recently threw out a half-baked idea of paying pregnant mothers to
give up babies for adoption instead of having an abortion.
I admit there’s something creepy about the idea (which has been
mocked here, here, here,
for starters) but I wanted explain what I’m trying to get at — in the hope
that we collectively can come up with something better.
Improving adoption policy seems to be a logical plank in a
"common ground" agenda. Pro-choicers ought to like giving women more
options. Pro-lifers have been advocating adoption aid for a while. In 2008, the
Obama campaign took a big step, too, adding
into the Democratic Party platform this new sentence: "The
Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by
ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health
care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs."
Currently, government policy promoting adoption mostly focuses
on helping the adopting family not the birth mother. A family can get a $11,650
tax credit for adopting a baby – a provision that stimulates the "demand
side" but does nothing to change the calculus of a birth mother. The
policy tilt toward adopting parents over birth moms may flow from a lingering
sense that these women, or their boyfriends, are "bad" or
It’s time to purge that idea. These women go through
tremendous sacrifice to carry a baby to term — to give it life — and should
be viewed as heroes not villains.
For the launch of this OnCommonGround forum, Corinna Lohser of the Spence-Chapin, a pro-choice adoption
agency, put forth some excellent ideas to help birthmothers, mostly focused on
building awareness about the modern adoption choice through education and
counseling. Adoption laws have changed dramatically in recent decades and many
women don’t realize that they can decide whether they retain involvement in the
life of the baby or not. Some may fear they’ll never see the baby again; some
may fear the future relationship and reject the adoption choice based on this
lack of information. Birth mothers have more control than they used to, so
it’s not too farfetched to imagine pro-lifers and pro-choicers joining together
around a national public service ad campaign around correcting the public
perception of adoption.
Lohser also suggests
that family planning clinics are eager to get better at this:
"Family planning and other healthcare
providers report that they want to be able to discuss adoption with their
clients, but face a number of barriers including a lack of information and
fluency in "adoption language." Others admit to subscribing to
pervasive cultural myths and misconceptions about adoption or a distrust of
available adoption-referral sources."
Others have advocated vouchers for maternity homes. These homes
used to be common-place in a pre-Roe era but have since become more scarce. The
idea would be to give a pregnant woman a voucher so she can choose the type of
program most appropriate for her and allow her to continue her education while
being in a supportive environment in which to continue her pregnancy. This
would be most useful for isolated, teen mothers who need emotional and
financial support. We could also support birthmothers by replicating the laws
some states have allowing birth mothers to enforce open-adoption contracts so
adoptive families can’t disregard her wishes once the baby is born.
It was in thinking about how to help birth mothers that I
wondered about paying them if they choose to put a baby up for adoption instead
of an abortion. We’re asking them to go through the extraordinary sacrifice of
continuing a pregnancy knowing they might end up making the wrenching decision
to give her baby away. There are health risks. More important, there are deep
psychological risks. And yes there are even financial risks. Women who carry a
baby to term may have to take sabbaticals from work or drop out of school.
If we as a society want women to consider adoption, shouldn’t we
help make it financially more plausible for that woman? In a way, this isn’t
as radical as it seems. Adoption agencies and adopting families routinely pay
the medical bills for birth mothers and sometimes also provide money for
housing, maternity clothing and other expenses. Perhaps we could say that
expenses ought to include not just medical and clothing costs but economic
opportunity costs as well. Yes, the government would be putting its thumb on
the scale in favor of adoption instead of abortion but it’s still up to the
woman to choose which path would be better for her.
After I floated this idea during my
bloggingheads.tv chat with Slate’s Will Saletan, I heard some, er,
criticism. The blogger
"feminste," in a post she filed under the
"assholes" category, says my proposal is to "bribe women into
giving birth so that they’ll give the baby to a nice family." Gloria
Feldt, in her post, "Possibly
the Most Idiotic Common Ground Discussion I’ve Ever Heard," writes, "Remind me, how do you spell
"c-o-e-r-c-i-o-n"? How much money would it take to make you carry a
pregnancy to term against your will?"
Feldt’s comment implies that a woman would invariably prefer
having an abortion to placing a baby up for adoption, For some women, that’s
undoubtedly true. But for women who choose not to parent and would prefer not
to have an abortion, is it really c-o-e-r-c-i-o-n to make it easier to do so?
I bristle at the notion that it is sound family policy to give cash to nice
middle class adopting families but it’s necessarily bribery to help the birth
mothers who are often less well off.
Nonetheless, when I floated the idea I said that the words
"tasted bitter" as I said them — and in the end I admit the cash
payment ideas probably doesn’t make sense. Here’s why: I think the idea works
for a woman deciding between abortion and adoption, but doesn’t for a woman
deciding between raising the child herself and adoption. Under the second
scenario, we could slide into a 19th century world of poor women giving up
babies for cash, and regretting it for the rest of their lives.
But I stand by the idea that we should be making it much easier
for birth mothers to carry a baby to term and make adoption a more viable
choice for women confronting unintended pregnancy. And I disagree with the
apparent inclination of some on the pro-choice side to minimize the adoption
question entirely. "The real common ground is preventing unintended
pregnancy, and it is logically incorrect not to start with that
framework," writes Feldt.
Actually, that would be called "our team winning," not
Common ground usually does not occur because both sides equally
and enthusiastically agree on some set of policies. Some pro-choicers act as if
common ground involves pro-choice people agreeing with one another. Rather, it
happens when one side has some things they want very much that the other side
can <em>stomach</em>. Pro-choicers really want prevention and
ought to be able to stomach adoption reform, especially since it means
expanding choices for women. Pro-lifers really want adoption reform and ought
to be able to stomach prevention especially since it’s the most effective way
to reduce abortion.
The Obama people understood this when they negotiated the Democratic
platform. In a historic shift, they coupled a prevention oriented sentence with
one focused on helping women who want to choose to carry a baby to term. They campaigned
on that and won countless votes from pro-lifers on those grounds. In
quarter of the Obama coalition was pro-lifers.
Pro-choice activists who minimize the importance of the adoption
part of the dscussion will make it much less likely that a broad coalition will
be built around prevention, just as pro-lifers will lose their chance to expand
access to adoption if they refuse to budge on family planning.
And because it’s always easier to block ideas than to pass
them, pro-choicers who resist the common ground approach may well succeed. I
believe, however, that would be a phyrric victory for pro-choicers, as it would
undermine Obama, force him to betray a quarter of his voters, cede the middle
ground to the pro-life community and dash efforts to mobilize the pro-life
public that supports expanded access to family planning (vs, the pro-life
establishment that does not) — all while expanding women’s reproductive
options. But hey, it’s their choice.