What was the “Baby Scoop Era”?

What was the “Baby Scoop Era”?

The Baby Scoop Era was a period in United States history starting after the end of World War II and ending in approximately 1972, characterized by an increased rate of premarital pregnancies over the preceding period, along with a higher rate of newborn adoption.  From approximately 1940 to 1970, it is estimated that up to 4 million mothers in the United States surrendered newborn babies to adoption; 2 million during the 1960s alone. Annual numbers for non-relative adoptions increased from an estimated 33,800 in 1951 to a peak of 89,200 in 1970, then quickly declined to an estimated 47,700 in 1975 (This does not include the number of infants adopted and raised by relatives.  In contrast, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that only 14,000 infants were “voluntarily” surrendered in 2003.

This period of history has been documented in scholarly books such as Wake Up Little Susie and Beggars and Choosers, both by historian Rickie Sollinger, and social histories such as The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler, a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design who exhibited an art installation by the same title. It is also the theme of the documentary Gone To A Good Home by Film Australia.

Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, illegitimacy began to be defined in terms of psychological deficits on the part of the mother (Solinger, 2000, p. 88). At the same time, a liberalization of sexual mores combined with restrictions on access to birth control led to an increase in premarital pregnancies.  The dominant psychological and social work view was that the large majority of unmarried mothers were better off being separated by adoption from their newborn babies (O’Shaughnassy, 1994, p. 115) According to Mandell (2007), “In most cases, adoption was presented to the mothers as the only option and little or no effort was made to help the mothers keep and raise the children.”

Solinger (2000, p. 149) defines the change that occurred during this period that differentiated it from preceding times:

“Black single mothers were expected to keep their babies as most unwed mothers, black and white, had done throughout American history. Unmarried white mothers, for the first time in American history, were expected to put their babies up for adoption.” [9]

Solinger (p. 95) also describes the social pressures that led to this unusual trend:

“For white girls and women illegitimately pregnant in the pre-Roe era, the main chance for attaining home and marriage… rested on the aspect of their rehabilitation that required relinquishment… More than 80 percent of white unwed mothers in maternity homes came to this decision… acting in effect as breeders for white, adoptive parents, for whom they supplied up to nearly 90 percent of all nonrelative infants by the mid-1960s… Unwed mothers were defined by psychological theory as not-mothers… As long as these females had no control over their reproductive lives, they were subject to the will and the ideology of those who watched over them. And the will, veiled though it often was, called for unwed mothers to acknowledge their shame and guilt, repent, and rededicate themselves.”

According to Ellison (2003, p. 326):

From 1960-70, 27 percent of all births to married women between the ages of 15 and 29 were conceived premaritally. Yet the etiology of single, white, middle-class women’s conceptions had shifted again and were now perceived as symptoms of female neurosis … the majority (85-95 percent) of single, white, middle-class women, who either could not or would not procure an illegal or therapeutic abortion, were encouraged, and at times coerced, to adopt-away their child (Edwards, 1993; McAdoo, 1992; Pannor et al., 1979; Solinger, 1992, 1993).

In popular usage, Singer Celeste Billhartz uses the term on her website to refer to the era covered by her work “The Mothers Project.” A letter on Senator Bill Finch’s website uses the term as well. Writer Betty Mandell references the term in her article “Adoption”. The term was also used in a 2004 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“She and many others opposed to adoption gave birth to children who were later adopted in what some call the “baby scoop era” – a period generally after World War II and before Roe versus Wade in 1973 – when unmarried mothers were shunned by society and maternity homes were in vogue …” (Lohmann, p. G1)

Similar social developments in other countries

The Baby Scoop Era was not limited to the United States. A similar social development took place simultaneously in the United Kingdom,  New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

End of the Baby Scoop Era

Infant adoptions began declining in the early 1970s, a decline often attributed to the decreasing birth rate, but which also partially resulted from social and legal changes that enabled white middle-class mothers to choose single motherhood.

The decline in the fertility rate is associated with the introduction of the pill in 1960, the completion of legalization of artificial birth control methods, the introduction of federal funding to make family planning services more available to the young and low income, and the legalization of abortion.

Brozinsky (1994, p. 297) speaks of the decline in newborn adoptions as reflecting a freedom of choice embraced by youth and the women’s movement of the 1960s-1970s, resulting in an increase in the number of unmarried mothers who kept their babies as opposed to surrendering them. “In 1970, approximately 80% of the infants born to single mothers were placed for adoption, whereas by 1983 that figure had dropped to only 4%.”

In contrast to numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, from 1989 to 1995 less than 1% of children born to never-married women were surrendered for adoption (Chandra, Abma, Maza, & Bachrach, 1999)

Australian decline

It is generally understood that the decline in adoptions in Australia during the 1970s was linked to a 1973 law providing for financial assistance to single parents:

“As it is still historically understood that the sole parent’s benefit did not come into existence until July 1973 and was understood to be a major factor in the decline of adoptable babies, we feel quite comfortable in our assertion that at least until 1973 no alternatives to adoption were being offered. Post-1973 those alternatives were still being hidden from many uninformed young women, but we are unable to ascertain how many mothers who lost their babies had actually been given this information during the 1970s” (Standing Committee on Social Issues, 1999)


  • Brozinsky, A. (1994). Surrendering an Infant for Adoption: The Birthmother Experience. In The Psychology of Adoption, D. Brozinsky and M. Schechter (Eds.). New York: Oxford University Press. (p. 297)
  • Chandra, A., Abma, J., Maza, P., & Bachrach, C. (1999). Adoption, adoption seeking, and relinquishment for adoption in the United States. Advance Data (No. 306) from Vital and Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National center for Health Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved February 16, 2005, from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad306.pdf
  • Ellison, M. (2003). “Authoritative Knowledge and Single Women’s Unintentional Pregnancies, Abortions, Adoption and Single Motherhood: Social Stigma and Structural Violence,” in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol 17(3).
  • Lohmann, B. “World of Adoption; Forced to Give Up Her Baby, She Now Opposes Adoption,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 21, 2004, p. G-1.
  • Maza, P.L. (1984). Adoption trends: 1944-1975. Child Welfare Research Notes #9. Washington, DC: Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, 1984.
  • Mandell, B. (2007). “Adoption. ” New Politics, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter 2007, Whole No. 42
  • Moor, M. (2007). Silent Violence: Australia’s White Stolen Children. A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirement for the Doctorate of Philosophy in Arts, Media and Culture at Griffith University, Nathan, Qld.
  • O’Shaughnassy, T. (1994). Adoption, Social Work, and Social Theory.
  • Parliamentary Paper No. 366, Standing Committee on Social Issues, Report on Adoption Practices, Second Interim Report, Transcripts of Evidence, 16 June 1999 – 25 October 1999
  • Pelton, L. (1988). “The Institution of Adoption: Its Sources and Perpetuation” in Infertility and Adoption, A Guide for Social Work Practice, Deborah Valentine, Editor.
  • Petrie, A. (1998). Gone to an Aunt’s: Remembering Canada’s Homes for Unwed Mothers.
  • Shawyer, J. (1979). Death by Adoption
  • Solinger, R. (2000). Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade.
  • Trackers International, “Survey 1000″
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Information Gateway (2005). Voluntary Relinquishment for Adoption: Numbers and Trends