Compassion and Concentric Circles of Support

Frederica Mathewes-Green, M.A.

Events of recent years have shown the passionate depths of women's feeling on both sides of the abortion debate. How can division run so deep? Why don't those who bear women's bodies agree?

The startling truth may well be that women are pro-life and pro-choice for the same reason. Women feel strongly about abortion on both sides of the issue because we share a distinctive moral compass: women care for the heart.

It was perhaps Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice [1] that mapped the landscape most clearly, confirming what gender research [2] and simple observation had implied. Gilligan found that, in making ethical decisions, men tend to rely on objective standards of right and wrong, principles: justice. Women, on the other hand, tend to look for ways to build up relationships, to comfort and console: mercy.

"Man for the head, woman for the heart" is an overly-simple summary of this insight; of course, we are more complex than that, each exhibiting elements of both approaches while probably typifying our own gender in greater degree. These distinctions are not rigid, nor is either approach preferable. A blending of both is necessary to steer between tyranny and chaos.

With cautions like these in mind, it is helpful to examine the effect on the abortion debate of typically feminine ethical views. Most of the public debate has been carried on in "masculine" terms of principle, of the right to life or the right to liberty, yet women are more often concerned with how such decisions get worked out in practice. Who will be hurt by this decision? What is the best way to care for all involved? Starting from the same point, women often reach opposite conclusions.

Women favor legalized abortion because women care for the heart. They look at the troubles of a woman with a difficult pregnancy and are moved by her pain. Jean has been dumped by her boyfriend, an event that still amazes and wounds her. She's afraid to go to her parents. She sees her mother's face fall with sorrow, her dad turn away ashamed. Her boss has implied before that pregnancy could be grounds for firing. The lease on her apartment says "No Children Allowed." She sits on the side of her bed in the morning, fighting back waves of nausea; she weeps into her hands and feels so frightened and alone. The baby growing inside her seems an evil invader, like a cancerous tumor impudently growing larger every day. Soon it will become obvious, and everyone will know, and she'll be the object of pity, scorn, and gossip.

Her friends are worried. They agree this is unfair. She shouldn't have to suffer like this. As sad as it is, she must have an abortion. One takes it on herself to drive Jean to the clinic, squeezing her hand and proffering tissues. As they pull up, the driver sees pro-lifers distributing leaflets on the sidewalk. The sight strikes like a knife. How could anyone be so despicably heartless? Don't they know that she's already upset, that she's suffered enough over this decision? How can anyone be so mean?

From this ground grows a sensitive pro-choice position, one that is often mixed with revulsion for abortion itself. Jean's friends reflect on her experience and conclude, "There are such an infinite variety of situations a pregnant woman can encounter --some joyful, some tragic. How can anyone else judge what she can or can't bear? Abortion is a sad, even a dreadful thing; but no one should be forced to continue a pregnancy if she's miserable!"

Pro-lifers who counter with a typically masculine-style, head-directed principle like "Life is life, abortion takes a life, abortion is wrong" miss the mark entirely. These women shake their heads and think, how can anyone be so blind? Don't they see it's not that black and white? They want to know, "But what about Jean?"

Why, then, would women oppose abortion? Again, women oppose abortion because women care for the heart. If their first concern is the sustaining and nurturing of relationships, it seems too obvious that abortion severs and divides. They see abortion being sold as the latest in a long line of technological developments (refrigerator, vacuum cleaner) that are supposed to make women's lives easier. Pro-life women are afraid that it hurts her, hurts us all, more in the long run. They fear that abortion doesn't care for the heart.

In the first place, they believe that abortion kills babies. In general, women like babies. Many of us have had babies. In a simple and direct way they reason: anything that kills our babies certainly can't be all good. And anything that purports to help a woman by killing her baby has a lot of explaining to do.

Arguments that the unborn is inconsequential because she is small, or still developing, or not conscious, have a chillingly self-serving tone to these women. Of course she's still developing, they think--that's what children do, for twenty years or so! Her consciousness may be dim, but it is growing, healthy; the rush to kill the child before she "wakes up" at six months appears as repulsive as a rush to kill a comatose six-year-old before she can recover.

Other standard pro-choice arguments have little persuasive power on pro-life women. Calling the fetus "unwanted" reminds them that history is littered with the corpses of people deemed "unwanted." Women's worth does not depend on men wanting them; we cannot have a double standard for our own children. Likewise, with the idea that "the child might be abused", the pro-life women imagine their friends who have overcome rape, battering, childhood molestation. They imagine someone telling them "Your life is not worth living; you should never have been born." Assertions that the child may be disabled make even less sense; surely we don't kill sick children, they think, we love them and care for them! Scoffing at the fetus's tiny size reminds the pro-life woman of her own small stature compared to most men; many a woman knows in her own body what violence at stronger hands is like. Because the fetus is small, weak, still growing, she is even more deserving of protection; she is the smallest fragile bud on our human family tree.

As with pro-choice women, masculine-style arguments based on principle seem irrelevant. Is this a woman's choice? What a horrible, bloody, humiliating choice! A woman who wants an abortion seems like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg--a terrible bid to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. The pro-life woman thinks, "Surely there's a better way to help her."

While pro-choice women may regret the loss of safe connections and see abortion as a sad necessity, pro-life women are more inclined to see abortion as enabling these very problems to continue unopposed. Abortion seems to them to be the handmaid of a sexual revolution that has been a fantasy playground for irresponsible men but has had damaging consequences for women. Not only are women the ones to bear the burdens of pregnancy-- we are also the ones to be more rattled by the fragmentation of our lives, as our sexuality gets snipped out of the whole fabric of our personhood and isolated as sheer mechanical act. As Juli Loesch Wiley (founder of Prolifers for Survival and pioneer of the consistent life ethic) has put it on several occasions, abortion becomes part of the female-body-as-recreational-object syndrome. The idea is that a man can use a woman, vacuum her out, and she's ready to be used over again, as if she were something like a rent-a-car.

While our culture continues its promotion of compulsive sexual activity, severed from context and emotional ties, women are lonelier than ever. A visit to any bookstore's psychology section will reveal a dozen titles offering solace to the woman who feels abandoned, lonely, and can no longer trust men. Apparently this is a boom market.

Without abortion, every one-night-stand could lead to a life-long obligation. It may well be that women prefer life-long obligations, but twenty-two years of "reproductive freedom" has not succeeded in winning respect for women's delicate and trust-based sexuality. When well-known institutions such as the Playboy empire promote abortion availability, it is doubtful that it is because they have the welfare and dignity of women at heart. Indeed, polls often show men more enthusiastically in favor of abortion than women are; a typical poll done by the Roper organization in the autumn of 1994 shows 60% of women believing abortion is wrong in all but extreme cases, while only 52% of men did so; 84% of women approved of some restrictions on abortion, compared to 75% of men.[3]

Lingering practical problems remain for women who offer to fit themselves to a professional world made for men--men who had wives at home to tend the hearth and children. Scarcely a women's magazine has come out in the last two decades without a cover story lamenting the terrible cost of trying to balance home and job. What we didn't notice when we made the sprint for the executive office was that the "my job is my life" script was a lousy one for men, too. We failed to note our fathers' loneliness, ulcers, and absence from our childhoods. As the saying goes, no one on his deathbed says, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."

In a hard male-oriented world where workers must be dedicated to job above all, pregnancy is a disaster. Without the encouragement of a society that sees pregnancy as a delightful gift and children as a treasure, without maternity leave and job security, obstetrical care and flexible postpartum work situations, the practical difficulties of continuing a pregnancy seem insurmountable. It is easier to surgically alter pregnant women, one at a time, back to the male-clone worker model, than to make the changes necessary to create a humane workplace.

Such changes, bringing new support to women's public and private lives, lie in the future, but poor Jean is weeping today. How can we help her?

Pro-choice women look at her sorrows and rush to end them; an abortion can solve all the problems at once. The difficulties with boss, landlord, and public disappear. Her parents need never know. The situation with the boyfriend can't be fixed in any case. It is true that this untimely child must be discarded, but perhaps a happier time will come, and a different child will be born. Jean will go home after the procedure relieved at the disaster averted, but still a bit achy and sad. She will think, I didn't really have a choice, did I?

Pro-life women look at Jean's sorrows and are moved by their depth and complexity. The quick fix of abortion seems to hide too many losses: her child, her bodily integrity, her dignity as a woman worthy of faithful love and workplace understanding. Pro- life women think, how can I help her? What does she need? What will make the difference?

As practical suggestions emerge, these women put them into action. They band together to acquire a hot-line phone number, or even rent a cheap storefront furnished with hand-me-downs. They canvas the community for donations of shelter, clothing, medical care, career and educational counselling, financial and legal aid.

For these pro-life women, working for laws against abortion is usually not the first concern; helping women in trouble takes precedence. Direct crisis pregnancy services devour the greater proportion of pro-life donations, which accounts for the inability of the movement to maintain a consistent and professional presence in the forum of paid advertising. The money is already gone for diapers and doctors.

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 does not 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.

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. For a good example of this, see Annie Lamott's Operating Instructions.[4] While the author favors abortion availability, she describes eloquently the pressures put on her to abort.

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. Many 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 generally see about 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 several hundred thousand women each 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. Its international headquarters in Toronto, Canada reports about 425 locations in the United States, 75 in Canada, 4 in South Africa, 2 in Nigeria, and one each in Cameroon, Ghana, and in formation stage in Haiti. Birthright centers take a gentle, low-pressure approach, eschew "scary pictures and films," and do not become involved in political issues. Care Net sponsors about 465 crisis pregnancy centers in the United States and Canada. In addition to the usual sorts of aid, these centers stress equipping women with tools to improve their lives, and give them help with budget counselling and training in employment skills. Bethany Christian Services has about 57 centers, and a special commitment to placing African American babies and other hard-to-place children. Additionally, Catholic Charities, though not really a chain of centers, provides assistance in Roman Catholic dioceses covering an international area. Catholic Charities is the largest and oldest provider of maternity services, and sometimes the only provider in many areas.

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.[5] 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 in the United States 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 colleges that will transfer her in within weeks. It also has 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 several hundred 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.[6]

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 several 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.

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.

Walking Checkbook

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. 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 thirty years of sexual revolution, social expectations of male responsibility have plummeted. 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. The idea that a man's responsibility for the child whose creation was a consequence of his own actions might be equal to that of the mother doesn't come up; gender equality is not carried that far. To re-establish the child's father at the center of the mother's support system will require regaining the social expectation that men are not only obligated to help their mates, but desire to do so. There may, after all, be something about the "do it and run" mentality that men find ultimately hollow, disconnected, even sad.

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. Child-support systems are in disarray. In the United States, a 1990 Census Bureau study showed that only half the mothers with a judicial child-support order are receiving full payment; a quarter receive nothing at all. That same study also showed that if the mother never married the child's father, her chances of receiving any support plummet still further.

In Great Britain, the Child Support Agency was only recently created by the government in the Child Support Act of 1991. It was widely viewed as a ploy to save taxpayers money, since women's governmental benefits were reduced by any support received; groups that would ordinarily be supportive of greater help to the children "see it as a clumsy and insensitive government mechanism for saving money."[7] Women had no incentive to pursue increased support, but substantial increases in maintenance bills were decided on by the Agency and were sudden and startling. This "worst legislative cock-up since the poll tax"[8] provides a textbook case of addressing child support in an ineffective fashion.

Politicians have started taking on the issue of "Deadbeat Dads" in recent years, and increasing child support enforcement is clearly one of the ways to ease the burdens for mothers. Ultimately, however, there is no substitute for men having an attitude that assumes that they are equally responsible for child-rearing, and equally entitled to the joys as well. In so many cases, that could be the difference between a debilitating crisis and a manageable hardship.

Crazed Parents

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 discovering 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.

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.

Unfortunately, examples of teens who died on legal abortion tables are readily available. A Manhattan jury found an abortionist and a nurse anesthetist negligent in the death of 13-year old Dawn Ravenell.[9] 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 allegedly was left to bleed for four hours on a clinic table; she died soon after in a nearby emergency care center.[10] 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.[11]

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 baby-sit 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, any third parties who assist the minor in an abortion are not violating the law even if their actions are deceptive.[12]

In contrast, the Minnesota experience demonstrates that parental notification laws can have unexpected positive consequences. The law was in effect during a four-year period prior to its being challenged in the courts, then finally upheld by the United States Supreme Court. During that period, the abortion rate for minors fell by 27 percent and the pregnancy rate also fell by 21 percent.[13] 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 American Journal of Public Health, some of the positive claims made for parental involvement laws are that they "promote responsibility (by encouraging teenagers to `think before they act'), foster parent-child communication," and "facilitate mature decision-making."[14]

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.

Conversely, it is also true that there are teens for whom that love is not forthcoming, and who face abuse from their families. Abortion can actually serve as a cover-up to family violence. In these cases, the young women need places to live and be loved; maternity homes and similar services are crucial. What they most clearly do not need is to be raced through an impersonal abortion assembly line that actually facilitates their being left in an abusive situation.

What Will I Tell the Boss?

Moving beyond the ties of blood and into the larger community, we next consider ways to deal with 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. Prison guards in New York, for example, alleged that they had been told to get abortions or lose their jobs. Fortunately, they filed and won a sex discrimination lawsuit.[15]

When women see no alternative, when bearing the child would mean that both mother and child 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 and more just 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. Many colleges are also providing daycare and otherwise accomodating students with young children.

In the United States, the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 has also provided, in limited fashion, an assertion that the workplace must accommodate women (and men) who have children. The Act provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child. Women are not assumed to be required to undergo surgery which is not medically indicated merely to accommodate the workplace.

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, toward ways of preventing 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 many places, half of all American women having abortions were not using any form of birth control at all during the entire month when they became pregnant;[16] the half that were includes users of such non-methods as douching and withdrawal. Knowing about birth control and having the ability to obtain it does not help if women do not use it. Indeed, 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.[17] As sociological researcher Kristen Luker has shown as far back as the 1970s, it may be that the very availability of abortion makes contraception seem a less urgent concern, with a woman thinking she will take a chance this one time, because she can always have an abortion.[18]

Even for those who do use contraception, 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 ten year period still stands a 43 percent chance of getting pregnant at least once.[19] Her chances jump dramatically if contraception is 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. 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 not being messy or inadequate or too-expensive contraception, but being 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.[20] This may be something of an under-estimate, in that it is based on women's self-reporting; if a woman's sexual behavior is heavily impacted by previous sexual abuse, or if a minor woman is impregnated by a significantly older man, then the term "consensual" could be called into question. However, this point just makes it all the more obvious that decreasing the number of crisis pregnancies will ultimately require restoring to sexual activity the kind of respect such a potentially volatile experience deserves.

Transracial Adoption

Casting the net a bit wider, we can now bring in another circle of support for the pregnant woman made of 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 of the United States ceased collecting adoption information in 1975. There are over 40 infertile couples for each child available in the United States, 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 for adoption far exceeds the supply of children.

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. The National Association of Black Social Workers has stated, "We view the placement of black children in white homes as a hostile act against our community."[21]

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."

But what about babies who are not healthy, and older children in foster care? Surprisingly, these comprise fully half of all American adoptions each year. Janet Marchese runs the National Down's Syndrome Adoption Exchange from her home; she has placed thousands of these children in families, and reports a current waiting list of 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; of all the children in foster care, only a small portion 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. 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, and the child's health, happiness, and 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.

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. The birth mother's pain is more likely to be healed and resolved if it is her choice and she has some say over how it is exercised in terms of choosing characteristics of the adoptive family and similar matters.

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.

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 generally say that there are good, effective programs to help these women, 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.

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.


Legal protection for the unborn is indeed a vital goal to pursue with tenacity; civilized nations 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 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 even with our taxes.

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.