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Adoption in the Baby Scoop Era

The sordid history of adoption in America.

Review of American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption. By Gabrielle Glaser. Viking. 338 pp. $28.

In the United States B.B.C. (before birth control), popular writers urged girls whose emotions were becoming too aroused to go bowling with their boyfriends. After all, intercourse could lead to pregnancy and a stigma that would last a lifetime.

Orbon Alija / Getty Images
Source: Orbon Alija / Getty Images

Nonetheless, in the years between 1940 and 1966, babies born to unmarried mothers skyrocketed, from 7 to 23 births per 1,000. Millions of them were subsequently adopted.

In 1961, 16-year-old Margaret Erle was caught up in “The Baby Scoop Era.” Gertrude Erle sent her pregnant daughter to a maternity home, where she was told to “forget this ever happened” and forced to sign away her parental rights. Although Margaret subsequently married her baby’s father, with whom she raised three children, she never stopped longing for him. Although he loved his adoptive parents, David Rosenberg sometimes became argumentative or muttered, “I don’t know whose son I am.”

In American Baby, journalist Gabrielle Glaser sets Margaret and David’s poignant, painful, and powerful story in the context of adoption practices at the height of the Baby Boom, which left so many feeling lost and unloved. As she reviews what has — and has not — changed, Glaser also raises important questions about the ethical, legal, and civil rights and obligations of adopted children, adoptive parents, and birth mothers.

Glaser reveals that in New York, where Margaret lived, mothers of minors had the legal right to place their babies in the custody of adoption agencies and put them in foster care. In adoption cases, judges placed original birth certificates under seal, available only to state officials, licensed social workers, or by court order. Once adoptions were finalized, new birth certificates replacing the names of birth parents with those of adoptive parents and inserting the new name of the child (Stephen Erle became David Rosenberg). This policy made it exceedingly difficult for adoptees who did not know their name at birth to uncover information about their origins.

American Baby also provides a devastating critique of Louise Wise Services, the preeminent adoption agency for Jewish families on the East Coast. To align an infant’s capabilities with the attributes of prospective parents, the Wise agency relied on the results of tests conducted by Dr. Samuel Karelitz. A pediatrician with expertise in childhood diseases, Karelitz believed intelligence was correlated with crying. To measure its duration and intensity, he shot rubber bands at the feet of newborns. If a baby did not react, the procedure was repeated, as many as seven times. Karelitz claimed he could distinguish between cries for hunger, delight, or discomfort.

To address issues related to race, the agency worked with Harry Shapiro, a forensic anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who offered guarantees about the white appearance of future children of bi-racial babies, based purely on skull size, nail beds, birthmarks known as Mongolian spots, and instinct.

Most important, perhaps, despite John Bowlby’s widely available research documenting the danger of emotional scarring and separation anxiety resulting from deprivation of maternal attachment to infants, the Wise agency insisted on a waiting period before adoption of at least three months.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Glaser indicates, the influence of agencies and their pseudoscientific methods of testing, diminished. New York gave adoptive parents access to non-identifying medical and psychiatric records of birth parents. As researchers demonstrated that adoptees who remained in contact with birth parents were more satisfied with their lives and no less attached to adoptive parents than those who did not, “open adoptions” became more prevalent. Specialists began to use DNA and public records to help clients locate lost family members.

That said, Glaser writes, the sealed records that made the mid-twentieth system possible “remain a deeply contentious issue,” pitting the value of privacy against the right to know. Only 10 states, including New York (in 2019), allow unrestricted access to original birth records. Records remain closed in California, Texas, and Florida. Adoptees' ability to find birth families outside the United States is even more limited.

Progress, Glaser acknowledges, has been made. She concludes, however, that millions of mothers, adoptees, fathers, sisters, and brothers trapped in the American system are still waiting for the right and resources to address the mysteries of their identities.