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Pro-Life Dilemma

Monday, July 1, 1996

          A story like this begins perhaps a thousand times every day: A woman's hand trembles as she scans the big-city Yellow Pages. The ads for abortion clinics have flowers and birds and slogans about caring, and one shows a pretty couple grinning at each other at the seashore. That makes her start crying again. Her boyfriend never looked at her like that.

          But elsewhere on the page she sees an ad showing a woman curled around a baby. The phone number ends with the letters H-O-P-E. She hadn't thought about hope, but she feels like she really needs to talk to someone who has some, right now. She dials the number.

          Half a year later, she is stepping out of the Hope Pregnancy Center. It's her first visit since the birth. Her little boy fusses while everyone hugs her. She stands for a moment in the spring sunshine. She's made it through these months after all. It's taken courage, and it's been tough, but this precious child has been brought through safely and given the gift of life. Without the love of the women at the center, this child would have died. She looks down at his wizened face. He is all she has now. Tears prick her eyes again, as she turns and walks to the bus stop.

          What happens to mother and child next?

          "It horrifies me sometimes," says Pat Evans, the unpaid director of Birthright, a crisis-pregnancy center in Annapolis, Maryland. "She's on the list for public housing, but that housing is invariably in bad sections. But if she turns it down, she's off the list, or put back on at the bottom to wait all over again."

          And how does she support herself? "She probably gets $225 a month on welfare, and there's food stamps, WIC [nutrition aid to women, infants, and children], and medical assistance," says Evans, who has counseled thousands of women in her 16 years there. "In all these years, I've seen less than a half-dozen find a way to work. Once they have that baby, how can they find a job that pays enough to buy a car to get to the job, and cover day care as well?" Evans's center, which assists about 1,200 women a year, can help some with housing for a year after the birth, but can't offer permanent housing or employment. "I don't see any answer to that; it's almost impossible. When she has a child, everything gets very hard."

          America's 3,000 pregnancy centers have been rescuing women and their unborn children for 30 years now. When we list the nonbureaucratic, grass-roots organizations that are doing the most to save threatened lives, pregnancy centers must rank near the top.

          These privately funded, storefront operations offer women material and emotional support free of charge, and they help hundreds of thousands each year to have their babies. Perhaps more than any other institution, these centers are shaping attitudes about abortion and the unborn--one person at a time--in a decidedly pro-life direction. While conservatives debate the wisdom of a pro-life agenda for the 1996 presidential campaign, tens of thousands of volunteers are quietly keeping a candle glowing through the darkest night of many women's lives.

          In the old joke, a grandmother peevishly greets the exhausted hero who has just rescued her grandson from a frozen lake: "But where are his mittens?" The pregnancy centers and their staff endure difficult, lifesaving work, little or no pay, and obscurity occasionally alleviated by insult. It hardly seems right for those of us who value these centers' hard work to punctuate our praise with grumbling about lost mittens. But the recent evolution in society's attitudes toward welfare compel a closer look.

          For all the good crisis-pregnancy centers do, 80 to 90 percent of their clients--about 200,000 a year--eventually set up single-parent households. Most of these mothers and their children soon find themselves on their own, with no reliable means of financial support. Many end up permanently dependent on government welfare. Some even slip into homelessness. And we all know the eventual outcomes for many of the children born into such households: poverty, low academic achievement, susceptibility to crime. If pregnancy-counseling centers are to serve the best long-term interests of children, many of them will need to think beyond pregnancy and birth--to finding each one a two-parent home.

A Welfare World View

          To Evans and others like her, welfare is a necessity. Without it, the young women they serve would grow even more desolate and desperate. "We do put people on welfare," says Evans. "We do create the single-parent homes, but at least the baby is alive. Someone has to help us if this is going to change. As it is, the volunteers are doing it all themselves--counseling, giving supplies, taking women to live in their homes."

          But it is important to acknowledge that welfare causes more crisis pregnancies. By making single-parent households possible, welfare dollars remove the stigma of sex and pregnancy outside marriage. Girls who grow up without a father are more than twice as likely to have a baby out of wedlock themselves.

          It is time for the pregnancy-care movement to broaden its vision of how best to help unwed mothers. Such a change has already begun in the last six years or so. The movement once focused narrowly on saving unborn babies; now it emphasizes giving the mother practical support so she can save her own child.

          The movement's next step is to seek the best possible future for both mother and child. Too often, the crisis mentality of the moment envisions only two possibilities: The woman will have an abortion, or she'll "keep the baby," usually as a single mom. In reality, there are two other options that merit pro-lifers' support.

          A poll conducted by Family Research Council in 1995 asked respondents which course they thought would be best for an unwed, pregnant teen. Twenty-nine percent thought her best choice was to place the child for adoption. Slightly fewer, 24 percent, felt she should marry the father of the child. Eleven percent thought single-parenting was her best course. Only 8 percent recommended abortion.

          Reality turns these numbers upside down. In 1991, 46 percent of pregnancies to unwed mothers ended in abortion. Most of the rest, 44 percent, were carried to term. (Miscarriages make up the difference.) Of those births to unwed moms, only 2 percent were placed for adoption; the remainder of the unwed moms kept their babies. How many of those also married the babies' dads is unknown; pregnancy-care workers reckon the figure is quite low.

          If the pregnancy-care movement could find effective ways to encourage women to choose adoption, they could help give children a two-parent home and offer both the children and their moms greater security. By thinking beyond merely "saving that baby" or getting the woman through pregnancy, counselors can help bolster the social institutions that undergird a healthy society and replace welfare bureaucracy with family-based alternatives.

Talking about Adoption

          Most two-parent homes are created by marriage, and a few pregnancy centers encourage their clients to consider this option. But in general, pregnancy centers seem better equipped to incorporate the adoption option into their work. June Ring, the coordinator of adoption resources for Presbyterians Pro-life, is one of a handful of pro-lifers who are charting such a course. She has devised a seminar, "Adoption: Making a Plan for Life," to train the center's staff to present adoption as an attractive alternative. The counselors' first duty is to raise the topic in the first place. "One study found that in 40 percent of counseling situations, adoption was not even mentioned to the client as an option," Ring says, "even though the majority of counselors felt favorably toward adoption." She proposes that pregnancy-care workers resolve to mention adoption to every single client.

          According to the National Council for Adoption, a 1991 study found that pregnant, unmarried teens who were counseled in a program that mentioned adoption to every client were seven times more likely to choose it. When the teen's parents were involved in counseling, they were six times more likely to choose adoption. Teens asked to compare adoption with single parenting were also six times more likely to choose adoption.

          But pregnancy centers are cautious about how they discuss this option. Some women who placed their infants for adoption have subsequently sued the centers where they had received counseling, saying they had felt coerced. In Florida, state authorities warned a pregnancy center that volunteers could not discuss adoption with clients, since the center was not a licensed adoption agency. A federal court later declared this "gag rule" unconstitutional.

          Incidents like these tend to scare off cash-poor pregnancy centers. They may use a "reality therapy" approach, helping clients compare the tough life of a single parent with that of a mom who chooses adoption, but they won't state that adoption is better. "We don't coerce, convince, or make the decisions, but we do give complete, objective, and accurate information," Ring says. "We want the client to consider adoption equally and in as much depth as other options."

          One problem many centers confront is the one-visit client. A woman comes in for a free pregnancy test, gets a positive result, and leaves, never to be seen again. Even then, Ring says, the center can "plant an adoption seed" by mentioning that alternative. "Emphasize her motherhood," says Ring. A positive result on the pregnancy test means she's already the mother of an unborn child. What does she think goes into being a good parent? Might those be things an adoptive couple could do for her child? "Help her see that planning an adoption can accomplish those parenting goals for her."

          Ring's cool phrasing about helping the woman "accomplish parenting goals" avoids a trap that ensnares some unwitting pregnancy workers. When counselors see only two alternatives, aborting the child or giving it life, they may try to tip the scale toward life by awakening the maternal instinct. As the woman falls in love with her unborn baby, the center may shower her with baby gifts, give her a handmade quilt or blanket, and introduce her to previous clients who are now cuddling beautiful babies. Once her maternal emotions are ignited, the mom might not be able to let her child go. (The 1991 study cited above found that pregnant teens counseled in programs that introduced them to teen parents were four times less likely to choose adoption.)

          Counselors must strike a delicate balance: Encourage mothers-to-be to love their babies enough to give them life, yet still be willing to place them with two-parent homes. To some women, planning for adoption smacks of abandoning the child and of being a bad mother.

          Anne Pierson, of a group called Loving and Caring, is also trying to increase awareness of adoption. Pierson, who offers training to pregnancy centers and maternity homes, has incorporated Ring's materials into her "A Future and a Hope" seminar. "The pregnant woman needs to see that she's giving the child the gift of a family," Pierson says, "not that she's giving the adoptive couple the gift of a child. She is being a very good parent by making a good plan for the child."

          While counselors target the client, Pierson targets the counselors. Those who have had children may harbor an unconscious bias against adoption, she says, because many cannot understand how another mom could "give up" her own child. "We find that one reason counselors are ineffective in presenting adoption is that it's not settled in their own hearts," says Pierson. "They don't understand what it means to be an adopted child of God; they don't understand Scripture." Pierson believes that a better understanding of the biblical teaching about adoption--how it suggests God's unconditional acceptance of people into his spiritual family--can help counselors present it more effectively.

          Counselors need practical advice as well, and Loving and Caring is setting up seminars to deliver it. "We work with them on key issues: how to bring it up, how to talk about it, the experience of grieving, the mom's experience of learning new things about herself," says Pierson. "The journey of adoption, the entire process, is as important as the decision itself."

          At the LIGHT House maternity home in Kansas City, Missouri, 10 percent of the clients--well above the national average--choose adoption. One reason is that the home strips away myths about motherhood, adoption, and abortion. "We don't push one decision or another, but we do help them make an informed decision," says Shirley Gibson, the director of residential services and adoption. "We want them to have a realistic view of being a single parent--not only the financial but the emotional cost." Residents talk frankly about the good and bad sides of any decision, including the grief they may feel after an adoption placement. But it's hard not to be starry-eyed over the prospect of cuddling a sweet baby.

          Instead of a pink cherub, however, clients get to hold "Baby Jamie"--an electronic infant that records such things as how long the girl takes to respond when it cries, how long to feed it, and whether it's being abused. Girls who think they'd like to parent can take a turn with Baby Jamie. They must carry a diaper bag and get up in the night for "feedings," while keeping to their regular school schedule.

          Another reason for the high adoption rate at LIGHT House is its emphasis on reaching abortion-minded women. "Women who are considering abortion are more open to adoption," says Gibson. "Some people don't mind being pregnant. All they want is free medical care. Our primary goal is alternatives to abortion." If the woman is considering abortion because she doesn't want to raise a baby, adoption can accomplish her goal as well.

          In addition to individual counseling, women contemplating adoption participate in an intensive, 20-week adoption class. The course covers everything from legal issues like the birth father's rights to preparing for birth, handling grief, and deciding whether to write a letter to the child that the adoptive parents can put aside for later. (The LIGHT House does not encourage ongoing contact between the birth mother and the adoptive family.) "The scariest part is these feelings you're having," Gibson says. "You think you're the only one having them. It's reassuring to learn that [all] birth mothers feel the same way. After the birth, if you feel like changing your mind, that might be an intellectual decision--or it might be an emotional decision. We ask them to think: Are the reasons you initially decided for adoption still valid?"

          Most pregnancy counselors agree that adoption needs to become more visible. Mariam Bell, a would-be adoptive mom in Annandale, Virginia, spends many Saturday mornings with friends setting up a table outside a nearby abortion clinic. The table is covered with a gingham cloth, and stocked with coffee and doughnuts; helium balloons and signs reading "Choose Adoption" and "We Care About You" complete the scene. If cars pause on the way in, Bell hands the passengers a packet containing information about adoption and profiles of prospective adoptive couples. Many passengers stop to talk, then leave without entering the clinic.

          "Many girls are crying as they're being driven in," Bell says. "They're not joyfully exercising some right to privacy; they are in trauma. Seeing that was very important in reinforcing my belief that this is the approach we need to take." An approach, that is, that demonstrates pro-lifers can stand outside an abortion clinic doing something peaceful, positive, and ultimately hopeful.

          Among society's most pressing problems is the seemingly endless supply of pregnancies to unwed mothers. Pregnancy centers have 30 years' experience in offering mothers the personal support and encouragement needed to make a life-affirming choice. But once born, that baby deserves a better life than welfare and single-parenting can offer. Pregnancy centers, which have already done so much to better the prospects of women and children, need to expand their vision one more time. They should do far more to encourage mothers to consider adoption. This is less a criticism of pregnancy centers' valiant work than a discovery. It turns out that we've found the mittens after all. We just need to put them to use.