Adoption Language


“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality.

Language creates the reality it describes.”   Desmond Tutu

“Birthmothers” are a social construction.   The term “birthmother” was devised by adoption professionals to reduce a natural mother to that of a biological function relegating her to the status of “non mother”. This term marginalizes mothers and creates a role for them in society which does not allow them to fully embrace their lived experience as a mother; but instead implies that the sacred bond of mother and child ends at birth and that her role is secondary to other mothers in society.
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 simply mothers or “natural mothers”. The term “natural” can be traced to illegitimate children being historically labelled as “natural” children and this title being extended to the mother. Many provinces in Canada still use this terminology in their adoption laws. Adoptive parents opposed the term natural mother as they believed it made them “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).
For the adoption myth to work effectively, adoption and adoptive mothers could not be perceived as unnatural, and natural mothers had to be perceived as non-mothers. Further, adoptive parents were promised that the child would be “as if born to”.  The term natural mother 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).  Further, the secrecy of closed adoption records was for the benefit of adoptive parents, not the benefit of natural mothers as governments protecting closed records systems would later attest.
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 applauds any term that implies only a biological tie, such as birth mother or bio-mother.
In 1976 an organization entitled Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) embraced the “birthmother” term for natural mothers.  Forty years ago, the term had not yet been widely used and was construed as empowering for natural mothers 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 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.  Unfortunately the influential adoption industry also recognized the power of these terms, not to empower mothers, but to increase adoptions.
As part of the psychological arsenal of the adoption industry this term not only psychologically destroyed the existence of the natural mother, but also became a coercive tool for use on pregnant youth and women. 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 adoption coercion.  She is given a psychological role to fulfill which is to produce a baby for someone else. A pregnant woman is not a “birthmother”, but simply a pregnant woman or expectant mother.  However, once labelled a “birthmother”, the natural progression of her pregnancy is impeded.  She is psychologically groomed to produce her child for someone else. 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.  Mothers begin to think of themselves as “birthmothers” before they are aware of the powerful transformative powers of birth;  before they hold their babies in their arms; before they are fully aware of the love they will bear their newborn infant.  Adopters are often in hospital and delivery rooms waiting for “their 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 they are 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 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 to be mothers. 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 adoptees 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.  Different classes of mothers are created when “birthmothers” or non-mothers are accepted as a group in society. This term implies that women can be used simply for their wombs which  perpetuates reproductive exploitation.  These concepts flourish widely in western society under the guise of adoption
The term “birthmother”, which is widely used by media, governments, mothers and adoptees, is similar to 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 the individuals in those groups. Society acted appropriately to change these terms when those groups made it clear that they did not wish to be addressed by terms that made them feel less worthy in society.  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 extremely important.  Language defines culture, and norms within society.   The adoption industry allocates enormous resources and works diligently  to promote adoption language which increases and promotes their view of adoption.  Therefore, adoption language becomes an extremely important issue.  Adoption “counselling” by Agencies to newly post partum 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.  It is vital to push back against the destructive, disrespectful, and marginalizing language being promoted by the adoption industry which works towards separating natural families from their lived experience.
Example:  From Holt International Website
POSITIVE LANGUAGE                                                                  NEGATIVE LANGUAGE

Biological Parent Natural/real parent
Birthmother Mother, Real Mother, Natural 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, how it is a tool of the Adoption Industry, how it is used today to coerce pregnant women, how it is used to marginalize mothers from their lived experience, how it separates the mother/child dyad, and how it perpetuates the reproductive exploitation of women and creates different classes of mothers, it becomes impossible to embrace this term without being part of the system of reproductive exploitation it endorses.

  • Axness, M. (2001). When Does Adoption Begin? . The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.
  • Holt International,
  • 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. Australia.
  • Concerned United Birthparents, University of Oregon, Adoption History Project

Copyright © Valerie Andrews 2011