To get a clearer look at America’s future landscape as a nation without freedom of choice, carved from the medieval mindset of today’s Supreme Court, it helps to cross an ocean—and a few centuries. Having recently finished a book about the abusive treatment of unwed mothers in Italy in the 1950s and ’60s, and the generational damage that ensued, I feel as if I’ve emerged from a dizzying time collapse with a spectral glimpse of what lies ahead.
In his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Samuel Alito cited certain “modern” developments that obviate the need for abortion. Included on his list is “that States have increasingly adopted ‘safe haven’ laws, which generally allow women to drop off babies anonymously.”
The idea behind safe haven laws, which now exist in all 50 states and began in—surprise—Texas in 1999, is to permit a woman to abandon her baby anonymously without fear of criminal prosecution. This type of law is not, in Justice Alito’s words, a “modern development” but a medieval practice, invented in Italy in the thirteenth century and still in place today. As generations of twentieth-century Italian mothers and their children can attest, giving a woman no choice but to anonymously surrender her baby is a route to ruined lives.
The Roman Catholic Church, for moral reasons—especially under the ultraconservative reign of Pope Pius XII during the 1940s and ’50s—and the Italian State, in order to protect male inheritance rights, encouraged anonymous surrender, guaranteeing that birth fathers could just walk away and placing all the responsibility, and blame, upon women. Powerless and terrified, mothers often didn’t understand the relinquishment forms they were made to sign. Yet their children now became wards of the state and were issued birth certificates with fictional last names and placed into the busy machine of domestic and international adoption.
Adopted children in America and Italy describe how falsified documents and sealed birth records hid lifesaving medical information. Stripped of their birth identity—“I don’t remember signing up for the witness protection program,” one adoptee told me—they spent years on hopeless quests to find their birth mothers or to experience bittersweet late-in-life reunions. Using the tools of genetic genealogy, they desperately chase a ticking clock.