American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption

  • By Gabrielle Glaser
  • Viking
  • 352 pp.

A woman is forced to relinquish her newborn in this eye-opening look at the dark side of an allegedly benevolent industry.

Since World War II, the narrative of adoption has undergone a radical transformation from a shameful secret to a celebrated act of benevolence. As Gabrielle Glaser makes crystal clear in her eye-opening, gut-wrenching expose of the “adoption industrial complex,” American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption, that one-sided view has been promulgated by those who most profit off adoption — adoptive parents and private adoption agencies — at the expense of adoptees, their original families, and the truth.

The popular view of non-intrafamily adoption starts with the heartwarming arrival of baby at her forever home, but in reality, every adoption begins with the tragedy of a mother separated from her child. While there are women who can’t or don’t want to raise their own children, most birth mothers are coerced by their culture, religion, family, and/or government into relinquishing their offspring.

Such is the case with Margaret Erle Katz, forced to give up her firstborn. Using their story as an example, Glaser skillfully guides the reader through the socio-economic forces arrayed against an unwed mother and her bastard child:

“Their story wasn’t an aberration; it was representative of a much larger reproductive- and human-rights story that encompassed generations of American women and their sons and daughters, many of whom were exploited for profit and for science.”

Interweaving the saga of Margaret’s fight to keep her baby with copious data and deeply researched history, Glaser’s essential and long overdue study should be required reading for anyone touched by, or considering, non-intrafamily adoption.

In 1961, at the age of 16, Margaret Erle, the daughter of German Jewish refugees, becomes pregnant. She and her 18-year-old boyfriend, George Katz, plan to get married, but their families stand in the way. Margaret is still under the legal guardianship of her parents, and they force her to wait out her pregnancy in a maternity home run by the Louise Wise agency, hidden from polite society.

Even after her newborn, whom she names Stephen, is taken away from her, Margaret refuses to sign the relinquishment papers. Finally, after being told a diplomat wants to adopt her son and threatened with juvenile hall, she gives up legal rights to her son. But she persists in trying to reclaim Stephen, keeping in touch with the agency throughout the years. Margaret and George get married and stay married the rest of their lives, having three more children.

Glaser describes the social and cultural environment that created a system that separated children from loving parents, exploring the attitudes toward sex and gender that shaped adoption policies. In the prosperous 1950s and 60s, American teenagers had more freedom and leisure time than ever, but no sex education:

“Access to the birth control pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, was prohibited even for married couples in some states until 1965…abortion, of course, was illegal — and risky — in most states until the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.”

When they got pregnant, “unmarried girls had to bear the blame for whatever took place between them and their boyfriends.” It was their fault for leading the males on in the first place, and then for not being good enough girls to repel their advances.

By plumbing historical and cultural contexts, the author lays bare the insurmountable forces conspiring against Margaret and George. Even after they evade their disapproving parents by eloping, adoption laws made it impossible for them to reunite with their son. Glaser painstakingly documents, brick by brick, the wall that is erected between parents and relinquished children.

Of the numerous villains in the story, starting with the grandparents who expel their own grandson from the family due to shame, the Louise Wise agency is the most predatory, engaging in outright trickery and coercion in order to profit off the placement of babies into wealthy families.

In a country that fetishized the suburban family, “the number of infertile couples clamoring to adopt babies was skyrocketing, and the demand for adoptable (that is, healthy and white) babies outstripped supply…It was a situation that even a federal employee described as a ‘seller’s market.’”

The social workers at Louise Wise never explained the adoption process to Margaret, or the New York state law that made it “all but impossible for birth mothers to reconnect with their children once they surrendered them. The courts favored adoptive parents and the agencies, leaving women with little legal recourse.”

Adoption is based upon a state-sanctioned lie propagated through altered official documents. Most states seal original birth certificates in an adoption, forever hiding the truth from the very people who have the most right to know it. These laws were enacted by the type of wealthy and privileged people who adopt children, not by the type who give birth to illegitimate children.

How easy it is then, to build lie upon lie. Mothers are urged, as Margaret was, to give their children a life of ease and opportunity that they themselves can never provide. Margaret believed the Louise Wise agency when they told her that Stephen was destined for a diplomat, to be raised in the glittering capitals of glamorous foreign countries, when, in reality, he was adopted by the Rosenbergs, who lived only 10 blocks away from her Bronx home.

In turn, the Rosenbergs, who renamed Stephen David, were told that Margaret was an aspiring scientist at an elite high school and George was a college student, along with other untruths.

Shrouded in secrecy and dominated by private agencies trafficking in lies, the process of adoption became abusive and exploitative.

Some relinquished babies were fodder for scientific experiments as clinicians sought to prove outlandish theories on human development. Twins and triplets were especially prized, and many were separated at birth and then observed through the years, never being told of the true reason they were studied.

Margaret and David do eventually find each other through DNA testing. But their story “does not have a tidy ending: it was never a tidy story.” No adoption story ever is, despite the fantasy of happily-ever-afters that the adoption industry and some adoptive parents relentlessly push.

But the adoption narrative is changing. Glaser touches upon the many adoptee-rights groups that have proliferated since Margaret was forced to give up her son that advocate for the opening of sealed records and the conferring of citizenship on transnational adoptees whose adoptive parents neglected to naturalize them, among other basic human rights.  

The secrecy of adoption is being undermined by DNA home kits. Countries are recognizing the damage done by racist adoption policies. Adoptees are seizing control of the narrative. And American Baby provides a much-needed resource for their continuing struggle.

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.

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