Evidence-Based Advocacy is a column that seeks to bridge the gap between the research and activist communities. It will profile provocative new abortion research that activists may not otherwise be able to access.
Reproductive health academic and activist writing contains no shortage of articles devoted to untangling the various intersections between access to abortion, abortion stigma, and poverty. The same thoughtful commentary and analysis has been applied to parenting and motherhood, exploring ways that different mothers are subjected to stigma and societal judgment for their reproductive choices based on race and social class. Yet, when it comes to adoption, the intersections with poverty are just as complicated and deserving of analysis yet less examined by those who care deeply about reproductive health, rights, and justice. Since November marks the beginning of National Adoption Awareness Month, we decided to come together to review some new research on adoption and poverty.
Before Roe v. Wade, women had few good options when facing a unplanned pregnancy: get married (if they weren’t already) and parent the child; give birth and relinquish the baby for adoption; become a single mother in a society where that role was even more stigmatized and less supported than it is now; or, risk their health and life with an illegal abortion, should they know where to find one. Unsurprisingly, the demographic breakdowns of who chose which option varied dramatically by race and social class. Data from researcher Christine Bachrach, et al., shows that most White women facing unintended pregnancy (64 percent) married before the child was born and parented that child, compared to only 21 percent of Black women. Nineteen percent of White women relinquished children for adoption (usually under coercive circumstances), compared to under two percent of Black women. Most of these disparities are best attributed to the ways different communities accepted non-marital pregnancy and single motherhood. In her book Wake Up, Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade, historian Rickie Solinger writes:
“White women in this situation were defined as occupying a state of ‘shame,’ a condition that admitted rehabilitation and redemption [through adoption]… Black women, illegitimately pregnant, were not shamed but simply blamed…There was no redemption for these women.”
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Today these racial disparities may be significantly less pronounced, but they have persisted. Though adoption rates for all women are very low (hovering between one to two percent for the past 15 years), it’s difficult to draw conclusions regarding race. It remains true, however, that the women who relinquish or place children for adoption are almost always of a lower socioeconomic status than the families that adopt their children.
How, then, do the intersections between adoption, poverty, race, and class play out today? How are birth parents—most likely living in open adoptions, where they have ongoing contact with their child and his or her adoptive family—affected by these social differences? A new paper by sociologist Kathryn Sweeney examines perceptions of birth parents held by their counterparts: their own children’s adoptive parents.
Sweeney’s primary thesis is that the way our culture understands poverty broadly influences the way adoptions are lived individually. She relates the culture of poverty (that is, the socially-conservative American model for explaining inequality which attributes poverty to an inherent laziness or lack of personal responsibility in low-income communities) to adoption by saying:
“[adoption] perpetuates culture of poverty arguments by assuming that removing children from families is a solution to poverty; removing children implies that the families they are born into are inadequate to raise them… The focus on failures means that connections are lacking to larger economic systems that lead to placements by disempowered birth mothers and give privileged adoptive parents access to children.”
Through 15 in-depth interviews with White adoptive parents, Sweeney examined how they perceive their child’s family of origin, and how those perceptions are influenced by broader ideas of a culture of poverty. The narratives of adoptive parents – even those adoptive parents who recognize the structural causes of poverty—focus on individual choice, individual responsibility, and courage and altruism in making adoption decisions. Many viewed birth parents as making “bad choices” that led to their pregnancy, and described a “pathology of poverty” in which the negative traits associated with poverty were viewed as contagious—and, consequently, the adoption was a redemptive way out. Not so different, then, from the type of “redemption” that Solinger describes as being available to women 50 years ago.
Though a small study, the implications here are profound. Sweeney’s findings represent challenges for those in the adoption community: agencies that unwarily allow culture-of-poverty discourses to influence discussions of adoptions; adoptive parents who view their child’s family of origin as substantially different from their own; birth/first families who attempt to negotiate ongoing openness in their adoptions across a cultural divide that is both real and manufactured; and adoptees who must develop an identity that reconciles both their adoptive parents’ ideas of their original families and their own feelings about their origins.
Outside of the adoption community, though, these findings tell us something about the “stickiness” of the culture of poverty narrative. It has become such an entrenched part of understanding inequality in our society, such an easy and accessible way of attributing difference, that it creates barriers to understanding and empathy. This narrative allows us to inappropriately view individuals’ reproductive choices outside of the context of their whole lives, and outside of a broader social context that includes systemic inequalities—and, in doing so, it prevents us from fully understanding how to allow people greater control over those choices.
"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"
In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.
To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in thecenter’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”
While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.
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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?
PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.
On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.
We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.
Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?
PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.
Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.
Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.
PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.
All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.
Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?
PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.
While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.
As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.
Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?
PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.
The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?
How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?
Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.
The same white supremacy that declared Black men and women to be hypersexual also subjected troubled or abused white girls to incarceration and state-sponsored sterilizations to make sure the teens did not pass on "bad" genes and "ruin the race."
From 1929 to the mid-1970s, North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people in the nation’s most aggressive program of its kind. It was all in the name of eugenics, a coin termed by Francis Galton to describe efforts to “improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” The program stopped as opinions began to shift surrounding eugenics—and lawsuits were filed against North Carolina’s Eugenics Board on behalf of those who had been sterilized—but 30 states participated in similar ones targeting a wide range of people, including people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.
Seventy-seven percent of all those sterilized in North Carolina were women; about 2,000 were people 18 and younger. Before the 1960s—when Black people became the majority of those sterilized—poor, rural white girls were the primary targets of authorities and women reformers. Girls were punished for engaging in so-called “deviant” behaviors, such as sexual activity or crossing racial lines in their romantic interests. Poor white girls who were sexually abused were also criminalized, labeled “feeble-minded,” and institutionalized.
This is the history explored by East Carolina University professor Karin Zipf in her new book, Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory. Samarcand Manor, North Carolina’s “industrial school” for girls, was a juvenile facility designed to keep troubled girls “in line.” In reality, this whites-only institution in the town of Eagle Springs was a violent place where courts, social workers, and parents committed young white girls for not adhering to social norms or the rules of white supremacy.
Founded in 1918, the institution began sterilizing girls after 16 girls set fire to two Samarcand dormitories in 1931. Officials believed that sterilizing the girls by tubal ligation would stop them from passing on “defective” genes. Though the justifications for the so-called treatments varied among groups in power, the prescription remained the same. Hundreds of girls and young women suffered forced sterilizations before the state sterilization program ended. Samarcand closed in 2011, but it was reborn as a new law enforcement training facility in 2015.
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Author Zipf spoke to Rewire about early 20th-century eugenics beliefs, the dangers of Southern white womanhood, and Samarcand Manor’s legacy.
Rewire: How do you remember first hearing about Samarcand Manor?
Karin Zipf: There were about two or three articles that came out in the late ’90s on institutions, [which] referenced the arson case at Samarcand where the girls burned down their dormitories. The girls at Samarcand were arrested on arson, which at the time could result in a death penalty charge. [The charges were reduced, and some of the girls were incarcerated.] So, historians knew of this case, but few had written on it. One book that was particularly interesting to me is by a historian named Susan Cahn—I have to shout out to her. Her book, Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age, was really inspiring. She wrote one chapter on the fire.
Rewire: What were some of the challenges of tackling Samarcand’s history?
KZ: The research was challenging. I didn’t have any oral history to rely on because everyone I might have interviewed was deceased. State restrictions were hard to get around because we’re dealing with sensitive information here and generally, health records are closed to the public too. It’s a double-edged sword because obviously, policies are put in place to protect people’s privacy. But on the other hand, it makes it very difficult for researchers to go in and see how the state treats children.
Rewire: Often when we talk about white supremacy, the focus is how it affects people of color. But it was very interesting to explore how white supremacy affects white girls and women in particular. In some ways, is Samarcand is a direct result of white supremacy and wanting young girls to conform to feminine representations of it?
KZ: This is what I find to be the real topic here. I teach and research U.S. Southern history, so race is obviously a very important part of that. When I learned this was an institution only for white girls, I knew white supremacy was central to the story, especially because I knew that African-American girls in need at the same time were literally left on the street.
The state and upper-class women reformers believed these young white girls to have fallen from some sort of grace by becoming [sex workers] or choosing sexually active lifestyles. Reformers—those who pushed for the [initial] creation of Samarcand—believed that when [a white girl] falls from grace, she can get back up again. If you were a white girl, it was their job to help you get back up again.
At this same time, there was a white supremacy movement that was impacting how eugenics was viewed. … This wasn’t just in North Carolina, of course, but here eugenics beliefs were on the upswing, especially this idea that there were genetic defects that caused differences in society. Eugenicists believed genetic defects caused poverty, promiscuity, delinquency, etc.
There were people at the time who called themselves mental hygienists, who had a different understanding of womanhood than the Victorian reformers who saw “fallen” girls as disgraced. For example, they saw sexuality as a positive thing, provided it occurred within the confines of marriage. They believed women had sexual desires, that they were sexual beings, but that girls who were “mentally defective”—as they called it—gravitated to promiscuity or delinquency.
Victorian reformers and mental hygienists expressed two different attitudes about womanhood, but both were informed by constructions of whiteness and how that should look or be defined. Mental hygienists believed these girls had become so impoverished, they could not be saved. [Their behavior] was believed to be a genetic impurity that was going to spoil the white race, so they needed to be institutionalized and segregated from society at places like Samarcand—and this often also meant being sterilized.
Rewire: Some of the most interesting areas of your book delved into the historical meaning of Southern white womanhood and how this particular racist brand of womanhood deeply influenced eugenic science, especially in North Carolina. Talk to me about that.
KZ: The concept of Southern white womanhood is very much a multitiered system defined by race and sexuality. White men are at the top, they’re the top tier. They are seen as the protectors, and they are seen as the breadwinners. They believe themselves to be providing law and order, especially when it comes to race.
Next are white women, who are seen as chaste, virtuous, passive, obedient, domestic, and motherly. If they do enter into the public arena, it’s for the purpose of “public housekeeping,” [such as social work and advocacy for children].
Southern white womanhood rests on this ideal these young girls could not really meet. These were girls from the very bottom of the white social ladder; they were in abject poverty. These girls were out in the street hanging out with all kinds of people; they weren’t at home doing domestic chores. The big fear was that these girls were going to have children with Black men. White supremacists saw these girls’ lifestyles as the worst-case scenario for white supremacy; they believed these white girls were going to spoil the race by having children with men of color. This is why these girls were so strictly policed, perhaps more than other demographic group.
African-American men occupy the third tier. According to white supremacist beliefs, African-American men are aggressive. If you look at images from this time, they’re really horrible. Black men are portrayed as beastly, as predators, and what they want is access to white women. I strongly believe that so much of what Jim Crow was about was to separate Black men from white women.
In this system, Black women are at the bottom. They are seen as the opposite of pure, virtuous white women. The word often used at the time was “lascivious,” and African-American women were often referred to as “Jezebels.” The reason why reform efforts were focused on white girls is because white reformers assumed that Black girls and girls of color couldn’t be saved.
Rewire: I assumed that the way we put white womanhood on a pedestal protects all white women, but your book is an example of how that’s not always the case. Upholding Southern white womanhood in particular is also harmful to certain kinds of white women. How much is class responsible for this?
KZ: Around the same time as the early days of Samarcand, there were a number of textile strikes, which [often] involved young women. Some of the girls at Samarcand were cotton mill workers or the children of cotton mill workers. Affluent whites already had negative associations with textile workers because of the strikes, so there’s already a sort of demonization of the working class—and this is part of our history we don’t talk about enough. There were strikes all over the South, but it’s a part of North Carolina history that’s almost been lost.
You have these girls who are wearing overalls with caps twisted backwards, and they’re protesting and yelling in the streets. Today, society views protesters as socially disruptive at best, but back then these young girls were seen as ruining the race.
Rewire: Your book has an entire chapter on Kate Burr Johnson, who is written about rather favorably in North Carolina history, even while promoting eugenics and white supremacist ideals as the first woman state commissioner of public welfare from 1921 to 1930. She emphasized the interplay of culture and biology, which was, at the time, a pretty common stance in the South among intellectuals. Why was this such a popular idea?
KZ: Eugenicists generally agreed with the idea that “cultural” characteristics like juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and poverty were passed through genes. The belief was that once those genes get into the line, there is no getting them out—and it didn’t matter what race you were.
But Southern eugenicists, such as Kate Burr Johnson, formulated a different theory to protect their belief in “white purity.” Southern eugenicists didn’t want to say that there was something in white people’s genetics that made them defective; that meant whites couldn’t be inherently superior. They had to get around that idea somehow, so Southern white eugenicists adopted a theory from a biologist named [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck, which said that genes can mutate based on the environment and then those mutated genes can be passed on and introduced into the DNA of offspring.
The way that Southern eugenicists were able to sidestep any contradictions poor whites posed to white supremacy was by explaining that some white people became impoverished, for example, and when their poverty continued for generation after generation, then that environment of poverty affected their genetic makeup. Kate Burr Johnson really believed that poor whites’ DNA became disfigured to the point that they lost their whiteness. Other eugenicists weren’t buying it, but the Southern eugenicists were trying to figure out a way to modify the eugenics argument in order to meet their need of carrying on this idea of the “purity” of the white race.
Rewire: The ableism of the time was also pretty extreme. Young girls who were sexually assaulted were deemed “mentally defective” or “feeble-minded.” How was ableism used to further stigmatize these girls?
KZ: That was a really hard part of this research, honestly. In some instances, we’re talking about girls as young as 10 years old, raped by their own fathers, yet they’re being labeled as “mentally defective.” These girls were forced to take IQ tests designed for 19-year-old World War I-era soldiers. When these girls failed the tests—especially those already labeled as promiscuous—they were classified as “feeble-minded.”
In my reading of these records, so many girls were clearly exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after repeated sexual assaults—and no one thought to question what they’d been through. It created this added layer of discrimination against these girls. The injustice was so deep, and no one called what happened rape or incest or sexual assault. If it was acknowledged that there was a problem at home, rather than address the perpetrator, Samarcand became a place to send the girls who were victims of assault, effectively punishing them for something horrible that happened to them.
Rewire: Was Samarcand an example of how white womanhood is placed on a pedestal and the lengths people will go to uphold and protect this idealized version of white Southern womanhood, or is it more of an example of what happens to young women who don’t conform to very particular ideas of what womanhood should look like?
KZ: I think it’s both. White Southern womanhood is this ideal that so many were desperate to meet because it had huge implications for the preservation of the white race. They would do anything—including isolate, segregate, quarantine, and sterilize young white girls—just to uphold the ideal.
But ultimately what I’m really trying to talk about here is the fluidity of white supremacy. In the effort to defend the “purity of whiteness,” white supremacists often disagreed with one another about the mechanisms for doing so. “Whiteness” appeared to be a fixed category, but Victorian reformers and mental hygienists disagreed sharply on the treatment of poor white girls who did not meet the purity ideals. I hope this encourages more dialogue about the construction of whiteness and the dangers of it.
Rewire: Do you think any of the themes surrounding your book or any themes around Samarcand are present in today’s culture and how we view womanhood?
KZ: I think that our concerns today really revolve around the control of women’s reproductive choices. I hope we can think about the ways white supremacists in the past justified the control of women’s bodies. What we see today is another iteration of that.
Why do states invest so much in attempting to control women’s bodies, and for what reasons? What populations of women are most impacted? These are important questions. Why does the state enforce laws to control women’s sexuality? We see it all the time. We should know the motivations and justifications that people have used in the past to restrict women’s sexuality. The lessons of Samarcand hopefully will empower us to better understand our world today.
This interview was conducted by email and by phone. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.