Orphan Babies 'Loaned' to American Universities

Jeanne Sager

babyEvery once in awhile a skeleton is shaken loose from the American closet that shakes even the most ardent fans of our democracy to the core. Did you know that American babies waiting to be adopted were once loaned out to American universities? Loaned, like library books.

According to what I've been able to dig up since first hearing about these "baby programs," they were abandoned in the '60s, but there was a time when orphan babies were just props in the home economics coursework at colleges. Is anyone else thinking these kids were treated like the animal shelter dogs farmed out to prisoners on an Animal Planet show?

The dogs are usually getting something out of it, while the prisoners are being rehabilitated. And it could be said that the babies got something out of it too -- they were used in classes where women were training to be mothers (in the 1920s, women weren't signing up for PhD programs in droves, this is what many went to college for). They were fed, clothed, etc. According to a report out of Cornell University, which ran one of the earliest "baby programs," the kids were considered highly adoptable because they'd been "raised according to the most up-to-date scientific principles."

But can we really call this "raising" a child? They were passed from student to student to student, used as human dolls in a trial and error process. As a look at the program at Eastern Illinois State Teacher's College -- which gained particular notoriety for taking not wards of the state but babies from unwed mothers -- describes, students "gained experience managing the domestic aspects of homemaking and care for an infant." The kids were mere experiments.

The assumption was the babies were better off with good care than with their inexperienced mothers. And I guess technically, a first time mom is really just experimenting; our kids don't come with instruction books. But at least we're doing it with the life of the child as our first priority; these women were just trying to get a good grade.

It's not the absolute worst skeleton in America's closet -- not when compared to, say, slavery. But it was pretty shocking to me. Have you heard about this? What do you think?


Image via sabianmaggy/Flickr

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