A Look at “Respectful Adoption Language”

Over the last 30 years, the adoption industry has developed terminology in order to help “sell adoption,” even going to far as to admit that it is much like “selling cars.” This terminology set is known as “Positive Adoption Language” or “Respectful Adoption Language.”

The term “Respectful Adoption Language” is misleading, as the only parties who are respected in this terminology set are the adoptive parents and the adoption agencies.

What this language lacks is respect for people who were separated from loved ones by adoption:  mothers who grieve for their lost children; and adoptees who have lost their identities,  families, and often their culture and genealogy as well.  Their loss and experience is rendered invisible.

This lack of respect has been reinforced by employees and promoters in the adoption industry, who argued that it would be easier to promote public acceptance of adoption if one could first “linguistically erase” mothers who lost their children to adoption.  One way that they did this was to create the term “birth mother” to replace the original term “natural mother.”

The terms “birthmother” and “birthparent” were first used by author, adoptive parent, and adoption promoter Pearl S. Buck in articles published in 1955, 1956, and 1972, to refer to the mothers of the children she had adopted or had wanted to adopt.

These terms then were promoted in the early 1970s by adoption business employee Marietta Spencer, who is the creator of “Positive Adoption Language” or “Respectful Adoption Language.”   She states in her 1979 article “The Terminology of Adoption” that adoptive parents and the adoption industry should take control of adoption language:

Social service professionals and adoptive parents should take responsibility for providing informed and sensitive leadership in the use of words. … For professionals, the choice of vocabulary helps shape service content” (p. 451).

Spencer then clearly identifies the purpose of “birth-terms”:   To strip natural mothers of their motherhood, their love for their children, and any recognition that they may still be related in any way to their lost children.

Adoption industry social workers Reuben Pannor, Annette Baran, and Arthur Sorosky promoted these terms as well in articles they published in 1974 through 1976.  Through these avenues, the social work profession began applying them into “triad support groups;” and the burgeoning “open records movement” felt that by using these terms (that suppress and deny the motherhood of natural mothers), they could perhaps enlist the support of adoptive parents and adoption agencies.  Some groups felt pressured to use “birth terms.”  Author B.J. Lifton recalls:

” The reform movement tangled with the issue of language as early as the seventies. Lee Campbell, the founder of CUB, just reminded me that I argued for the term “natural mother” because it was the one used in all the historical texts. It was the term I used in my memoir Twice Born, which came out in 1975.  And I still prefer it. But somehow the struggle with the agencies and adoptive parent groups narrowed down to “birth mother” and “biological mother.”

This new terminology set was intended to comfort the people who were adopting, as it was assumed that they wanted to be the sole parents of the child.  The original term “natural mother” was to be eliminated by RAL as it implied that the child’s mother had not lost her mothering connection and relationship to her child.

Thus, the term “birth mother” is intended to imply that mothers who were separated from a child by adoption *were* mothers at the time of their children’s birth but not afterwards, having a solely reproductive role in their children’s lives and history. Defining a woman this way reduces her as being nothing more than a breeder. This attitude towards unmarried mothers, as being living “production units” or sources of babies for adoption, is also evident in the industry’s writings:

Because there are many more married couples wanting to adopt newborn white babies than there are babies, it may almost be said that they rather than out of wedlock babies are a social problem. (Sometimes social workers in adoption agencies have facetiously suggested setting up social provisions for more ‘babybreeding’)” from “Social Work and Social Problems, National Association of Social Workers, 1964.

“... the tendency growing out of the demand for babies is to regard unmarried mothers as breeding machines…(by people intent) upon securing babies for quick adoptions. – Leontine Young, “Is Money Our Trouble? National Conference of Social Workers, 1953.

As for the term “birthfather,” it is a physical impossibility as men cannot give birth. Therefor, the male equivalent of “birthmother” would have to be something just as “ejaculation father.”  RAL proponents also suggest using “sperm donor,” “gene donor,” and “biological stranger” for a father who has lost a child to adoption.

The terms birthchild,  birthson, and birthdaughter were coined to imply that the relationship of adoptees to their natural parents ended at birth, and thus the adoptee is a “product” produced by unrelated “breeders.”   This is intentional on the part of the industry, to “sell” the idea that adoption is “just like having a child of your own.”

The TRUTH is that in reunion, exiled natural parents and their lost children often find that the deep spiritual and emotional bonds between them have never been severed, despite years of separation.  Deep emotions of connection still exist, and family relationships can be restored.  Thus, the b-words are wishful thinking on the part of the industry (adoption lawyers, social workers and agencies).

As one natural mother states:

“’Respectful Adoption Language’ denies us any recognition that we are mothers, and by limiting our motherhood to the act of birth, it reduces us to being nothing more than breeders, valued only for performing a uterine function.  By denying that we are mothers, ‘Respectful Adoption Language; denies that we are related to our children in any way, shape, or form.

Many women who have lost children to adoption feel their loss to have been as traumatic as rape.  These mothers feel the trauma every time they hear the term “birthmother,” as it denigrates them and other exiled mothers into being merely incubators for their children — used and discarded after their babies were harvested from them.

In many support groups for exiled mothers and adoptees, members are beginning to become aware of the semantics of these words, and to by consensus use language that does not traumatize other members, and to not use language that was coined by the adoption industry in order to demean natural mothers or the mother/child relationship.   People separated by adoption are realizing the meanings of  the “Respectful Adoption Language” terms created and imposed upon them by the industry, and are rejecting these labels. They are showing dignity and pride by reclaiming terms such as “natural mother” and “natural family” as ways of stating that the mother-child bond, their family relationship, did not end with birth, but has continued on, often despite decades of separation.


  • Baran, A., Pannor, R., and Sorosky, A. (November, 1974).  “Adoptive Parents and the Sealed Records Controversy,” in Social Casework, 55, (1974), pp. 531-536.
  • Baran, A., Pannor, R., and Sorosky, A. (1976).  “Open Adoption,” in  Social Work, 21, pp. 97-100 (adapted from a paper presented in 1975)
  • Buck, Pearl S.  (1955).  “Must We Have Orphanages?” in Readers Digest, November 1955; Vol. 67, No. 403.
  • Buck, Pearl S.   (1956).   We Can Free the Children,” in Women’s Home Companion, June 1956.
  • Buck, Pearl S.  (1972).   “I Am the Better Woman for Having My Two Black Children,” in Today’s Health, January 1972.
  • Gerow, Darlene. (2002). “ Infant Adoption Is Big Business in America” (PDF)
  • Lifton, B.J.  (September 12, 2006).  Personal correspondence with Origins Canada
  • Pannor, R., Sorosky, A., and  Baran, A. (December, 1974).  “Opening the Sealed Records in Adoption — The Human Need for Continuity,” in  Jewish Community Service, 51 (1974), pp. 188-195.
  • Sorosky, A., Baran, A., and Pannor, R. (January, 1974) “The reunion of adoptees and birth relatives,” in  Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 3, pp. 195-206.
  • Sorosky, A., Baran, A., and Pannor, R. (1975). “Identity conflicts in adoptees,” in The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 45 (January 1975), pp. 18-25
  • Spencer, Marietta. (1979). “The Terminology of Adoption.” in Child Welfare Vol. 58, No. 7, pp. 451-459.

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