This article was originally published in the September 14, 2009 edition of The Nation; research for the article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Carol Jordan, a 32-year-old pharmacy technician, was living in
Greenville, South Carolina, in 1999 when she became pregnant. She’d
already decided against abortion, but she was struggling financially and
her boyfriend was unsupportive. Looking through the Yellow Pages for
help, she spotted an ad under "crisis pregnancies" for Bethany Christian
Services. Within hours of calling, Jordan (who asked to be identified
with a pseudonym) was invited to Bethany’s local office to discuss free
housing and medical care.
Bethany, it turned out, did not simply specialize in counseling pregnant
women. It is the nation’s largest adoption agency, with more than
eighty-five offices in fifteen countries.
When Jordan arrived, a counselor began asking whether she’d considered
adoption and talking about the poverty rates of single mothers. Over
five counseling sessions, she convinced Jordan that adoption was a
win-win situation: Jordan wouldn’t "have death on her hands," her bills
would be paid and the baby would go to a family of her choosing in an
open adoption. She suggested Jordan move into one of Bethany’s
"shepherding family" homes, away from the influence of family and
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), the nonprofit pregnancy-testing
facilities set up by antiabortion groups to dissuade women from having
abortions, have become fixtures of the antiabortion landscape,
buttressed by an estimated $60 million in federal abstinence and
marriage-promotion funds. The National Abortion Federation estimates
that as many as 4,000 CPCs operate in the United States, often using
deceptive tactics like posing as abortion providers and showing women
graphic antiabortion films. While there is growing awareness of how CPCs
hinder abortion access, the centers have a broader agenda that is less
well known: they seek not only to induce women to "choose life" but to
choose adoption, either by offering adoption services themselves, as in
Bethany’s case, or by referring women to Christian adoption agencies.
Far more than other adoption agencies, conservative Christian agencies
demonstrate a pattern and history of coercing women to relinquish their
Bethany guided Jordan through the Medicaid application process and in
April moved her in with home-schooling parents outside Myrtle Beach.
There, according to Jordan, the family referred to her as one of the
agency’s "birth mothers"–a term adoption agencies use for relinquishing
mothers that many adoption reform advocates reject–although she hadn’t
yet agreed to adoption. "I felt like a walking uterus for the agency,"
Jordan was isolated in the shepherding family’s house; her only social
contact was with the agency, which called her a "saint" for continuing
her pregnancy but asked her to consider "what’s best for the baby."
"They come on really prolife: look at the baby, look at its heartbeat,
don’t kill it. Then, once you say you won’t kill it, they ask, What can
you give it? You have nothing to offer, but here’s a family that goes on
a cruise every year."
Jordan was given scrapbooks full of letters and photos from hopeful
adoptive parents hoping to stand out among the estimated 150 couples for
every available baby. Today the "birthmother letters" are on Bethany’s
website: 500 couples who pay $14,500 to $25,500 for a domestic infant
adoption, vying for mothers’ attention with profuse praise of their
"selflessness" and descriptions of the lifestyle they can offer.
Jordan selected a couple, and when she went into labor, they attended
the birth, along with her counselor and shepherding mother. The next
day, the counselor said that fully open adoptions weren’t legal in South
Carolina, so Jordan wouldn’t receive identifying information on the
adoptive parents. Jordan cried all day and didn’t think she could
relinquish the baby. She called her shepherding parents and asked if she
could bring the baby home. They refused, chastising Jordan sharply. The
counselor told the couple Jordan was having second thoughts and brought
them, sobbing, into her recovery room. The counselor warned Jordan that
if she persisted, she’d end up homeless and lose the baby anyway.
"My options were to leave the hospital walking, with no money," says
Jordan. "Or here’s a couple with Pottery Barn furniture. You sacrifice
yourself, not knowing it will leave an impact on you and your child for
The next morning, Jordan was rushed through signing relinquishment
papers by a busy, on-duty nurse serving as notary public. As soon as
she’d signed, the couple left with the baby, and Jordan was taken home
without being discharged. The shepherding family was celebrating and
asked why Jordan wouldn’t stop crying. Five days later, she used her
last $50 to buy a Greyhound ticket to Greenville, where she struggled
for weeks to reach a Bethany post-adoption counselor as her milk came in
and she rapidly lost more than fifty pounds in her grief.
When Jordan called Bethany’s statewide headquarters one night, her
shepherding mother answered, responding coldly to Jordan’s lament.
"You’re the one who spread your legs and got pregnant out of wedlock,"
she told Jordan. "You have no right to grieve for this baby."
Jordan isn’t alone. On an adoption agency rating website, Bethany is
ranked poorly by birth mothers. Its adoptive parent ratings are higher,
although several adopters described the coercion they felt "our birth
mother" underwent. But neither is Bethany alone; in the constellation of
groups that constitute the Christian adoption industry, including CPCs,
maternity homes and adoption agencies, Bethany is just one large star.
And instances of coercion in adoption stretch back nearly seventy years.
Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of
Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v.
Wade, has meticulously chronicled the lives of women from the "Baby
Scoop Era": the period from 1945 to 1973, when single motherhood was so
stigmatized that at least 1.5 million unwed American mothers
relinquished children for adoption, often after finishing pregnancies
secretly in maternity homes. The coercion was frequently brutal,
entailing severe isolation, shaming, withholding information about
labor, disallowing mothers to see their babies and coercing
relinquishment signatures while women were drugged or misled about their
rights. Often, women’s names were changed or abbreviated, to bolster a
sense that "the person who went away to deliver the baby was someone
else" and that mothers would later forget about the babies they had
given up. In taking oral histories from more than a hundred Baby Scoop
Era mothers, Fessler found that not only was that untrue but most
mothers suffered lifelong guilt and depression.
The cultural shift that had followed World War II switched the emphasis
of adoption from finding homes for needy infants to finding children for
childless couples. Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, founder of the Baby Scoop
Era Research Initiative, has compiled sociological studies from the era,
including Clark Vincent’s speculation in his 1961 book Unmarried
Mothers that "if the demand for adoptable babies continues to exceed
the supply…it is quite possible that, in the near future, unwed
mothers will be ‘punished’ by having their children taken from them
right after birth"–under the guise of protecting the "best interests of
The Baby Scoop Era ended with Roe v. Wade, as abortion was
legalized and single motherhood gained acceptance. The resultant fall in
adoption rates was drastic, from 19.2 percent of white, unmarried
pregnant women in 1972 to 1.7 percent in 1995 (and lower among women of
color). Coinciding with this decline was the rise of the religious right
and the founding of crisis pregnancy centers.
In 1984 Leslee Unruh, founder of Abstinence Clearinghouse, established a
CPC in South Dakota called the Alpha Center. The first center had opened
in 1967, but in 1984 Unruh’s CPC was still a relatively new idea. In
1987 the state attorney’s office investigated complaints that Unruh had
offered young women money to carry their pregnancies to term and then
relinquish their babies for adoption.
"There were so many allegations about improper adoptions being made and
how teenage girls were being pressured to give up their children,"
then-state attorney Tim Wilka told the Argus Leader, that the
governor asked him to take the case. The Alpha Center pleaded no contest
to five counts of unlicensed adoption and foster care practices;
nineteen other charges were dropped, including four felonies. But where
Unruh left off, many CPCs and antiabortion groups have taken up in her
It’s logical that antiabortion organizations seeking to prevent
abortions and promote traditional family structures would aggressively
promote adoption, but this connection is often overlooked in the
bipartisan support that adoption promotion enjoys as part of a
common-ground truce in the abortion wars. In President Obama’s speech at
Notre Dame, he suggested that one solution to lowering abortion rates is
"making adoption more available." And in a recent online debate,
Slate columnist William Saletan and Beliefnet editor Steven
Waldman proposed that unmarried women be offered a nominal cash payment
to choose adoption over abortion as a compromise between prochoice and
Compared with pre-Roe days, today women with unplanned
pregnancies have access to far more information about their
alternatives. However, Fessler says, they frequently encounter CPCs that
pressure them to give the child to a family with better resources. "Part
of the big picture for a young woman who’s pregnant," she says, "is that
there are people holding out their hand, but the price of admission is
giving up your child. If you decide to keep your child, it’s as if
you’re lost in the system, whereas people fight over you if you’re ready
to surrender. There’s an organization motivated by a cause and profit.
It’s a pretty high price to pay: give away your first-born, and we’ll
take care of you for six months."
Christian adoption agencies court pregnant women through often
unenforceable promises of open adoption and the option to choose the
adoptive parents. California’s Lifetime Adoption Foundation even offers
birth mothers college scholarships. Additionally, maternity homes have
made a comeback in recent years, with one network of 1,100 CPCs and
homes, Heartbeat International, identifying at least 300 homes in the
United States. Some advertise almost luxurious living facilities, though
others, notes Jessica DelBalzo, founder of an anti-adoption group,
Adoption: Legalized Lies, continue to "bill themselves as homes for
wayward girls who need to be set straight."
Most homes are religiously affiliated, and almost all promote adoption.
Many, like Christian Homes and Family Services (CHFS), reserve their
beds for women planning adoption. Others keep only a fraction for women
choosing to parent. Most homes seamlessly blend their advertised crisis
pregnancy counseling with domestic and international adoption services,
and oppose unmarried parenthood as against "God’s plan for the family."
Religious women may be particularly susceptible to CPC coercion, argues
Mari Gallion, a 39-year-old Alaska mother who founded the support group
SinglePregnancy.com after a CPC unsuccessfully pressured her to
relinquish her child ten years ago. Gallion, who has worked with nearly
3,000 women with unplanned pregnancies, calls CPCs "adoption rings" with
a multistep agenda: evangelizing; discovering and exploiting women’s
insecurities about age, finances or parenting; then hard-selling
adoption, portraying parenting as a selfish, immature choice. "The women
who are easier to coerce in these situations are those who subscribe to
conservative Christian views," says Gallion. "They’ll come in and be
told that, You’ve done wrong, but God will forgive you if you do the
Mirah Riben, vice president of communications for the birth mother group
Origins-USA, as well as author of The Stork Market: America’s
Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry, says that many
mothers struggle for decades with the fallout of "a brainwashing
process" that persuades them to choose adoption and often deny for
years–or until their adoptions become closed–that they were pressured
into it. "I see a lot of justification among the young mothers. If their
adoption is remaining open, they need to be compliant, good birth
mothers and toe the line. They can’t afford to be angry or bitter,
because if they are, the door will close and they won’t see the kid."
Such was the case for Karen Fetrow, a Pennsylvania mother who
relinquished her son in 1994 through a Bethany office outside
Harrisburg. Fetrow, a formerly pro-adoption evangelical, sought out a
Christian agency when she became pregnant at 24. Although Fetrow was in
a committed relationship with the father, now her husband of sixteen
years, Bethany told her that women who sought to parent were on their
After Fetrow relinquished her son, she says she received no counseling
from Bethany beyond one checkup phone call. Three months later, Bethany
called to notify her that her legal paperwork was en route but that she
shouldn’t read it or attend court for the adoption finalization. "I
didn’t know that the adoption wasn’t final and that I had three months
to change my mind," says Fetrow. "The reality was that if I had gone, I
might have changed my mind–and they didn’t want me to."
Although for thirteen years Fetrow couldn’t look at an infant without
crying, she continued to support adoption and CPCs. But when she sought
counseling–a staple of Bethany’s advertised services–the director of
her local office said he couldn’t help. When her son turned 5, she
stopped receiving updates from his adoptive parents, although she’d
expected they would continue until he was 18. She asked Bethany about
it, and the agency stalled for three years before explaining that the
adoptive parents had only agreed to five years of updates. Fetrow
complained on Bethany’s online forum and was banned from the site.
Kris Faasse, director of adoption services at Bethany, said that while
she was unaware of Fetrow’s and Jordan’s particular stories, their
accounts are painful for her to hear. "The fact that this happens to any
mom grieves me and would not be how we wanted to handle it." She added
that only 25-40 percent of women who come to Bethany choose adoption,
which, she said, "is so important, because we never want a woman to feel
coerced into a plan."
Shortly after Fetrow was banned from Bethany’s forum, the local Bethany
office attempted to host a service at her church, "painting adoption as
a Christian, prolife thing." At a friend’s urging, Fetrow told her
pastor about her experience, and after a meeting with the Bethany
director–who called Fetrow angry and bitter–the pastor refused to let
Bethany address the congregation. But Fetrow’s pastor seems an
In recent years, the antiabortion push for adoption has been taken up as
a broader evangelical cause. In 2007 Focus on the Family hosted an
Evangelical Orphan Care and Adoption Summit in Colorado Springs. Ryan
Dobson, the adopted son of Focus founder James Dobson, has campaigned on
behalf of CHFS and Unruh’s Alpha Center. Last year 600 church and
ministry leaders gathered in Florida to promote adoption through the
Christian Alliance for Orphans. And a recent book in the idiosyncratic
genre of prolife fiction, The River Nile, exalted a clinic that
tricked abortion-seeking women into adoption instead.
Such enthusiasm for Christians to adopt en masse begins to seem like a
demand in need of greater supply, and this is how critics of current
practices describe it: as an industry that coercively separates willing
biological parents from their offspring, artificially producing
"orphans" for Christian parents to adopt, rather than helping birth
parents care for wanted children.
In 1994 the Village Voice investigated several California CPCs in
Care Net, the largest network of centers in the country, and found gross
ethical violations at an affiliated adoption agency, where director
Bonnie Jo Williams secured adoptions by warning pregnant women about
parenthood’s painfulness, pressuring them to sign papers under heavy
medication and in one case detaining a woman in labor for four hours in
There were nineteen lawsuits against CPCs between 1983 and 1996, but
coercive practices persist. Joe Soll, a psychotherapist and adoption
reform activist, says that CPCs "funnel people to adoption agencies who
put them in maternity homes," where ambivalent mothers are subjected to
moralistic and financial pressure: warned that if they don’t give up
their babies, they’ll have to pay for their spot at the home, and given
conflicted legal counsel from agency-retained lawyers. Watchdog group
Crisis Pregnancy Center Watch described an Indiana woman misled into
delaying an abortion past her state’s legal window and subsequently
pressured into adoption.
Literature from CPCs indicates their efforts to raise adoption rates. In
2000 the Family Research Council (FRC), the political arm of Focus on
the Family, commissioned a study on the dearth of adoptable babies being
produced by CPCs, "The Missing Piece: Adoption Counseling in Pregnancy
Resource Centers," written by the Rev. Curtis Young, former director of
Young based the report on the market research of consultant Charles
Kenny, who questioned women with unplanned pregnancies and Christian CPC
counselors to identify obstacles to higher adoption rates. Young argued
that mothers’ likelihood to choose adoption was based on their level of
maturity and selflessness, with "more mature respondents…able to feel
they are nurturing not only their children, but also, the adoptive
parents," and "less mature women" disregarding the baby’s needs by
seeking to parent. He wrote that CPCs might persuade reluctant women by
casting adoption as redemption for unwed mothers’ "past failures" and a
triumph over "selfishness, an ‘evil’ within themselves." Though Young
noted that some CPCs were wary of looking like "baby sellers," he
nonetheless urged close alliances with adoption agencies to ensure that
the path to adoption was "as seamless and streamlined as possible."
Young was speaking to a larger audience than the FRC faithful. Care
Net runs 1,160 CPCs nationwide and partners with Heartbeat
International to host a national CPC hot line. Kenny is tied to the
cause as a "Bronze"-level benefactor of the National Council for
Adoption (NCFA), the most prominent adoption lobby group in the
country, in the company of other benefactors like Bethany; Texas
maternity home giant Gladney; the Good Shepherd Sisters, a Catholic
order serving "young women of dissolute habits"; and the Mormon
adoption agency LDS Family Services.
The federally funded NCFA has a large role in spreading teachings like
these through its Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program, a
Department of Health and Human Services initiative it helped pass in
2000 that has promoted adoption to nearly 18,000 CPC, school, state,
health and correctional workers since 2002. Although the program
stipulates "nondirective counseling for pregnant women," it was
developed by a heavily pro-adoption pool of experts, including Kenny,
and the Guttmacher Institute reports that trainees have complained about
the program’s coercive nature.
In 2007 the FRC and NCFA went beyond overlapping mandates to collaborate
on the publication of another pamphlet, written by Kenny, "Birthmother,
Goodmother: Her Story of Heroic Redemption," which targets "potential
birthmothers" before pregnancy: a seeming contradiction of abstinence
promotion, unless, as DelBalzo wryly notes, the abstinence movement
intends to create "more babies available for adoption."
Even as women have gained better reproductive healthcare access,
adoption laws have become less favorable for birth mothers, advancing
the time after birth when a mother can relinquish–in some states now
within twenty-four hours–and cutting the period to revoke consent
drastically or completely. Adoption organizations have published
comparative lists of state laws, almost as a catalog for prospective
adopters seeking states that restrict birth parent rights. Among the
worst is Utah.
Jo Anne Swanson, a court-appointed adoption intermediary, has studied a
number of cases in which women have been lured out of their home states
to give birth and surrender their children under Utah’s lax laws–which
require only two witnesses for relinquishments that have occurred in
hotel rooms or parks–to avoid interstate child-placement regulations.
Some women who changed their minds had agencies refuse them airfare
home. And one Utah couple, Steve and Carolyn Mintz, told the Salt
Lake Tribune that the director of their adoption agency flew into a
rage at a mother in labor who’d backed out of their adoption, and the
mother and her infant ended up in a Salt Lake City homeless shelter.
Many complaints have been lodged by birth fathers who sought to parent
their children but were disenfranchised by Utah’s complicated system of
Utah isn’t alone in attacking birth fathers’ rights. From 2000 to 2001,
a Midwestern grandmother named Ann Gregory (a pseudonym) fought doggedly
for her son, a military enlistee, to retain parental rights over his and
his girlfriend’s child. When the girlfriend became pregnant, her
conservative evangelical parents brought her to a local CPC affiliated
with their megachurch. The CPC was located in the same office as an
adoption agency: its "sister organization" of eighteen years. The CPC
called Gregory’s son, who was splitting his time between home and boot
camp, pressuring him to "be supportive" of his girlfriend by signing
adoption papers. The agency also called Gregory and her ex-husband,
quoting Scripture "about how we’re all adopted children of Jesus
What followed, Gregory says, was "six weeks of pure hell," as she felt
her son and his girlfriend were "brainwashed" into adoption. She
researched coercive adoption and retained a lawyer for her son. When the
mother delivered, the attorney had Gregory notify a hospital social
worker that parental rights were being contested, so the baby wouldn’t
be relinquished. Two days later, as the adoption agency was en route to
take custody, Gregory filed an emergency restraining order. The matter
had to be settled in court, where Gregory’s son refused to consent to
adoption. The legal bill for two weeks came to $9,000.
Both parents went to college, and though they are no longer together,
Gregory praises their cooperation in jointly raising their son, now 8.
But she is shaken by what it took to prevail. "You’ve got to get on it
before the child is born, and you’d better have $10,000 sitting around.
I can’t even imagine how they treat those in a worse position than us.
They say they want to help people in a crisis pregnancy, but really they
want to help themselves to a baby."
"A lot of those moms from the ’50s and ’60s were really damaged by
losing their child through the maternity homes," says Gregory. "People
say those kinds of things don’t happen anymore. But they do. It’s just
not a maternity home on every corner; it’s a CPC."