Online adoption ads prey on pregnant women in actions reminiscent of the Baby Scoop era

By Abby Amoakuh

Published Mar 21, 2024 at 09:10 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes


Imagine this: a young woman sitting on her bed with a positive pregnancy test in hand. Her first reaction is shock because this pregnancy is unplanned. Her source of income? A part-time job she is holding down to pay for a Master’s degree. Her home? One tiny room in a flatshare. Student loans? Racking up as you are reading this. But despite everything going against her, she feels bounded to this child and starts Googling “support for single mothers.” What she finds, however, are websites and adverts for adoption agencies.

This is by no means an unusual scenario. Many young women have found themselves in similar situations when they started to research unplanned pregnancies but instead were bombarded with information about adoption.

On the surface, the reasoning is simple. Adoption agencies invest in directing traffic to their sites. As part of this targeted marketing, they often include terms unrelated to adoption, such as “pregnancy support.”

When American news magazine Time carried out an investigation into the matter, it uncovered with one unnamed digital advertising platform that adoption agencies routinely pay for Google ads targetting search queries like “assistance for pregnant mothers in Nevada” or “housing programs pregnant DC.” Other targeted search phrases included “college pregnancy stories,” “prenatal care,” and shockingly, “I’m scared I’m pregnant and I’m fifteen.”

Many of the keywords and questions also addressed pregnancies that carried no sense of crisis or need for help, including “unplanned baby announcement,” and “how to tell your husband you’re pregnant when you weren’t trying.”

Next to adoptive agencies, there are also hundreds of prospective parents who create online profiles and websites to gain the attention of mothers in need. Their intentions are obviously anything but malign. Instead, they have usually been instructed by how-to articles and adoptive services on the art of search engine optimization (SEO) and online advertising. This typically leads to the launch of Google and Facebook ad campaigns, as well as the rigorous development of online profiles with professional photography and writing to create images of families with perfect suburban homes, stay-at-home parents, and lots of disposable income to take better care of a child than the targeted young mother ever could.

This type of advertisement is not only unethical but often considered illegal in several US states, because many of them regulate the extent to which advertising for adoption is allowed. It also builds on a controversial past of taking babies from single mothers that is stretching itself into the present, especially in the UK.

What is the Baby Scoop era?

Between 1949 to 1976, the UK government took around 185,000 babies from their mothers and forced them to be adopted—a period that is sometimes referred to as the Baby Scoop era in the US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

In July 2022, the Joint Committee on Human Rights called on the UK government to issue a formal apology following a damning report that outlined the practice and highlighted the pain and horror many single mothers felt during the period.

In March 2023, Former Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a “sincere, heartfelt and unreserved” apology to people affected. Yet, the UK government has still to follow suit.

Most of the victims were unmarried teenagers who were sent to mother and baby homes run by state, religious or charitable bodies, such as the Catholic Church and the Salvation Army. In these care facilities, they were indoctrinated with feelings of shame and guilt, and in some cases, required to do menial labour before they gave birth and were forced to give their children up.

The report concluded that the government bore ultimate responsibility for the pain and suffering caused by its institutions and state employees.

“For many years, until at least the 1980s, pregnancy outside marriage was severely frowned upon, and frequently young women who found themselves in this situation were given little choice but to give in to the strong pressures which were exerted on them by the authorities to have their babies adopted. They were not given information about the welfare services, including housing and financial help, which were available at the time. There was no question of these women being found to be unfit mothers; they were simply prevented from becoming mothers at all,” Movement for an Adoption Apology stated, a campaign directed at pressuring the UK government into acknowledging their wrongdoing in this ordeal.

Are there still forced adoptions in the UK?

Forced adoptions in the UK have not stopped since the Baby Scoop. The country is still an outlier compared to the rest of Europe when it comes to the frequency of forced adoptions.

In the process of doing research for this article, SCREENSHOT contacted 10 different charities and support lines for single mothers who were unable to give information, either due to concerns about protecting the sensitive information of their clients or simply a lack of access to official figures.

Exact statistics are difficult to pin down, according to Prospect Magazine, however, data from 2014 suggests that almost half of the 5,050 children adopted in the previous year were given new homes without their parents’ consent. In England alone, 80,000 children were removed from their parents in the year up to March 2021. Of those, 4,600 had a placement order, which is a court order granting a local authority to place a child for adoption in cases where parents did not consent. The context behind the removal of the remaining 76,000 is unclear.

Nevertheless, the 2021 data shows that of the 2,270 children “placed in adoption,” only 290, or 13 per cent, were adopted “with consent.”

Statistics like these highlight an enduring legacy of scarce resources and support for parents in need, especially young mothers.

Unethical adverts and adoption practices prevail partially because cultural beliefs prevail that young, unmarried mothers cannot adequately provide for their children. This perpetuates systemic biases and deprives the mothers of the agency to make informed choices about their own futures.

Many young women who are looking at a positive pregnancy test right now and decide to keep their unborn will likely embark on a difficult journey, forcing them to confront little support, bigotry, and worst of all, the enduring opinion that someone else could take better care of their child.

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