The language of adoption is changing and evolving, and since the 1970s has been a controversial issue tied closely to adoption reform efforts. The controversy arises over the use of terms which, while designed to be more appealing or less offensive to some persons affected by adoption, may simultaneously cause offense or insult to others. This controversy illustrates the problems in adoption, as well as the fact that coining new words and phrases to describe ancient social practices will not necessarily alter the feelings and experiences of those affected by them. Two of the contrasting sets of terms are commonly referred to as positive adoption language (PAL) (sometimes called respectful adoption language (RAL)), and honest adoption language (HAL).
Adoption practices have changed significantly over the course of the 20th century, with each new movement labeled, in some way, as reform. Beginning in the 1970s, efforts to improve adoption became associated with opening records and encouraging family preservation. These ideas arose from suggestions that the secrecy inherent in modern adoption may influence the process of forming an identity, create confusion regarding genealogy, and provide little in the way of medical history.
The period 1945 to 1974, the baby scoop era, saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. Illegitimate births rose three-fold after World War II, as sexual mores changed. Simultaneously, the scientific community began to stress the dominance of nurture over genetics, chipping away at eugenic stigmas. In this environment, adoption became the obvious solution for both unwed people and infertile couples.
During the same period, the Progressive movement swept the United States with a critical goal of ending the prevailing orphanage system. The culmination of such efforts came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, where it was declared that the nuclear family represented "the highest and finest product of civilization" and was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned. Anti-institutional forces gathered momentum. As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. Less than forty years later, nearly one-third were in an adoptive home.
The next stage of adoption's evolution fell to the emerging nation of the United States. Rapid immigration and the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding of orphanages and foundling homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister became appalled by the legions of homeless waifs roaming the streets of New York City. Brace considered the abandoned youth, particularly Catholics, to be the most dangerous element challenging the city's order.
As a reaction against the bans and hurdles affecting international adoption, scholars Elizabeth Bartholet and Paulo Barrozo claim that every child has a right to a family as a matter of basic human rights. This claim devalues heritage or "cultural" claims and emphasizes the child's existence as a human being rather than a "property" of specific nations or, for example, abusive caregivers.
The practice of closed adoption (aka confidential or secret adoption), which has not been the norm for most of modern history, seals all identifying information, maintaining it as secret and preventing disclosure of the adoptive parents', biological kins', and adoptees' identities. Nevertheless, closed adoption may allow the transmittal of non-identifying information such as medical history and religious and ethnic background. Today, as a result of safe haven laws passed by some U.S. states, secret adoption is seeing renewed influence. In so-called "safe-haven" states, infants can be left, anonymously, at hospitals, fire departments, or police stations within a few days of birth, a practice criticized by some adoption advocacy organizations as being retrograde and dangerous.
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