Betty Jean Lifton Dies at 84: Open Adoption As A Legacy

Here’s an obituary of Betty Jean Lifton who died yesterday at the age of 84.   As the obituary notes, Ms. Lifton was a passionate advocate for open adoption.  

There’s been discussion on this blog in the past of parallels that can be drawn between those who are donor conceived and those who are adopted.   Most recently, this discussion was triggered by the Pratten case now awaiting decision in British Columbia.    By no means do I consider the topic to be closed or the issues raised there to be settled.  But it isn’t my intention to reopen them right here an now.

Instead, I thought I’d take a moment to appreciate the changes in our attitudes towards adoption over the last thirty-plus years.     Although according to the NYT obituary, only nine states allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates (I would have thought it was–but that’s merely a measure of my own ignorance), I don’t think that’s a fair measure of the shifts in attitudes we’ve seen.  

Secrecy in adoption was once the overwhelming norm.   Shame was coupled with secrecy, as is so often the case.   Clearly this was not a good thing for anyone involved in the adoption process–not for the children, and not for any of the adults.  

By contrast today I think conventional wisdom is that adoptive parents should be forthright with their children.  (This may, of course, be born of necessity where adoptions are transracial or where the adoptive parent is single or a same-sex couple.)    As the culture generally has come to accept this, resources to support adoptive parents have emerged–everything from children’s books to support groups.    Surely all of this is for the good.   

I don’t mean to say that all the change is attributable to Ms. Lifton.  Obviously change like this is the work of countless individuals, some well-known and some not known at all.   But it’s not a bad moment to take the time to look around and appreciate how much can change over time.


One response to “Betty Jean Lifton Dies at 84: Open Adoption As A Legacy

  1. Julie:

    Just a quick response since I am writing a major paper for a Reproductive Issues class about the Olivia Pratten Case.

    B.J. Lifton was a friend of mine whom I met at my first American Adoption Congress national conference in 2000. Many adopted people and donor conceived people consider her as an essential friend, even though many of them never have met her. She always paid close compassionate attention to anyone with whom she spoke. I once had a two-hour private conversation with her about donor insemination. Although she rarely mentioned DI in her writings, I can guarantee that she considered our issues in the same light as adoption issues and would have definitely supported Olivia Pratten’s arguments in the Vancouver case. She had many involvements as a psychological counselor with those involved with DI. She sought me ought to help her deal with a close relative who chose to have a child through DI who decided to keep the conception a secret from the child. As an advocate for openness in adoption, she also felt that disclosure and open records were a right that people conceived through ARTs must also have. Her anxiety about her close relative was high and I hope she finally broke through his reluctance. I’ll never know.

    I had hoped that she would have lived long enough to make the same impact on ART attitudes as she had on adoption attitudes.

    Her influence was crucial in the “rapid” change in adoption attitudes and the current changes in adoption laws in those seven states (two, Kansas and Alaska, never had closed records). Although there are indeed thousands of individuals who have been working on these slow changes, she was one of the first. Two others need mentioning, adoptee Jean Paton who wrote The Adopted Break Silence in 1954 and who later started the Orphan Voyage advocacy group and adoptee Florence Fisher who wrote The Search For Anna Fisher in 1973 and became the founder of the Adoption Liberation Movement. BJ’s book Twice Born came out in 1974 and became immediately influential, as noted in her obituary. What sets BJ apart from all the others was her gentle compassion, humility, and astonishing eloquence. Having an English degree from Barnard and an equally eloquent psychiatrist husband (and prolific author) Robert Jay Lifton also gave her a means to express emotions beyond anyone else writing in the field. I urge you to spend some time reading at least one of her books, The Journey of the Adopted Self, and you will more readily see the connections I have tried to make here on your blog between the adoption experience and the DI adoptee experience.

    Her work may not have been instrumental in changing laws, which involve incredible patience and political talent, but she indeed can be held up as one of those who have moved adoption out of the darkness of secrecy. Her work has probably persuaded countless adoptive parents and agencies to embrace openness.

    Another pioneer I mourn is Annette Baran, who died a few weeks ago. She is also an influential author on both adoption and donor insemination. Since her wisdom came through the experiences she had as an adoption agent for over thirty years in the former closed records system, she was an effective reformist who knew the system well and could criticize it with true authority. Her best books are The Adoption Triangle and Lethal Secrets (on DI).

    I agree that much has changed over time. I’m 65 and remember the closed era of adoption well (it’s still with us in most states), even before I knew of my DI conception. I have been active in trying for the same change in DI, and with the help of countless others, that change is coming. To those of us who have been at it for decades, however, reform is painfully slow. If I live as long as BJ and Annette, I might just see it someday. That is why Olivia Pratten is my new hero.

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