Pictured Above: Lorraine Dusky and her daughter, Jane, at Rockefeller Center  | courtesy Lorraine Dusky

While last spring’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision was a jolt to so many women who’d been raised in a society that had taken Roe vs. Wade’s abortion protections for granted, women who’d seen a world before Roe carry an almost innate understanding of the new landscape we now face in reproductive rights. They’ve been here before.

For journalist Lorraine Dusky of Sag Harbor, a mother who gave up her daughter for adoption in 1966, when she could find no possible route to keep her, the Dobbs decision has a very clear consequence. 

“If we make abortion harder, there will be more babies to adopt. Period,” she said definitively in a March interview with The Beacon.

Ms. Dusky, the author of the 1979 memoir “Birthmark,” about her struggles to overcome the grief of giving up her daughter, is a leader in a nationwide movement for the right of adult adopted individuals to have access to their original birth certificates.

She’s just finished a new edition of her latest memoir, “Hole in My Heart: Love and Loss in the Fault Lines of Adoption,” published this March by Grand Canyon Press. This book takes a deep dive into the decisions she was corralled into making as an unwed mother-to-be, the consequences of these decisions for so many she’s come to know in the movement, and the markedly slow progress, and sometimes reversals, of rights for people whose lives have been shaped by adoption.

Ms. Dusky makes no bones about lawmakers’ support for funneling babies into adoption. They’re even made explicit in a footnote in the Dobbs decision, she said, in which Justice Samuel Alito’s draft of the majority opinion stated, quoting the CDC, that ‘nearly 1 million women were seeking to adopt children in 2002, whereas the domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life and available to be adopted had become virtually nonexistent.’

Alito pointed out the prevalence of anonymous “safe-haven boxes” where women can leave their unwanted babies as a possible solution for women who are assumed to not want to raise children, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett (who is an adoptive parent) said at a hearing that these boxes enable women to quickly free themselves from the “burdens of parenting.”

But giving up a child you’ve carried in your womb for months is never a cut and dry decision, and it has long-lasting implications for both mother and child. 

Against the odds in a state that had still allowed adoption records to be sealed at the time, Ms. Dusky was reunited with her daughter, Jane, in the mid-1980s, but after developing a friendship again had to come to terms with losing her to suicide in 2007. 

Lorraine Dusky

After getting to know Jane, Ms. Dusky wondered for years whether her own use of birth control pills before she knew she was pregnant had led to her daughter’s epilepsy, further compounding the grief she carries with her to this day.

The trauma of childbirth and then loosing the love of a mother or child carries ripples through the generations. Fully one-third of women who’ve given up a child don’t have another, while children who’ve been given up for adoption are seven times more likely than the general population to give up a child for adoption themselves, Ms. Dusky’s research has shown.

And the resistance to providing access to birth parents often come from lawmakers who have adopted children.

New York’s laws sealing adoption records were codified in 1935, under then-governor Herbert Lehman, who had pledged that his own adopted children would never know their natural parents. It wasn’t until 2020 that New York allowed all adopted people the right to a copy of their original birth certificate at the age of 18. East End State Assemblyman Fred Thiele championed that legislation at Ms. Dusky’s request, facing opposition for years in the state legislature before it was finally approved.

In the latest edition of “Hole in My Heart,” Ms. Dusky lays bare the emotionally fraught circumstances that surrounded giving up her daughter, holding nothing back. As a young reporter on the metro desk at a daily newspaper in Rochester — a rare position for a women to hold in those days — she’d fallen in love with her editor. He was married and had young children at home but she believed he loved her too. 

It was a time when access to birth control pills wasn’t widespread, and it was difficult for women to obtain them without lying and saying they were married. Raised in a Catholic household, it wasn’t until after she was spooked at what she thought was a close call with the rhythm method that she worked up the courage to ask her doctor for birth control pills. A pregnancy test in the doctor’s office the day she received the prescription came back with a false negative. Months later, all the while taking the pills, it was undeniable: she was pregnant, and had been for quite some time. In her memoir, she describes a stark scene in which her doctor turns his back after examining her and confirming she was pregnant, washing his hands at a sink and telling her there was nothing he could do for her.

By then, giving up her child for adoption seemed like the only option.

“If he had left his family then, I would have kept my baby, but I didn’t see a pathway to keeping my child,” she said of her daughter’s father. “I couldn’t envision myself raising my baby alone.”

The idea that mothers who give up their children don’t want to know them is not borne out by the facts, she said, adding that just one in every 2,000 birth mothers requests no contact with her child.

Ms. Dusky always knew she would search for her daughter, but she didn’t know how difficult that task would be. Even today, after all the work that’s been done by advocates for adoption record reforms, 20 U.S. states don’t allow adopted individuals access to their original birth records.

“Young women get lulled today into the idea that you’re ‘giving your children a better life,’” said Ms. Dusky. “Agencies today say women who allow their children to be adopted are doing a beautiful, brave thing. But I was clawing at a cliff for dear life.”

She pointed out that adoption agencies have perfected their marketing toward young mothers, with school programs on the benefits of adoption, and spa-like homes where mothers can go to live while they wait out their pregnancy away from the prying eyes of their communities.

“We don’t want to create a subclass of providers of babies, like something out of a Margaret Atwood novel,” said Ms. Dusky. “Adoption is a very market-oriented business.”

“Hole in My Heart: Love and Loss in the Fault Lines of Adoption” is now available through Grand Canyon Press. Ms. Dusky and her editor, Marylee McDonald, will discuss the memoir at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, April 29 at 5 p.m.    —BHY

Correction: The print edition of this story states that Ms. Dusky is a “leader in a nationwide movement for access to adoption records for both natural parents and their children,” and that “20 states don’t allow natural parents or their children access to birth records.” Ms. Dusky is a leader in a nationwide movement for the right of adult adopted individuals to have access to their original birth certificates. No states allow birth parents access to the birth records of their children at any age. Some 20 states have not touched their sealed-records laws for decades. Thirteen states all adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates, not all their adoption records. 

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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