When the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion earlier this year, my stomach lurched — not only because of what the decision will mean for the future of our country, but because I’m also acutely aware of the realities of our not-so-distant past. In researching my book American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Secret History of Adoption, I spent years looking at how women dealt with unplanned pregnancies in a country that banned abortion. I focused on the widely ignored consequences of adoption post-World War II, America’s preferred solution for girls and women “in trouble.”
The history of adoption has never been more relevant. Following the overturning of Roe, states across the country immediately banned or severely restricted abortion and anti-abortion activists began to tout what they call “adoption, the loving option.” Adoption agencies started gearing up to process what they hope will be an uptick in what the Dobbs decision cited as the “domestic supply of infants.”
In the years between 1945 and 1973, more than three million young, unmarried women were forced to surrender their newborns to an exploitative adoption industry. Most lost touch with their children for decades, if not forever.
Then, as now, the number of couples struggling to conceive vastly outnumbered the infants available for adoption. The mismatch between supply and demand widened in the Roe years as the vast majority of people with crisis pregnancies either had abortions or became single parents.
My book, American Baby, tells the story of Margaret Erle, the daughter of German Jewish refugees in post-World War II Manhattan. Margaret and her high school boyfriend, George Katz, the son of two Holocaust survivors, were in love. In an era with no sex education and little birth control even for married couples, Margaret got pregnant the first time she had sex, at sixteen. Their two scandalized families, conservative community, and New York State law coerced Margaret to relinquish the son she named Stephen at his birth in 1961.
Margaret went on to marry George and have three more children, but they never stopped longing for their firstborn. Their story unfolded against larger societal pressures that made adoption all but inevitable; their son was adopted by a loving cantor and his wife, both Romanian Holocaust survivors, who named him David Rosenberg. The Jewish non-profit that handled the adoption, the Louise Wise agency, told the Rosenbergs that Margaret was an aspiring scientist, in reality a dancer and arts lover; and that George was a college business student, in actuality a gifted high school athlete. And the agency told Margaret, who lived in a walkup in Washington Heights, that the couple adopting her son were diplomats who would raise him in embassies abroad. In fact, David spent his early years in a small apartment just blocks from his birth parents.
These deceptions weren’t an aberration — they were representative of a much larger reproductive and human-rights story that encompassed generations of American women, their sons and daughters, and the couples who adopted them. Adoption agencies exploited all parties for profit, and some babies, chillingly, for science.
Agencies like Louise Wise were allowed to pursue their aims at will because laws in forty-eight states sealed the original birth certificates of adoptees, making it almost impossible for birth mothers and their surrendered children to find each other.
In the years between 1945 and 1973, more than three million young, unmarried women were forced to surrender their newborns to an exploitative adoption industry
States issued adoptees amended birth certificates that listed the adoptive parents as the “original” ones, and only the child’s new name. Supporters of this system said it shielded the birth mother from her disgraceful past, protected the adoptee from the taint of illegitimacy, and reassured adoptive parents that no one would interfere with their new family. But it also covered the tracks of a corrupt industry that sometimes stole and sold babies. In the Baby Scoop Era, as it is now known, agencies preyed on the desperation of couples unable to conceive, and on the shame of millions of pregnant women who’d done so “out of wedlock.”
The Louise Wise agency was among the most egregious of all postwar agencies in its ruthless pursuit of clients, rising profits, and the promise of “matching” infants to couples who, decades before the development of many reproductive technologies, were anxious to join the baby boom. The Louise Wise agency dealt primarily with Jewish parents; New York law at the time held that the birth mother’s religion should correspond with that of the adoptive parents.
The secrecy laws allowed the agency’s board members to conduct sinister research on thousands of infants in its custody. One board member, a child psychiatrist, led the infamous study that separated identical twins and triplets in an effort to prove the effects of nature over nurture. Another board member, a pediatrician, theorized that infants who cried the loudest were the smartest. For fifteen years, he carried out federally funded “induced crying” experiments in which he shot thick rubber bands at the feet of newborns surrendered for adoption and recorded the decibel level of their wails. The noisiest babies were then placed with doctors, lawyers, and successful businessmen. Another board member, an anthropologist and avowed eugenicist, observed the skin tone and hair textures of babies in an effort to ascertain their race and, improbably, future looks. (In a deeply racist society, interracial adoption was as unacceptable as unwed motherhood, and white families wanted white babies.)
Margaret and David were reunited in 2014 by a DNA test, three months before David died of some of the same family illnesses Margaret had tried to warn him about for decades. The Louise Wise agency had never passed on repeated messages about his health history (let alone her contact information).
Today, Margaret allies herself with adoptee-rights activists working to open adoptee birth certificates in more than three dozen states. She, who prayed for fifty-two years for the health and safety of her son, was chilled by Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s suggestion that safe haven laws allowing women to drop off their newborns anonymously could avoid the “burdens of parenting.” Social workers promised Margaret that she’d forget her son, too, and move on as if she’d never had him. Of course, adoption is not that simple— not for her, not for her son, or for the millions of other birth parents and adoptees.
Today, single motherhood is far more accepted. Adoption is relatively rare, but it remains so loosely regulated that it is legal in some states for attorneys and intermediaries to sell babies to the highest bidder.
There are instances when adoption is the best course for a child. We live in a complex world strained by addiction, economic hardships, and an ongoing pandemic. But as the past shows us, an adoption industry that manipulates women in crisis for profit invariably harms both mothers and children.
Adoptee-rights activists have worked for decades to deepen public understanding of what happened during the “baby scoop” years. In their view, it’s inaccurate and reductive to portray adoption solely as an act of benevolence and generosity. Their experiences are also a human- and civil-rights story that arises from an undeniable truth that everyone is entitled to know their origin story.
While the past is not always a prologue to the future, it can give us many lessons. Now, more than ever, it’s worth looking back carefully at the consequences that ensued from pressuring young mothers to give up their children and prioritizing profit above all else.
Gabrielle Glaser is a New York Times bestselling author whose work on culture, health, and medicine has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and many other publications. She has appeared on many national television and radio programs, including NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered; NBC’s Nightly News, ABC’s World News Tonight, and CBS’s Sunday Morning.