Adoption agencies became the middleman to meet both needs. And in the rush to create perfect families — and to collect a fee for each child they placed — agencies like Louise Wise blurred what, through today’s lens, are clear ethical lines.
Not only did the agencies fail to consider “the lifelong emotional impact of women who were hidden away in shame during pregnancy, expected to lie about it ever after and then told to put their babies out of their minds,” Glaser writes, but they also failed to give much thought to “the feelings of the adoptees who were brought up to think their biological parents hadn’t wanted them, and that — regardless of how cherished they were — they were their adoptive parents’ ‘second choice’ to biological offspring.”
Worse than those omissions, however, were acts of commission: Identical twins and triplets placed in separate homes, then studied for similarities and differences. Babies born to institutionalized psychiatric patients who were placed with families not told of that fact. Singletons who spent months bouncing from one foster home to another until an “expert” could determine whether they were mixed race. (Louise Wise relied on Harry Shapiro, a forensic anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, to make the call.) The agency used the lag time for such studies as shooting rubber bands at the soles of tender infant feet to see if quickness to cry was linked to intelligence.
Was all of the above the result of ignorance? Defenders of the system have argued that knowledge of genetics and infant development back then was rudimentary, and that these choices were made with the best of intentions. Glaser, however, is persuasive in her argument that the actions at best ignored inconvenient evidence, and at worst acted in spite of it. For instance, as David idled in foster care, there were existing studies proving the importance of attachment and the harm of moving an infant from one foster mother to the next.
Even if one is inclined to give benefit of the doubt to early agency choices, it is harder to reconcile later ones. When David turned 20, Margaret visited the agency to update medical information — by then her husband had developed diabetes, required dialysis, and was on the list for a kidney transplant — and to leave her contact information should her son ever need it. The staff refused to let her in and even threatened to call the police. Nearly 20 years later, David too had diabetes, was on dialysis and needed a kidney transplant. The agency that had inherited his records refused to share any information.
All around them, the world was changing. Feminism, the birth control pill and Roe v. Wade gave women in Margaret’s situation a completely different set of choices. The number of babies surrendered for adoption in the United States dropped 26 percent between 1970 and 1975. The number of couples seeking to adopt fell as well, as reproductive medicine increased their ability to conceive.
The adoption rights movement gained traction, arguing that “access to one’s own birth certificate is a human and civil right.” As a result, 10 states opened previously sealed adoption files, although New York did not do so until 2019, and some of the largest — Texas, California and Florida — are still closed. In many cases the availability of government records is a moot point, as genetic testing companies make it possible for adoptees and birth parents to find one another with a swab and a membership fee.