Roe’s Baby

Most women know that Roe v Wade is threatened. A new law in Texas bans abortion after about six weeks and puts enforcement in the hands of private citizens. The Supreme Court, with a 6–3 conservative majority, is scheduled to take up the question of abortion in its upcoming term. It could well overturn Roe. I think I did know but was reminded today that the baby at the heart of the long drawn out legal case was put up for adoption. Sharing an excerpt from a story in The Atlantic – The Roe Baby.

Jane Roe, was a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey. Norma won her case. But she never had the abortion. On January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court finally handed down its decision, she had long since given birth—and relinquished her child for adoption.

Norma’s personal life was complex. She had casual affairs with men, and one brief marriage at age 16. She bore three children, each of them placed for adoption. But she slept far more often with women, and worked in lesbian bars. Norma could be salty and fun, but she was also self-absorbed and dishonest, and she remained, until her death in 2017, at the age of 69, fundamentally unhappy.

In 1981, Norma briefly volunteered for the National Organization for Women in Dallas. Thereafter, slowly, she became an activist—working at first with pro-choice groups and then, after becoming a born-again Christian in 1995, with pro-life groups. Being born-again did not give her peace; pro-life leaders demanded that she publicly renounce her homosexuality (which she did, at great personal cost). 

Norma believed that abortion ought to be legal for precisely three months after conception, a position she stated publicly after both the Roe decision and her religious awakening. She was ambivalent about adoption, too. Playgrounds were a source of distress: Empty, they reminded Norma of Roe; full, they reminded her of the children she had let go.

The author of a new book – The Family Roe – Joshua Prager says – In time, I would come to know Shelley and her sisters well, along with their birth mother, Norma. Their lives resist the tidy narratives told on both sides of the abortion divide. To better represent that divide in my book, I also wrote about an abortion provider, a lawyer, and a pro-life advocate who are as important to the larger story of abortion in America as they are unknown. Together, their stories allowed me to give voice to the complicated realities of Roe v. Wade—to present, as the legal scholar Laurence Tribe has urged, “the human reality on each side of the ‘versus.’”

The lawyer for her adoption did not tell the adoptive couple anything more than that she had two half sisters. But he did not identify them, or Norma, or say anything about the Roe lawsuit that Norma had filed three months earlier. When the Roe case was decided, in 1973, the adoptive parents were oblivious of its connection to their daughter who was then 2 and a half.

Shelly knew she was adopted. As she grew older, she wished to know who had brought her into being: her heart-shaped face and blue eyes, her shyness and penchant for pink, her frequent anxiety—which gripped her when her father began to drink heavily. The adoptive parents fought. Doors slammed. Shelley watched her mother issue second chances, then watched her father squander them. One day in 1980, as Shelley remembered, “it was just that he was no longer there.” Shelley was 10. 

In high school, in the city of Burien, outside Seattle, Shelley had a boyfriend who had also been adopted. Reminds me of my own parents story – high school sweethearts, both adopted. Shelley’s hands began to shake. She suffered from depression. Eventually, she came to understand that her symptoms preceded her birth. “When someone’s pregnant with a baby,” she reflected, “and they don’t want that baby, that person develops knowing they’re not wanted.” 

An investigator who accomplished adoptee reunions with their birth mothers was given the case of finding Shelley by The National Enquirer. She was able to track her down through birth records (Norma had supplied the necessary information). She waited in a parking lot in Kent, Washington, where she knew Shelley lived. When she saw Shelley walk by, the investigator introduced herself and told Shelley that she was an adoption investigator sent by her birth mother. Shelley felt a rush of joy: The woman who had let her go now wanted to know her. She began to cry. Wow! she thought. Wow! She told Shelley that “her mother was famous—but not a movie star or a rich person.” Rather, her birth mother was “connected to a national case that had changed law.” 

At their second meeting, the investigator handed Shelley a recent article about Norma in People magazine, and the reality sank in. “She threw it down and ran out of the room.” When Shelley returned, she was “shaking all over and crying.” All her life, Shelley had wanted to know the facts of her birth. Having idly mused as a girl that her birth mother was a beautiful actor, she now knew that her birth mother was synonymous with abortion, something she was against.

When told the other person at the second meeting was on a deadline and writing an article for the Enquirer, Shelley and her adoptive mother abruptly left. “Here’s my chance at finding out who my birth mother was,” she said, “and I wasn’t even going to be able to have control over it because I was being thrown into the Enquirer.”

Instead Shelley was able to arrange a call directly to Norma. Norma didn’t mention abortion. She told Shelley that she’d given her up because, Shelley recalled, “I knew I couldn’t take care of you.” She also told Shelley that she had wondered about her “always.” But later, Shelley made clear that a day for an in person reunion might never come. “I’m glad to know that my birth mother is alive,” she was quoted in the story that the Enquirer eventually published as saying, “and that she loves me—but I’m really not ready to see her. And I don’t know when I’ll ever be ready—if ever.” She added: “In some ways, I can’t forgive her … I know now that she tried to have me aborted.”

Shelley had long considered abortion wrong, but her connection to Roe had led her to reexamine the issue. It now seemed to her that abortion law ought to be free of the influences of religion and politics. Religious certitude left her uncomfortable. And, she reflected, “I guess I don’t understand why it’s a government concern.”

Shelley never did meet her mother, Norma. She died while Shelley still struggled with her identity as the Roe baby.

The Uncertainty Inherent

Today’s story is about a birth mother who’s daughter, put up for adoption, has rejected contact with her 25 years later thanks to the Dear Therapist article in The Atlantic.

My daughter gave a child up for adoption about 25 years ago. She already had one child, and although I offered to help her raise both children, she felt it wouldn’t be fair to us or to the baby, so she gave her up to a very nice couple, whom we both interviewed and liked. The couple has kept in touch with us both over the years, sending pictures and updates on their daughter.

My daughter always felt that in time the child would want to get in touch with her, and in fact, her adoptive parents have encouraged this, but the girl has always said she didn’t want to. This is very painful for my daughter. Can you give us an idea as to why the young woman might not want to meet her birth mother, or offer any explanation that would make my daughter feel less rejected? She has even tried contacting her on Facebook, and the response was that Facebook was not an appropriate place to discuss this relationship. But no reciprocal contact has ever been made.

Blog Author’s note – It’s tough being a vulnerable, under supported, financially struggling birth mother. I get it. In my own family, the two children put up for adoption have since reconnected with this but that does not un-do all the years of living lives separated into other families. Even for my own self, I’ve re-connected with my actually genetic, biological relatives but it doesn’t make up for not knowing each other for decades. It is better to know who they are, it’s just tough building a relationship after so much time has gone by. So I am interested in this response.

Answer from the therapist –

I’m glad you’re curious about why the woman your daughter put up for adoption 25 years ago might not want to meet her birth mother. I say this because you write about your daughter’s pain and feeling of rejection, but I’m not sure that your daughter has a good sense of how her adopted child might feel—not only about this meeting, but about the circumstances that led to the adoption and her life since then.

Something to consider: Adopted children don’t get to choose whether or not they are adopted, or what family they’ll end up in. Adults make these choices for them. Given their lack of choice in what happened, making their own decisions about how to handle their experiences later on matters greatly.

Of course, different adoptees will make different decisions, for all kinds of reasons. But too often, adults try to dictate how they should feel and what they should do with regard to their birth parents. Sometimes it goes something like “You shouldn’t try to find your birth parents; after all, your mom and dad will be so hurt.” Other times it might be “Don’t search for your birth parents, because it might disrupt their lives or that of their families. They chose a closed adoption for a reason.” Or: “You should definitely search for them, because you’ll regret it later if you don’t.” Or: “How can you refuse to meet your birth parents? Don’t you realize how lucky you are that they’ve reached out and you have the opportunity to know them?” None of this, of course, respects the feelings of the person who was adopted.

Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much regard for your daughter’s biological child’s wants or needs—your perspective seems to be all about your daughter’s desire for this relationship. In fact, there’s so little regard for this young woman’s feelings that your daughter, despite knowing that her biological child has consistently said she’s not interested in meeting, reached out to her on Facebook.

As for why someone who was adopted may not want to meet her birth mother, the reasons are as varied as the individuals involved. Some adopted children feel angry or abandoned by the birth parents, especially if there are other siblings who stayed with one or both biological parents, as is the case here. (This may feel like being the “unwanted child.”) Some adoptees don’t have those feelings—they are living a perfectly happy life—but there’s fear of the emotional turmoil such a meeting might bring. It could raise new questions of what might have been; it could reveal information that the adoptee would rather not have known; it could start a relationship that doesn’t work out, resulting in a loss that could be quite painful on top of whatever feelings of loss the adoptee already has.

I’ve also heard from some adoptees who have met their biological parents that they found the experience disappointing. Despite imagining that they’d have a lot in common with their biological parents, upon meeting they felt as though these people were aliens with different interests, worldviews, personalities, and values—leaving them with a sense of emptiness. Some have told me that they would have preferred to maintain whatever fantasy they had of their biological parents rather than be faced with the much starker reality.

All of this is to say: A lot can go wrong, so it makes sense that some adoptees would choose not to be in contact with their biological parents. But whatever this young woman’s reasons, she doesn’t owe your daughter an explanation. It’s not her job to meet your daughter’s emotional needs.

Instead, gaining a better understanding of what those emotional needs are might help your daughter feel less pain about not meeting her biological daughter. I imagine that she has a lot of complicated feelings about the adoption that perhaps she doesn’t fully understand, and talking to a therapist about them might not only lessen the intensity of the longing but also help her consider what she’s asking of her biological daughter and why.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that your daughter’s biological child may feel differently about reaching out at another juncture in her life. She may have some questions about the family’s medical history one day, or decide that she wants the experience of seeing her biological mother face-to-face. If that time does come, it will be important to focus on her needs. There’s a difference between a phone conversation and a meeting, and between a meeting and embarking on a relationship. The less this woman worries that her biological family might want more from her than she’s willing to give—which is likely how she feels now—the more open she might become one day to making contact. But even if she doesn’t, the most loving thing you can do for her is to honor her choice.

Trying Not To Judge But

This photo and story got the attention of my adoption group. Scott and Tari Peiffer have 13 children, nine of them adopted as babies. Any parent can appreciate how much work a family that large is.

The intuitive sense the adoption group gets is that this situation is unbalanced and smacks of what they define as savorism. I found a Medium piece by Annie Windholz titled “Unpacking White Saviorism” with the byline “How white and western society’s desire to help can do more harm than good.” The term “white saviorism,” refers to an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. White saviorism is deadly to culture, communities and lives. Because it is framed as benevolent and “coming from a good place,” it is generally not critically challenged, and this must change if we want any kind of systemic change in society.

There is such a thing as sharing ideas with humility, and listening and learning from those different from the dominant narrative that we belong to, but if we grew up in American schools- there is no doubt that our education was centered on white and Western voices. Humans internalize subtle messages, and the system of white patriarchal supremacy perpetuates itself with this foundational learning.

The Medium piece linked above goes on to say – A few white women in the group had adopted children who were not the same race as them. We discussed the adoption system in American in our small group. There is a language of “save the baby” in adoption circles. Another woman talked about how some of her relatives were completely supportive when someone adopted a non-white baby, but were not quite so pleased when someone married a person of color. Another woman works at an adoption agency, and she spoke about how adopting a child of color was less expensive than adopting a white baby. Why is this? She said that the agency had a harder time finding adoptive parents for children of color, so the expenses were lowered to help with that process. Is the adoption agency racist? The woman said its not her adoption agency that’s racist, they are merely a part of a racist system- a racist world.

“But I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them,” American-Nigerian writer Teju Cole explains in his article The White Savior Industrial Complex.

“When we ask women of color to take the time to sit down and educate us on the specific issues that they face and how we can be better allies, rather than doing the research ourselves by reading blogs and articles and books by women of color, we are making it about us. When we ask why women of color need to be so divisive and whine that we’re all in this together, we are making it about us. When we decide to swoop in and play the hero without asking what type of help is, in fact, needed, we are still making it about us,” Annie Theriault writes in her article, The White Feminist Savior Complex.

Romanian Orphanages

An estimated 100,000 Romanian children were in orphanages at the end of 1989, when communism ended. The high number is linked to the pro-family policies pursued by former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In 1966, the regime banned abortions and contraceptives to keep the population from shrinking after World War II.

I remember hearing about these children long ago. Today, I was reminded of them by a link to an article in The Atlantic. Maybe what I heard about was the public execution by firing squad of Romania’s last Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who’d ruled for 24 years. This past Christmas day was the 30th anniversary of that execution and the discovery of his network of “child gulags,” in which an estimated 170,000 abandoned infants, children, and teens were being raised. Believing that a larger population would beef up Romania’s economy, Ceaușescu had curtailed contraception and abortion, imposed tax penalties on people who were childless, and celebrated as “heroine mothers” women who gave birth to 10 or more. Parents who couldn’t possibly handle another baby might call their new arrival “Ceauşescu’s child,” as in “Let him raise it.”

To house a generation of unwanted or unaffordable children, Ceauşescu ordered the construction or conversion of hundreds of structures around the country. Signs displayed the slogan: the state can take better care of your child than you can.

At age 3, abandoned children were sorted. Future workers would get clothes, shoes, food, and some schooling in Case de copii—“children’s homes”—while “deficient” children wouldn’t get much of anything in their Cămin Spital Pentru Copii Deficienţi, a Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children. The Soviet “science of defectology” viewed disabilities in infants as intrinsic and uncurable. Even children with treatable issues—perhaps they were cross-eyed or anemic, or had a cleft lip—were classified as “unsalvageable.”

In an era devoted to fighting malnutrition, injury, and infection, the idea that adequately fed and medically stable children could waste away because they missed their parents was hard to believe. Their research led to the then-bold notion, advanced especially by John Bowlby, that simply lacking an “attachment figure,” a parent or caregiver, could wreak a lifetime of havoc on mental and physical health.

In the decade after the fall of Ceaușescu, the new Romanian government welcomed Western child-development experts to simultaneously help and study the tens of thousands of children still warehoused in state care. Researchers hoped to answer some long-standing questions: Are there sensitive periods in neural development, after which the brain of a deprived child cannot make full use of the mental, emotional, and physical stimulation later offered? Can the effects of “maternal deprivation” or “caregiver absence” be documented with modern neuroimaging techniques? Finally, if an institutionalized child is transferred into a family setting, can he or she recoup undeveloped capacities? Implicitly, poignantly: Can a person unloved in childhood learn to love?

In the fall of 2000, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project was launched. The BEIP study would become the first-ever randomized controlled trial to measure the impact of early institutionalization on brain and behavioral development and to examine high-quality foster care as an alternative.

The researchers employed Mary Ainsworth’s classic “strange situation” procedure to assess the quality of the attachment relationships between the children and their caregivers or parents. In a typical setup, a baby between nine and 18 months old enters an unfamiliar playroom with her “attachment figure” and experiences some increasingly unsettling events, including the arrival of a stranger and the departure of her grown-up, as researchers code the baby’s behavior from behind a one-way mirror.

100 percent of the local community kids living with their parents were found to have fully developed attachment relationships with their mothers. That was true of only 3 percent of the institutionalized kids. Nearly two-thirds displayed contradictory, jerky behaviors, perhaps freezing in place or suddenly reversing direction after starting to approach the adult. 13 percent were deemed “unclassified,” meaning they displayed no attachment behaviors at all.

As early as 2003, it was evident to the BEIP scientists and their Romanian research partners that the foster-care children were making progress. Children taken out of orphanages before their second birthday were benefiting from being with families far more than those who stayed longer. The next year, the Romanian government banned the institutionalization of children under the age of 2. Since then, it has raised the minimum age to 7, and government-sponsored foster care has expanded dramatically.

Meanwhile, the study continued. When the children were reassessed in a “strange situation” playroom at age 3.5, the portion who displayed secure attachments climbed from the baseline of 3 percent to nearly 50 percent among the foster-care kids, but to only 18 percent among those who remained institutionalized—and, again, the children moved before their second birthday did best. The benefits for children who’d achieved secure attachments accrued as time went on. At age 4.5, they had significantly lower rates of depression and anxiety and fewer “callous unemotional traits” (limited empathy, lack of guilt, shallow affect) than their peers still in institutions.

Sadly, about 40 percent of teenagers in the study who’d ever been in orphanages, in fact, were eventually diagnosed with a major psychiatric condition. Their growth was stunted, and their motor skills and language development stalled.

My source for today’s blog has much more content. Can an Unloved Child Learn to Love ? by Melissa Fay Greene in The Atlantic.

Modern Orphanages

From a generally anti-foster care perspective, a question was asked –

Why did the government move away from orphanages/group homes to children living with foster carers ?  Bottom line is that it is about money.  It is cheaper for the government to give foster carers a stipend than provide for the full needs of children in a modern orphanage or group home.

My mom spent a few months as an infant at Porter-Leath, an orphanage in Memphis TN. Her original mother took my mom there only for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet and estranged from her husband, the father of my mom, who was most likely tied up one state over fighting a SuperFlood on the Mississippi in 1937. He was in Arkansas working for the WPA and that was where most of his own roots and family were. That is how Georgia Tann got involved and my mom ended up adopted.

My family visited Porter-Leath in 2017. It is now an amazingly peaceful place and much changed but still provides some sheltering for runaways who need a safe place to go.

The discussion was not about orphanages of the past though.  It was about facilities that are geared towards children’s best interests. A revamped system. An environment where the kid never has to become someone else to fit in with a family he isn’t related to. One that is very consistent and stable.  That is vital for kids.

And no competition with a foster carer’s biological kids, or being made to feel like a burden or an inconvenience compared to the carer’s biological children. Modern orphanages are really structured.  Everyone there is on the same playing field. It totally eliminates the foster vs biological conflicts. The experience of former foster youth is that biological kids are horrible towards foster kids. Full of disdain and resentment for these strangers being in their homes.

I was intrigued by the mention of modern orphanages, I found a link to an Atlantic article highlighting Palmer Home for Children in Mississippi that is fairly current.