Out in the cold

Nobody's Child

Kate Adie <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 324pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0340838000

Human history is littered with the tiny corpses of abandoned infants, from the newborn girls exposed on Roman hillsides to the crack babies deposited in the nearest dumpster in contemporary America. Those who survive are known as foundlings, a folksy, fairy-tale word too cosy for the purpose. Maternal abandonment affronts everything we need to believe is true, chiefly that the instinct to care for the child to whom you have just given birth is a reliable, universal given.

Thus Kate Adie has chosen a cracker of a subject for her book Nobody's Child, which offers a sweeping account of foundlings past and present worldwide. Adie is no prose stylist, but she writes as she speaks: with an engaging, forth-right immediacy. Her book is a jour- nalistic melding of interviews, history, anecdote and biting sarcasm. It may have begun life as an attempt to answer the question of its subtitle, "Who are you when you don't know your past?", but it evolves into something more closely resembling a campaigning polemic. In Britain, under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, abandoning a child under the age of two is a criminal offence, providing not only a disincentive for mothers to come forward once their baby has been found, but also, more horribly, a reason for them to leave their baby somewhere it will never be found. Adie argues that criminalising this act of desperation helps no one.

A large part of her book is taken up with the experiences of foundlings themselves, however, and the results illustrate a sad paradox. All her interviewees, many of them married now and with children of their own, long to know the truth about their origins. They hoard the poignant scraps of information they have been able to discover (the nurse who cared for them, precisely where they were found, what they were wearing) and speculate about the mother who left them in a phone box, or the back of a car, or on a doorstep. But in almost every case, search as they might, their birth mother remains untraceable. And this dead end, or lost beginning, makes for unsatisfactory storytelling all round. There is no more to be said on the subject, either for them or us, other than that, contrary to expectations, they seem remarkably well-adjusted - not to say high-achieving - individuals.

Nobody's Child is more interesting when it examines the social and cultural reasons for abandonment and the persistence of the view that, if you make it too easy for women anonymously to leave their baby somewhere safe, you will "encourage" irresponsible pregnancy. This was the objection the 18th-century British philanthropist Thomas Coram encountered as he tried to set up his Foundling Hospital; and it was echoed nearly 300 years later during a campaign to change US law. In New York and many other states, a woman who gave birth in hospital and left her baby in the hands of doctors could be prosecuted, and ran the risk of having any subsequent children removed. It took Tim Jaccard, a police medical officer, to work out that this policy might be partly responsible for the ghastly tally of dead or abandoned babies he was finding on the street.

Adie has no interest in pussyfooting around cultural sensitivities. She is rob-ustly critical of the deep-rooted mis-ogyny behind such Chinese expressions as "girls are the maggots in the rice", and is candidly appalled by the intolerance for disability found in Russia, where many parents give up their Down's syndrome babies to state orphanages. She also takes a pop at the Catholic Church in Ireland, which ran, during the 1940s, what was in effect a baby-farming business exporting infants to Catholic families in America. (It wasn't until the actress Jane Russell tried to adopt an Irish baby that the scandal came to light. Russell went on to found World Adoption International Fund, which placed 51,000 children with adoptive parents.) But nor is Adie inclined to rush to judgement on the women who, for reasons of shame, poverty, ignorance, panic or external pressure, abandon or give away their children. Her book succeeds, in the important sense that it makes what had previously seemed an act of unimaginable heartlessness a little easier to understand.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Barack Obama