She Gave Up Her Baby for Adoption, and Then She Had to Fight to Find Him

Author’s introduction: Months after giving birth to her firstborn son as an unmarried teenager in 1961, Margaret Erle Katz became one of an estimated three million young women in the decades after World War II and before Roe v. Wade who was forced—by her family; by society; and even New York State law, which until 1971 criminalized premarital sex—to surrender her firstborn son into an adoption system designed to keep the identities of birth families, adoptees, and adoptive families a secret. Margaret, the 17-year-old daughter of Jewish refugees in Manhattan, did all she could to maintain custody of her son. She pushed aside the shaming admonitions of her parents, maternity home officials, and social workers, who told her she would “forget” her baby and move on. She eloped with her son’s father, George Katz, but was no match for the predatory industry intent on delivering white infants to the homes of hopeful couples who were unable to conceive in a period—the Baby Boom—in which creating families was a national fetish.

Margaret and George Katz had had three more children and were raising their family in New Jersey in 1981. Unbeknownst to anyone, even George, Margaret still thought daily about the son she’d been coerced into relinquishing to Louise Wise Services, the Manhattan adoption agency into whose custody her mother had signed her. Over the years, she had called the agency to warn the son she’d named Stephen of the illnesses in the family tree. When Stephen was a young adult, Margaret herself was becoming politicized by adoptee-rights activists in New York and began trying to find him herself. Thwarted by New York’s byzantine secrecy laws, she resolved to leave her contact information for him at the agency’s Upper East Side offices.

As much as Margaret sought to ignore the topic of adoption, it continued to bubble to the surface. One day, during a quiet moment, she picked up a newspaper and saw a headline that read “Parents Want Proposal Defeated.” The article addressed the concerns of adoptive parents, who were trying to block the passage of a bill to allow New Jersey adoptees access to their original birth certificates. In the brief piece, a woman who represented the group Concerned Adoptive Parents said such a bill represented an “intrusion into the sanctity of the home and personal lives,” and was a “betrayal” that would benefit no one.

How, exactly, was the legislation a “betrayal”? Margaret wondered. She certainly wouldn’t feel that way if Stephen found her and got in touch. Didn’t Stephen have the right to learn more about himself? And didn’t she have the right to learn what had happened to him, her own flesh and blood?

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