to perpetuate the reproductive exploitation of women
f) to create different classes of mothers within society

…it becomes impossible to embrace this term.

Copyright Valerie Andrews 2009 with permission.


Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands = La frontera, 2nd ed., San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Axness, M. (2001). When Does Adoption Begin? . The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.

Holt International, Positive Adoption Language, retrieved from

Origins Canada. (2011). The Development of “Birth Terms” to Refer to the Natural Mothers of Adoptees (1955 to 1979).   Download PDF.

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.

Concerned United Birthparents, University of Oregon, Adoption History Project