[Policy Review, Summer 1991]
The voluble cashier wears a locket containing her toddler’s picture; coming through her checkout line is brightly entertaining, like rejoining a show already in progress. You know that she works another job, that her landlord is a jerk, that she has a weakness for ice cream, that her little girl loves Big Bird. You suspect that her immigrant status may not be entirely in order. One day she is pale and subdued; another baby is on the way, and she loves babies, but how can she ever manage? With a stricken look she whispers, “But how could I have an abortion?”
On your more recent visits she is changed, much less talkative, preoccupied, with a gray and sorrowful air. Then you realize that it’s almost fall again. She never began to show.
As pro‑lifers push for laws against abortion, women just like this are pushing back, one at a time, each with her own story. A college student fights morning nausea, remembering with loathing the creep who laughed at her when she told him she was pregnant. A young executive, eager to move up, studies the home pregnancy test with horror; how can she impress the boss with her maturity and responsibility when she’s pregnant and unmarried? A med student, just about to slam into an exhausting residency, realizes that her body cannot do that and pregnancy at the same time. A grieving widow is comforted a little too thoroughly by her departed husband’s best friend; how can she explain her swelling belly to her teen‑aged daughter?
The time is past due for pro‑lifers to cease speaking of abortion as a matter of convenience. Situations like these are not merely inconvenient, and no woman pops in for an abortion just because the clinic is handy. Even in a normal, much‑desired pregnancy a woman must go through daunting physical changes, emotional stress, and a cataclysmic ending she may well approach with fear. How heavy these burdens must be to the woman whose pregnancy was unplanned and unwanted.
Yet those who believe that abortion is a good solution to these tragic situations are offering women only a consolation of sand. Abortion is not convenient, either, except for a society that doesn’t want to be troubled by pregnant women’s problems. At some level the woman choosing abortion knows that it is her own child who is dying; to achieve this bitter end she must pay several hundred dollars cash and endure the invasion of her body by a suction probe—an experience that can leave its own scars. Abortion may appear the least painful of several excruciating choices, but it makes women neither happy nor free.
There is tremendous sadness, loneliness, in the cry, “A woman’s right to choose.” No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice‑cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg. Abortion is a tragic attempt to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self‑loss.
How might our society begin to help her find better alternatives? Merely putting a padlock on the clinic door is not the solution. The woman who has an abortion is alone and isolated as she makes this “deeply personal decision.” To overcome the forces that drive her toward this tragedy we must explode the shell of her isolation, making her problems our problems, building concentric rings of support from the mother‑child dyad outward to all society. Some of this work is already being done by pro‑life agencies; some must entail changes in society at large. Such changes may cost us some comfort, some convenience, even some money. The alternative is to continue adding one more woman every nine seconds to the long and silent line, and one more tiny corpse to the pile already 25 million high.
Offering Genuine Choice
The irony of the “pro‑choice” position is that it is so scarce of choices. Abortion is promoted as the only sensible, mature thing to do in an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy, and poor women are especially encouraged to eliminate babies that might burden the public purse.
So much attention has been focused on the “choice” of abortion that often overlooked are the large numbers of maternity homes, adoption agencies, and other services offering genuine alternatives. There are approximately 3,500 pro‑life agencies in America offering crisis pregnancy services. About half of these are crisis pregnancy centers, simple store‑front operations where walk‑in clients are offered shelter, medical care, counselling, maternity clothes, legal assistance, or other forms of aid. These centers see an average of 300 to 500 clients yearly (although some large agencies, such as the North‑west Center in Washington, D.C., serve thousands). There are no hard figures, but these centers aid an estimated 700,000 women a year.
Most centers may be charitably described as homey: furnished with hand‑me‑downs, decorated with posters, and staffed by volunteers, the atmosphere is neighborly rather than slick. When the costs of continuing a crisis pregnancy run so high, centers must make ambience a secondary concern.
These centers usually draw their support primarily from the local community, a simple neighbor‑helping‑neighbor response to pregnant women in need. While some are independent operations, there are also three large chains of centers, still dependent on local support. The largest, Birthright, was founded in 1968 and includes about 600 locations in America, with others abroad. Birthright centers take a gentle, low‑pressure approach, eschew “scary pictures and films,” and do not become involved in political issues.
The Christian Action Council does not avoid controversial tangles, and currently is promoting a boycott of donors to Planned Parenthood. It also sponsors over 400 crisis pregnancy centers. In addition to the usual sorts of aid, Christian Action Council centers stress equipping women with tools to improve their lives, and give them help with budget counselling and training in employment skills.
Most controversial is the Pearson chain of 200 centers. The Pearson approach includes allowing the impression that the center will perform or refer for abortion services, in the hopes of attracting abortion‑minded women for pro‑life counselling. While reluctant to engage in public criticism, non‑Pearson centers generally disapprove of these tactics. The Christian Action Council training manual stresses that pleasing God is even more important than eliminating abortion, and that deceptive tactics do not please Him.
Middle‑Class Women over 20
A creative variation on the crisis pregnancy center theme is the Nurturing Network, an agency organized by Mary Cunningham Agee when she noted that aborting women are less often poor teens than they are middle‑class women over age 20. For these women, simple poverty was not the goad toward abortion; it was the conflict between motherhood and life plans. The average crisis pregnancy center was not going to meet these women’s needs with a Medicaid form and an application to a maternity home.
Agee has organized a national network of resources to keep the client’s life, and resumé, intact. If it is preferable for the client to leave her environment for the duration of her pregnancy, the Nurturing Network has 130 colleges that will transfer her in within weeks and 650 homes across the country that will open their doors to her. If she would like to continue her career with the least disruption, there are 450 employers who will offer her a job. The Nurturing Network has no local centers; Agee runs this entire program by telephone out of a small office in Boise, Idaho, with a mostly volunteer staff and a correspondingly low overhead.
Some agencies offering crisis pregnancy services specialize in helping women after the pregnancy. Bethany Christian Services was founded in 1944 when two women began taking in homeless children; it now maintains 57 offices and a nationwide hotline that offer a number of services to pregnant women and to children, including adoption placements. Other organizations, like NOEL House in Fairfax, Virginia, offer housing to mother and child after the birth to help her get back on her feet.
Another category of crisis pregnancy services is the mushrooming number of groups that provide counselling for women who have had abortions and are beginning to feel the effects of grief. Names such as Women Exploited by Abortion, American Victims of Abortion, and Victims of Choice express some of the bitterness these women feel; the video produced by Open ARMS is titled “One Dead, One Wounded.” Women in these organizations point to a group of commonly shared symptoms (anger, depression, nightmares, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts) that is termed post‑abortion syndrome. These symptoms may not emerge for a dozen years after the abortion; when they do, they may actually be a positive sign, an indication that the wall of denial is collapsing and that healing is about to begin.
The work of crisis pregnancy centers is a valiant attempt to help women in practical ways, and their growth—more volunteers, more centers, more donations—can only help women more. But no matter how extensive this work becomes, it will never be enough. These agencies intervene at a moment of crisis with emergency aid, but they cannot change the situations that cause the crisis to arise. To really help women, to make both abortion clinics and crisis pregnancy centers obsolete, will require changes in society as a whole.
Somehow the “private, personal” dilemma of unplanned pregnancy has become one that we as a society expect a woman to face alone. If she grieves or struggles, mourns an abortion, or battles to support herself and a hungry child, well, that was her choice, wasn’t it? She has become invisible to us. In order to help her we must begin to see her again, and to see her as one of our family: a woman, a mother, a sister in need.
Women’s Right to Know
The lonely rhetoric of choice is too accurate; a pregnant woman alone is set in an unfriendly landscape that requires her to make great sacrifices to have her child, and suggests that the wise and easy choice is abortion. So thorough is this isolation that even her own child appears to be an enemy, an evil alien who has invaded her body and seeks to destroy her life. As we as a society begin to break down this besieged isolation, the first step will be providing her with simple information about the risks of abortion and the availability of alternatives; the first human connection must be to her own child.
Informed‑consent legislation has long been in the vanguard of pro‑life activities, often bearing a title like “Women’s Right to Know Act.” The most vocal supporters of such legislation are often women who have had abortions and learned too late that what they aborted was not a “glob of tissue,” but a son or daughter with hands, eyes, a face, and a beating heart.
While even normal pregnancy may pose some health risks, defying that normal process has dangers of its own. Some of these women bear evidence of this with physical, as well as emotional, scars: the forced dilation of the cervix in abortion may have so weakened it that every future pregnancy is doomed to miscarry; the scraping of a suction tube inside the uterus may have caused scarring that leads to tubal pregnancy, or even sterility. A puncture, infection, or embolism‑induced stroke may have brought these women to hysterectomy, colostomy, or life in a wheelchair.
An informed‑consent package usually requires that women be given information about 1) the risks of abortion, 2) alternative support for continuing a crisis pregnancy, and 3) the development of the fetus. Abortion clinics do not always give thorough counseling; many women complain of encountering an assembly‑line experience in which cash is demanded up front, so‑called counseling takes place in a group setting in the span of a few minutes, and when they first meet the doctor their legs are already in stirrups.
Pro‑lifers have for years approached women outside abortion clinics with information about the availability of abortion alternatives and the development of the fetus. They might proffer brochures with photos like those in the celebrated Life magazine series, depicting the fetus at the earliest abortable age already baby‑shaped, floating serenely with shoe‑button eyes and her veiled red heart beating like mad.
This approach is often not effective, as the woman, panicked by the vision of her life collapsing around her, decidedly does not want to hear about the baby or anything else that would add to her guilt or ambivalence. A new approach in Chicago is having more impact by stressing the health risks of abortion. Practitioners of the “Chicago Method” find that it gets an abortion‑bound woman’s attention very quickly when they hand her a list of malpractice cases against the clinic.
It is the speedy efficiency of abortion that appeals so seductively to the first shock of an unplanned pregnancy. Informed‑consent legislation can help slow down this flight, by exposing the real dangers of the abortion procedure and tarnishing its image as the perfect solution. Information about fetal development encourages a woman’s natural loving bond to her own child, the instinctive urge to protect and defend. A directory of local support—medical, legal, housing, and other—can tip the scale for her to choose a courageous and difficult, but life‑giving, path.
At this point a very small family, only mother and child, is begun. How best to support them? Those who would immediately leap to the resources of public assistance have skipped several interim steps. The most obvious next move is often the most neglected—involvement of that phantom figure who is the child’s other parent.
It is perplexing that the father has become such a negligible figure, as if his entire role in human reproduction were exhausted at the end of its initial 15 minutes. The truth is that he fulfills a role in the lives of the mother and the child that nothing else can replace. The exhaustive efforts of a crisis pregnancy center are, in a sense, those of inventing an artificial husband, trying to meet the needs that in nature’s design the child’s father would supply. These efforts inevitably fall short.
Yet, activists on both sides of the abortion issue rarely expect the child’s father to be a significant source of help in a crisis pregnancy. After 20 years of sexual revolution, social expectations of male responsibility have plummeted to almost zero. The presumption is that men just want to use women for sex and then walk away; the sole obligation they feel toward these women extends just as far as one‑half the abortion fee.
To re‑establish the child’s father at the center of the mother’s support system will require challenging this myth, and regaining the social expectation that men are not only obligated to help their mates, but desire to do so. Perhaps there is something about the “do it and run” mentality that men find ultimately hollow, disconnected, sad. Perhaps there is something about protecting and providing that is foundational to a man’s self‑esteem, even in the face of cultural counter‑incentives.
This noble desire can be undermined, of course, and fear of failing as a provider can drive men to flee the scene entirely. When the public message is that men are unnecessary, that they can provide nothing that women can’t get for themselves (with a little help from Uncle Sam, perhaps), that delicate mechanism of pride in fathering can be severely damaged. If our culture recognized fathering as a useful and challenging job that men were equipped to meet, we might see a reversal of the tragic figures concerning abandoned women and children in poverty.
Because the expectations for the father’s behavior in a crisis pregnancy are so low, he is reduced to a fragment of his role—that of the walking checkbook. The child‑support system is in disarray, as only half the mothers with a judicial child‑support order are receiving full payment; a quarter receive nothing at all. If the mother never married the child’s father, her chances of receiving any support plummet still further. Garnishment of the father’s wages fails if he is determined to avoid payment and changes jobs. Men are often reluctant to pay child support if the mother is denying him access to his children; while this raises fury among child‑support advocates, the fact that the father‑child connection is important to men is one more faint signal of the way men naturally view their own complete parenting role.
Ultimately, there is no substitute for a faithful man in a family. With his encouragement, many a woman will endure great hardships to give life to her child; without it, the best we can offer her may not be enough. The pain of knowing oneself an abandoned woman, carrying the child of a man who has rejected her, outweighs nearly all else. While a rare woman may spurn her baby’s father, in most cases his support is a crucial factor in sparing or ending the child’s life. The woman in a crisis pregnancy, more than she wants money or aid, wants a loving man to make it not be a crisis. Whatever we do to encourage him in this role, we do to help her as well.
As the circle around the mother and child expands, we turn next to bringing in the woman’s parents. To a frightened teen, the initial response to such a prospect may be panic. The adolescent years are marked by a disproportionate fear of parents finding out about failings; not only is there a fear of punishment, but also a fear of being revealed as still a fallible child, not quite as competent, independent, and adult as one’s brave posturing implies.
Secret abortion feeds off these irrational fears. Those who promote its availability insist that the fears are accurate: the girl’s parents won’t understand, they will reject her, they will beat her. The lonely isolation of “choice” is repeated. The pregnant teen is led to believe that her only course is to give the abortionist all her scraped‑together babysitting money and ache and bleed in loneliness, wishing she could ask for her mother’s love. Readers may remember, as teens, being easy prey for such fears; we may be fortunate now, as parents, to know how boundless and powerful love for a child can be. Although a parent may be more or less stunned, worried, angered by the initial news, fierce love sweeps in and seeks to protect and guide the errant daughter through the difficult days ahead.
There may be some bad, crazed parents who batter their children, yet the law has never treated these evil parents as the norm. They may beat a child for a poor report card, but all parents are not, therefore, prevented from seeing report cards. A handful of bad parents have no right to revoke the intrinsic right—and duty—of parents to be involved in their children’s lives. Without a law to guide them, reflexive fear is likely to push these teens down a lonely and dangerous path; but if they will come to their parents, even with trembling knees, they are likely to find a love more deep and broad than they had ever suspected before.
Those who oppose parental‑notification laws argue that, regardless, some teens who fear a parent’s anger will still have secret, dangerous abortions. But this is exactly what is happening in legal abortion clinics across the nation today. Secret abortions are dangerous for teens, whether legal or illegal; making it easier to keep them secret does not help the young women involved. The case of Becky Bell, trumpeted by abortion advocates as a symbol of teens who will choose illegal abortions and die rather than tell parents of their pregnancy, has been collapsing ever since copies of her autopsy began to circulate last summer. That document reveals evidence of a spontaneous miscarriage, but no signs of any induced abortion, either legal or illegal, no uterine infection, and no use of instruments. The autopsy reveals that the culprit in the tragic death of this lovely 16‑year‑old was a raging pneumonia of the variety that killed muppeteer Jim Henson.
Unfortunately, examples of teens who died on legal abortion tables are not hard to come by. A Manhattan jury found an abortionist and a nurse anesthetist negligent in the death of 13-year old Dawn Ravenell. Her parents did not know of her abortion plan until they were called to the hospital; she had already passed into the coma from which she would never recover. According to court testimony the abortionist did not weigh their daughter, check her age, explain the risks, or even speak to her before the legal abortion procedure.
Erica Kae Richardson of Cheltenham, Maryland, was only 16 when she was allegedly left to bleed for four hours on a clinic table; she died soon after in a nearby emergency care center. Again, her mother did not know that she was going to have an abortion. In St. Louis, Sandra Kaiser, 14, jumped to her death after her legal abortion. Her mother did not know that she planned an abortion, but she did know something that the clinic couldn’t discover: Sandra had already been hospitalized three times for psychiatric problems.
Worrisome as well is the case of 14‑year‑old Erin G., who suffered serious medical complications three days after a secret abortion. The girl was taken for a legal abortion by her teacher, who told the girl’s mother that Erin was needed to babysit and would be home late. When Erin and her mother filed suit against school and clinic officials, all the defendants except the school superintendent settled before trial. The court threw out the case against the superintendent, saying that because California law permits a minor to have an abortion without her parents’ knowledge that any third parties who assist the minor in an abortion are not violating the law even if their actions are deceptive. This story could happen again in any of the 33 states where there are no enforced parental involvement laws.
Although the majority of state legislatures have passed laws requiring parental involvement in a minor’s abortion decision, half of these states do not enforce them. Laws requiring parental consent are in force in Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Wyoming. A less stringent requirement, that the parent merely be notified of the abortion, is in force in Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Utah, and West Virginia.
The Minnesota experience demonstrates that these laws can have unexpected good effects. During a four‑year period when the law was in effect (prior to its being challenged in the courts, then finally upheld by the Supreme Court) the abortion rate for minors fell by 27 percent; the pregnancy rate also fell by 21 percent. When it is inevitable that parents will find out about a pregnancy, many teens are motivated to make more responsible choices about sexual activity. According to the March 1991 American Journal of Public Health, some of the positive claims made for these laws are that they “promote responsibility (by encouraging teen‑agers to `think before they act’), foster parent-child communication,” and “facilitate mature decision‑making.”
There is no doubt that the best thing for a pregnant minor is her parents’ loving support. Nor is there much doubt that, given the nature of adolescence, she will not be eager to seek it. The law here can be a guide for vulnerable teen women, encouraging them to act responsibly both before and after pregnancy.
What Will I Tell the Boss?
Moving beyond the ties of blood and into the larger community, we next consider ways to bring in employers. For many women, pregnancy is a major blow to work life. Many a boss is reluctant to hire a pregnant woman (“She’ll quit when the baby is born, and drive up health insurance costs as well”). Even for the woman who already has a job, pregnancy may threaten her position. A case several years ago in the Washington area illustrates a typical Catch‑22: a counsellor at a youth center for teen women became pregnant while unmarried, and was fired for being a bad example. If she had concealed the pregnancy with an abortion her job would have been safe. Similarly, prison guards in New York revealed that they had been told to get abortions or lose their jobs.
Some of these problems are knotty and admit of no easy solution; it may well be that pregnancy would dangerously hamper the physical agility and strength that prison guard work requires. Unwed pregnancy in a youth leader may model an irresponsibility that is not helpful. Yet when women see no alternative, when bearing the child would mean that both of them would go hungry, abortion again appears the only “choice.” If her employer must make a change, an attempt to assign alternate work for the duration of her pregnancy would be kinder than a pink slip.
The difficulties of combining a job and parenthood do not end when the pregnancy does. A flood of ideas to give working parents more time with their children have been touted by both Left and Right, including flexibility in choosing one’s working hours, the opportunity for two employees to share a single job, the ability to commute by home computer, and a renewed interest in home entrepreneurship.
The woman who is not yet in the work force but still completing her education generally has more flexibility in completing an unplanned pregnancy. Public high schools have done much to make teen childbearing less onerous, with the unintended result of lowering the costs of sexual irresponsibility.
Sex and Birth Control
It may be useful here to turn for a moment from examining ways to support the woman in an unplanned pregnancy, and toward ways of preventing these undesired pregnancies altogether. The simple answer of providing more and better contraceptives is failing for reasons unknown; although condoms are available for less than the price of a pack of cigarettes in stores across the land, half of all women having abortions were not using any form of birth control at all during the entire month when they became pregnant; the half that were includes users of such non‑methods as douching and withdrawal. In addition, women who have had abortions are thoroughly instructed at the clinic in contraceptive use, yet the abortion repeat rate is nearing half the annual total. It may be that the very availability of abortion makes contraception seem a less urgent concern: “I’ll take a chance this one time; I can always have an abortion.” Even for those who do use it, method failure is a constant shadow. If contraceptives properly used are 95‑percent effective over a year, a sexually active woman using them faithfully over a 10‑year period still stands a 43‑percent chance of getting pregnant at least once. Her chances jump dramatically if they are used with less than exacting care.
Although the Roman Catholic Church holds a moral opposition to artificial birth control, neither that church nor any major pro‑life group is seeking to legally ban contraceptives that in fact prevent conception. (Even though IUDs and some low‑dose birth control pills can act instead as abortion‑inducers, no one is presently attempting to have them restricted either.) But even among non‑religious groups there is a pervasive skepticism about the effectiveness of the contraceptive solution for many of the reasons above. Some would also cite the dangers of tampering with a woman’s body to the extent necessary to overcome the finely balanced ecology that sustains reproduction. Most would pinpoint the cause of unplanned pregnancy as, not messy or inadequate or too‑expensive contraception, but sex itself.
Sex is still the leading cause of pregnancy. A curious, almost Victorian, circumlocution encourages us to deny this: we speak of the woman who “finds herself pregnant,” as though she had just happened on the baby in a parking lot. In fact, pregnancy is nearly always the result of consensual activity between two partners who are aware that pregnancy is a possible result. (Only 1 percent of all abortions are for rape and incest pregnancies, according to Planned Parenthood’s Alan Guttmacher Institute.) To decrease the number of crisis pregnancies will ultimately require restoring to sexual activity the kind of respect such a potentially volatile experience deserves.
Many would assume that a goal of sexual restraint and fidelity is futile and naive; the past 20 years of sexual revolution is taken to be the bedrock experience of human sexuality for all time. But there is ample evidence that the sexual revolution has been harmful to women, as the rates of divorce, unwed childbearing, sexually transmitted disease, and abortion increase. A particularly poignant indicator is the proliferation of self‑help books aimed at women suffering one form or another of heartbreak. Women’s sexuality is not a mechanical but a delicate and trust‑based thing, which uncommitted sexual activity smashes; the same may be true of men. It is not only for the sake of the unborn child that sex should be sheltered by the marriage bond, but for the sake of the participants’ own vulnerable hearts as well.
Casting the net a bit wider, we can now bring in another circle of support for the pregnant woman, people who may paradoxically ever remain strangers. These are the potential adoptive parents of her child.
Although it is common knowledge that babies are in great demand, figures are hard to come by; the federal government ceased collecting adoption information in 1975. There are over 40 infertile couples for each child available, an unknown number of whom would like to adopt; we may add to that figure legions of singles,and couples with biological children who would also adopt a child. The scarcity of babies, and the expense and red tape of adoption, may discourage many from ever applying. There is no way to estimate how many homes there are for adoptive children, but it is certain that demand far exceeds the supply.
Healthy white babies get adopted quickly; minority babies take a little longer, but seldom more than a few months. It is more difficult to find enough homes for black children for several reasons. For some black families, making formal adoption plans with the assistance of an agency is simply not part of the cultural tradition, and for other families the fee is a barrier. Although black families adopt at about the same rate as white families, black children are overrepresented in the pool both as babies and as older children. The largest hurdle, however, is that many agencies are reluctant to place minority babies with white families, although these families may be eager to give such children a home. According to the National Association of Black Social Workers, “We view the placement of black children in white homes as a hostile act against our community.” In accordance with this policy, a white Maryland family was told that it would not be considered for a child who had one black parent, but in the case of a child with one black grandparent they would be competitively considered with single black women.
A poignant side‑effect of this policy is that young, pregnant black women are getting the message that “nobody wants your baby,” which carries at least an undertone of “nobody wants you.” Because of this placement double‑bind—shortage of black adoptive families, and barriers to placement in white families—some adoption agencies are reluctant to deal with minority babies at all. Bethany Christian Services is active in this field, and has hired black social workers to recruit black adoptive families; they will place black children in white families if the birth mother agrees and the adoptive family’s community will be supportive. Bethany receives seven to eight calls per day from black pregnant women seeking adoptive families for their children. Many of these women have been referred to Bethany by other agencies that did not want to get involved.
The barriers to transracial adoption may be more apparent than real. A 1977 study showed that three‑quarters of black households surveyed felt a white home would be acceptable if no black home were available; only 7 percent were “most unfavorable” to that solution. The fears of seeing one’s ethnic identity dissolving into the larger white pool are worthy of respect, but it seems unfair to work this out in the lives of babies who merely want homes.
But what of babies who are not healthy, and older children in foster care? Surprisingly, these comprise fully half of all adoptions each year. Janet Marchese runs the National Down Syndrome Adoption Exchange from her home; she has placed 1,850 of these children in families, and reports a current waiting list of 125 more families seeking to adopt. There are waiting lists also for spina bifida babies, even for terminally ill and AIDS babies.
The situation for foster children is not well understood; although there are approximately 285,000 children in foster care, only roughly 13 percent are legally free and available for adoption. Couples who wish to adopt from this pool face a rigorous progression of tests, home studies, and psychological surveys that may go on for years, perhaps culminating in rejection. For many, it is easier to adopt a child from overseas; these international adoptions have doubled since 1982. Adoption of black foster children is, of course, slowed by the same bias against allowing placement in white families. In addition, more‑adoptable younger children may age years in the foster system without being released for adoption, as ambivalent birth parents and overburdened caseworkers who struggle to reconstitute the birth family sometimes see adoption as a sign of failure.
The strongest message we can give to the pregnant woman in crisis, then, is that her baby is not unwanted, and that there are many loving homes for her child, no matter what his color or health. But she faces other conflicts, including pervasive and illogical bias against making an adoption plan. Her friends may say, “I would never do that to my baby. I’d have an abortion first.” There is a self‑preserving impulse to be rid of the child quickly, before the intimate growth of nine months’ time can weave bonds that are strong as steel.
We must not speak too lightly of the sacrifice of the birth mother. It is tempting to say that it will only cost her nine months of her life to give perhaps 90 years to the life of her child. This presumes that the mother’s feelings are cut when the cord is severed, that she will not wonder throughout her life about her child, his health, his happiness, his own children.
Yet crisis pregnancy is bound to involve some sorrow, no matter what choice is made. There will be a poignant twist in the heart forever, no matter what course is followed in these anxious days. As we see soldiers return from the Persian Gulf to festivals and acclaim, we wish that there were some way to offer a bit of the same praise to the brave woman who sacrifices so much to give life to a child she may never see again. This is truly heroism.
Regarding the choice a single woman faces between raising her child or placing her for adoption, evidence is strong that the latter course will have the best results for both of them. Compared with a single mother, the birth mother who chooses adoption is more likely to finish school, to have a higher‑paying job, and to eventually marry. She is less likely to become pregnant again out of wedlock. Good results for the child are comparatively strong: in terms of financial security, emotional health, school success and other achievements, children do far better in two‑parent homes.
Most birth mothers who place their children for adoption do so out of love, because they believe it to be the best thing for their children. Ignoring the advice of our pain‑avoidance culture, these courageous women find bittersweet satisfaction in knowing they have done the right thing by giving their children life and by placing them in sound families where they can enjoy the best prospects for a full and healthy life. But a birth mother’s sense of loss can still be wrenching, especially in the first year after she parts from the child. We owe her our deep gratitude, respect, and support for the pain she bravely endures. Truly she gives life twice: once when she refuses an abortion, and again when she releases the child to be raised, and loved, in another family’s home.
Help from Taxpayers
Returning to our image of concentric rings of support, we come at last to the widest ring, that of the larger tax‑paying community. We are already spending money to support the unwed mother, money that might be spent more effectively, especially in the areas of public health care and public assistance.
Those who work daily to help poor women continue their pregnancies are probably the best experts on how public support meets or fails these needs. Crisis pregnancy workers across the country generally say that there are good, effective programs to help these women, such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program and public prenatal and maternity care, but that these programs usually don’t have enough money. A woman may have to wait weeks to see her doctor and then spend all day in a waiting room (perhaps wrestling with a restless toddler) before she sees the doctor for a few minutes.
While all who work with needy pregnant women are grateful for the availability of programs that meet a desperate and constant need, there is division on the issue of funding. Some say that they would definitely appeal for more funding, and are willing to pay higher taxes to cover it. Others wish to place more funds in the service of clients, but think that these could be found by cutting red tape and controlling fraud.
A computerized network uniting all the helping services would be a tremendous step forward; one could type in a client’s information and then be shown at once all the varied support for which she would be eligible. Similarly, “one‑stop shopping” that offers a client all her programs in one place would be an inestimable help to the woman who presently may be discouraged from taking advantage of parenting or nutrition classes by the necessity of several bus transfers with a stroller under her arm.
The cost of childbearing is another obstacle. When an abortion costs only $250 but a birth is more than ten times that, a heavy thumb rests on the scale. One who has left welfare and Medicaid for a low‑paying job without health benefits may well wonder if she was better off on the public tab when a heavy health expense comes home.
Some private volunteer health‑care programs falter because doctors are reluctant to treat charity clients, who are far more likely to sue than paying clients. Some form of malpractice protection for good‑faith health care may attract more Good Samaritans to this work.
Experiment in Wisconsin
As currently structured, public assistance frequently perpetuates and subsidizes the least beneficial family arrangements: single‑parent households. Susan Olasky, co‑founder of the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center in Texas, suggests that we turn this around by counselling each woman with an eye to establishing her in a network of support. The best alternative, both for her and the child, would be a healthy marriage with the child’s father. If that is not a reasonable goal, a good alternative might be encouraging her to live with her parents, if they can offer a stable home with a granddad to fill the child’s need for a father. In some cases, the woman should be strongly urged to place her child for adoption.
The very last alternative, the one most likely to lead to poverty and child abuse, is establishing the mother and child in a new, isolated household. Olasky fears that when a pregnant woman seeking help is immediately offered public funds, it leapfrogs her over the better choices to this last and lonely one. To succeed, marriage and family relationships require irksome personal change and some loss of autonomy; the woman is offered the deceptive fantasy that she can forgo such trials and sustain herself and her child on meager public resources. The child’s father may feel that instinctual desire to provide for his new family, but cannot compete with a governmental sugar‑daddy with unlimited funds; and why should she marry him and lose health and financial benefits? The fragmentation of the family continues one generation more.
A controversial plan is being considered in Wisconsin: Governor Tommy Thompson is proposing a Parental and Family Responsibility initiative that would cap AFDC benefits to unmarried women at the one‑child level, no matter how many additional children she had. But teen couples who marry would receive increased benefits per child, and be allowed to earn up to $14,500 without losing any of the children’s benefits. Will we see more successful families encouraged to make their marriages work and earn their own way? Or will the abortion rate rise as the poorest abandoned women see support for their children cut off? Yet how long can we continue to subsidize the most counter‑productive behavior? Those who work with poor women and face these perplexing problems every day tend to give Governor Thompson’s plan a cautious, but hopeful, thumbs up.
Challenge for Pro‑Lifers
The abortion battle has been fought for too long solely over the issue of legality, a Pushmi‑Pullyu beast of an issue for the activist poles that is quickly exhausting the patience of the rest of the nation. Legal protection for the unborn is indeed a vital goal to pursue with tenacity; a civilized nation simply cannot approve violence as the solution for social problems. But we should take a note from the vast number of pro‑life groups who focus less on legal change than on bringing hope to a desperate situation that is happening today.
What could we have said to the sad cashier, the student, the widow, or any other desperate woman trapped in an unwanted pregnancy? Perhaps practical aid from a local crisis pregnancy center would help ease the burdens; perhaps the Nurturing Network’s knack for keeping a resumé intact would be the boost she needs.
As a larger society, there is more we can say to her. We can give her whatever we have to share, medical and legal help, food, shelter, clothing. We can encourage the baby’s father to do right by her, and call out in him his best self, the self that wants to do so. We can help her turn to her own parents for help, trusting that their love for her is stronger than she ever had need to test. We can encourage her boss to work with her so that she can keep both her pregnancy and her job. We can help find adoptive parents to give her child a loving home, while setting her free to continue her own life plans. We can help her with food and health care, even with our taxes.
And perhaps this is not enough; perhaps she will still feel that abortion is the choice she must make. We can still be there for her, as thousands of women who have had abortions fill pro‑life organizations, turning their own grief into a resource for others who need someone who can listen, without blame or censure, and truly understand.
The lonely woman, racked by this “personal decision,” must be met by our willingness to help her if our assertions that we value life, or that we support her choices, are to have any meaning. There is much we cannot do, will never be able to do, to ease her pain. But there is no excuse for our not doing whatever we can.