Maternal Instinct is a Myth by Dr. Beverly Hurwitz



By Beverly Hurwitz MD


People who believe that every fertilized egg should become a child, seem to also believe that maternal instinct will provide for this child, or it will be successfully adopted.  Biology and history do not support these beliefs.


Just as some women are extremely fertile, while others can never conceive, some women choose to mother multiple children, while others have zero interest in motherhood or children. Millennial women have so many more life opportunities than did previous generations, and motherhood can be such a career killer, that it must now be acknowledged that wanting to have children is not an instinct at all, but a choice that many women of the past simply did not have.


The virginal female lab rat, a favorite experimental animal, will typically ignore the cries of infant rats; but if she’s forced to confront a crying rat pup, often, she’ll cannibalize it. Only when a female rat has been infused with pregnancy hormones will she show the maternal behaviors of caring for rat pups. The hormones make her do it, even if she’s not pregnant.


Gentle sheep are another favorite research species. If a mama sheep can’t smell the placenta of her newborn lamb, either because her sense of smell has been compromised or because the newborn’s placenta has been prematurely removed, she may not take care of her infant. A mother sheep whose nose still works, but whose lamb does not smell like her own, will not suckle some other sheep’s baby.


Backyard robins on the other hand, will raise other birds’ offspring. The cowbird often deposits her fertilized eggs in robins’ nests while the robins are out to lunch. Mama cowbird then spies on the nest of the host bird. If the robins destroy her egg, she’ll come back and destroy the robins’ eggs. But typically, the robin parents will take care of all the eggs, and they’ll feed all of the hungry mouths in their nest, including the fledgling cowbird who will grow up to be another reproductive parasite.


Mammals like rats, who nurse their young, are the species most likely to be nurturing parents. Yet even amongst mammals, including the highly domesticated dog and cat, mothers will occasionally kill or eat their offspring, usually a sick puppy or kitten. Malnourished cats will also sometimes eat part of their litter in order to be able to produce sufficient milk for the rest of the litter.


Pregnancy hormones also help humans to connect with their newborns, though not so much for mothers whose babies are born prematurely, before the hormones surge. And, like lambs, human newborns emit chemical signals that stimulate adults to engage with them. Both mothers and fathers can recognize their baby by smell within a few days of birth. Even grandparents will show surges of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, if they spend some time holding the newborn. 


But not every parent gets this hormone surge, and in some parents, post-partum depression kicks in as soon as the hormone levels drop. So for human newborns to survive, cultural support is also critical. For most of human history, grandmothers helped the mothers of newborns to learn all of the many things that are not instinctive, like how to recognize infant signals, how to breast feed, how to care for the umbilical cord, how to take care of your own birth wounds, and how to get some sleep. The hormones don’t teach any of that. Other women do.


In the Netherlands today, a visiting nurse spends several hours every day with new mothers for eight days, teaching them how to mother and helping them to get some rest.  The new mother who doesn’t take care of herself cannot optimally care for her baby.


In Sweden, new parents get 16 months of parental leave time from their jobs, which the mother and father can divide between them as they choose.


In the U.S. new mothers get kicked out of the hospital well before they’ve recovered from the enormous task of labor, and maybe, they’ll receive a pamphlet about newborn care. If the mother can’t read and she doesn’t have knowledgeable help, I’ll probably soon be seeing her newborn in the E.R. with dehydration, infection or some other problem that should have been prevented if American mothers and children were actually valued. I’ll also see the colicky babies of the working mom who only had one week of maternity leave. If these parents can’t find a baby sitter by then and get back to their jobs, they won’t be able to feed the rest of their family.


Early humans had just two jobs: survival and procreation. These tasks were accomplished most successfully by humans living in clans where adults communally cared for the young, who might survive to adulthood and be able to care for the old. If a mother died in childbirth, as so many did, the clan raised the child. Survival of the clan depended on survival of the children, and parenting was their common business. 


The development of agriculture drastically changed human social organization. Once people were able to stop wandering in search of food, they started to claim the property on which they planted fields. Property ownership evolved into patriarchal cultures where bloodlines were considered critical to inheritance. This made adoption of an unrelated child untenable. Bastard children had no rights and could be sold, bought and enslaved, while children abandoned on the church’s doorstep were reared in monastic life. Eventually, monasteries evolved into orphanages, from which boys might be adopted out as apprentice workers and girls might be married off to the otherwise unmarriageable.


In the U.S., in 1859, a movement called the “Orphan Train” attempted to deal with the problem of child beggars and vagrants on city streets. Infectious diseases in urban environments and the Civil War killed many parents, and for about 70 years, approximately 200,000 children from eastern US cities were rounded up and transported to rural areas, where they became indentured to “adoptive” families. The demand by western homesteaders and farmers for this free labor was so great at times, that some Orphan Train children weren’t even orphans, but were stolen from their families. However, many of the actual orphans, having learned to survive on city streets all by themselves, were found to be too disobedient by their adoptive families, and often, they were again abandoned to fend for themselves.


The high degree of exploitation that resulted from seven decades of Orphan Trains led to social concern about this practice of adoption. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century, started to replace institutional care of orphans with family care, changing the focus of adoption from the needs of the adopters to the needs of the child. But it would take another four decades before the social stigma of adopting a “bastard” child started to fade away.  


Due to improvements in obstetric care and changes in sexual mores following World War II, the birth rate of illegitimate children in the 1940’s and 50’s tripled, and both unwed mothers and infertile couples started to view adoption favorably. Laws to make adoption permanent and secret were created in this time period, and the practice of adoption continued to increase until it peaked, around 1970.


The availability of birth control pills in the latter 1960’s, and the Roe v. Wade decision granting Americans the right to choose in 1973, substantially reduced the number of unwanted babies available for adoption. Infertile couples seeking a healthy infant could expect to be on a waiting list for years, so many would-be adoptive U.S. parents, who had enough money, adopted infants from Russia, Romania, Korea, and other countries with higher rates of abandoned babies than could be found than at home; assuming these babies weren’t sold to adoption agencies by parents who needed the money to feed their other children.


Meanwhile, older American children, or children with physical or intellectual deficits, continued then and continue now, to languish in institutions and foster care. Many will never be adopted and will never have a family to call their own. Statistics consistently demonstrate that foreign adoptees have fewer intellectual and behavior problems than do American adoptable children, and that adopted children have more of such problems than do biologic children, by significant margins.


There are currently two adoption systems in the U.S., the private and the public. Healthy newborns are scarce in both systems. The private route can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For less wealthy families who wish to adopt, the public system is fraught with risk. The majority of babies available for adoption through the public system have either been abandoned because they or their parents have significant problems, or because they have been removed from their biologic families by the state and they can be reclaimed by parents who improve their ability to provide for their children. 


If abortion becomes illegal again, educated women of means will be largely successful in their use of birth control, and if confronted by accidental pregnancy, they will have the resources to terminate their pregnancies or arrange private adoptions to give their babies a good chance at life. 


The rest of the unwanted babies that will be available to adopt if abortion becomes illegal, will be the offspring of girls and women who lack basic resources, perhaps because of youth, poverty, homelessness, physical or mental illness, addiction, intellectual deficiency, or entrapment in an incestuous or abusive relationship. These girls and women will have less access to prenatal care. Their life stressors may compromise their pregnancies and they will more often have premature babies and babies with special needs. Maternal instinct will not save these babies, and in most cases, neither will the adoption systems. 


Will Pro-Lifers provide answers for all of the unwanted children they have decided to create?


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