To a pro-life advocate, adoption should be a self-evident solution to a tragic problem. Yet, of the three choices presented to a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy–adoption, parenting the baby, or abortion –adoption is far and away the least frequent choice.
According to the Guttmacher Institute (2011), there were 2.8 million unintended pregnancies in the United States. Of those, 1.2 million women obtained an abortion and 1.6 million decided to keep the baby (guttmacher.org). Only 14,000 women placed their baby for adoption, despite the fact that there are an estimated two million couples waiting to adopt (talkaboutadoption.com). Given that there are more than enough homes available for these ‘unwanted’ children, it is hard to understand why a woman would not take advantage of such an opportunity.
Perhaps the answer can’t be found in an intellectual approach to the question. In fact, both research and real life experience suggest that it is deep emotional factors that govern the decisions made by women facing an unplanned pregnancy. These factors must be acknowledged and respected if we are to have any success in turning these statistics around.
Understanding the Mind Set
In 1998, First Things published a landmark article, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate,” by Paul Swope of the Vitae Caring Foundation, In his article, Swope analyzed the results of a study conducted by Charles Kenny, et al, entitled “Abortion: the Least of Three Evils” (1994). Unlike previous studies, Kenny’s research “focused neither on the moral reasoning of the pro-life movement, nor on attitudinal surveys that yield primarily statistical snapshots, but on independent psychological analysis of women’s hidden, emotional response to pregnancy, abortion and motherhood.” (Swope and Kenny, “A New Understanding of the Trauma of Abortion,” 2012).
Kenny used a unique methodology, called Right Brain Research, to elicit responses reflecting the “emotional, intuitive, creative aspect of the person” as opposed to the “analytic, rational” aspect (Swope, 2). Kenny believed this method could explain how a pregnant woman can understand that abortion is killing a child, yet, given the alternatives of adoption or parenting the baby, come to the firm conclusion that abortion is the best solution.
The researchers found that most modern women considered an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy to be an extremely threatening event, equal to a death. Of course, this idea of death is not meant literally but refers to the death of her self-identity. “Her emotional, subconscious reaction to carrying the child to term is that her life will be ‘over’. ” (3)
Choosing From Among Three “Evils”
Furthermore, Kenny discovered this perception that her self-identity has died is so strong, it impedes the mother’s ability to rationally consider the choices she has to make for her pregnancy. Every possible outcome of the pregnancy can be associated with the right brain as causing a figurative death and, therefore, is perceived by the emotional brain centers as an evil.
Abortion is regarded as evil by the right brain because it results in the death of a budding life.
Carrying the child to term and keeping it is a right brain evil because it threatens death of both the woman’s present and future selves.
Adoption is also perceived by the right brain as evil because it leads to the death of the relationship of the mother and child [as well as] the death of the self. (Kenny, 2)
Thus, when she first realizes she is pregnant, the woman concludes that either her current life is over or the life of the child is over. Sadly, self-preservation very often takes precedence and abortion, as the least of the “three evils,” becomes a morally defensible answer.
Adoption as a “Double Death”
However, even when choosing life, deciding between parenting and adoption is still deciding between evils. Unfortunately, adoption is considered the most evil option of all, as it is perceived to be a double death of both mother and child.
“First, [there is] the death of self, as the woman would have to accept motherhood by carrying the baby to term. Further, not only would the woman be a mother, but she would perceive herself as a bad mother, one who gave her own child away to strangers.”
The second death is the death of the child “through abandonment.” A woman worries about the uncertain future of her child, i.e. if her child will be abused, in an unstable home, or whether they will come back into her life unexpectedly. (Swope, 4)
Since the mother “desperately wants a sense of resolution to her crisis, in her mind, adoption leaves the situation the most unresolved, with uncertainty and guilt as far as she can see for both herself and her child.” (4)
Taken together, these findings lead to the inescapable conclusion that, “as much as [pro-lifers] would like to see the slogan ‘Adoption, Not Abortion’ embraced by women, [Kenny’s] study suggests that in pitting adoption against abortion, adoption will be the hands-down loser.”(4)
The Mother Teresa Home
Even though much of the stigma of single parenthood has disappeared, significant socio-economic challenges of parenting a child in an unmarried pregnancy situation, particularly for teen mothers, remain. Therefore, efforts to encourage adoption must continue. The implication of Kenny’s findings is that such campaigns must become less focused on the humanity of the child and be more concerned with overcoming the psychological trauma faced by the mother.
In a converted church rectory in Buffalo, New York, is the Mother Teresa Home, a pregnancy outreach ministry sponsored by the diocese. Its mission is to “provide shelter, community service, and education referral services for all mothers in need.” The program supports homeless pregnant and/or parenting young people between the ages of 16 and 26, by providing a place for them to live for up to 18 months (buffalodiocese.org). Cheryl Calire, Diocesan Director of Pro-life Activities is also the Executive Director of the Mother Teresa Home. She and her husband live in the residence with the women.
Calire has worked with hundreds of women in difficult pregnancy situations. Unfortunately, her experiences are consistent with Kenny’s research, as most of the women choose between”keeping or killing” the baby. Calire acknowledged there are “huge walls” to break down before a mother will consider adoption; however, Calire has been making a concerted effort to do just that.
Using Words to Change Perceptions
The first thing that must be done is to change the language used in speaking with these mothers. That, according to Calire, is “critical.”
As a rule, Calire refrains from using the term “crisis pregnancy” with her clients, as that implies panic and emotional chaos. Instead, she emphasizes words such as “unexpected” or “unplanned.” Calire carefully discusses the pros and cons of all the mother’s options–abortion, adoption, and parenting–in every meeting, in the hopes of “planting a seed” that will lead to choosing life and, possibly, adoption. This shows respect for the mother’s judgement and reinforces to her that, ultimately, it is she who controls the situation.
In fact, reminding the mother that she is in control is done at every opportunity. In discussing adoption itself, Calire points out that expressions such as “placing for adoption” or “choosing adoption” is preferable to saying “give up” or “surrender” her baby. This helps to eliminate any negative perception that the birth mother is ‘abandoning’ her child, but, instead, emphasizes how she is carefully putting together a plan. Most importantly, Calire offers to each woman the consolation that, whatever her decision, she will always be a mother, a title no one can take away from her.
The Gift of Time
Perhaps the greatest advantage of a ministry like the Mother Teresa Home is that it gives these mothers the gift of time.
While women make the initial decision of life or death quickly, decisions of whether to parent the baby may take months. Therefore, a long window of opportunity is available to reach these women with messages that [perhaps] will motivate them to choose adoption. (Young, Curtis, “The Missing Piece: Adoption Advocacy and Pregnancy Resource Centers,” 2000)
Many women in Kenny’s study reported how urgently they needed “gentle, loving guidance …from [someone] who could have listened to them as they expressed their emotional turmoil and helped them explore their options.” (Swope and Kenny, 17) Calire also pointed out the benefits of having someone from outside the family help the mother as she sorts things out. Rather than trying to coerce a particular decision, Calire is careful to follow Pope Francis’ call to simply accompany those who are suffering. Her role is to prepare the woman to handle the consequences of whatever decision she makes for herself and her baby.
Finally, if we are to make adoption truly “a loving option,” women must be provided “with reassurance and a sense of closure once the adoption is complete.” (Young, 31) Reading the blogs of many post-adoptive birth mothers, the prevailing tone is one of sadness, anger, and regret. Many of these women feel alone and abandoned. It is incumbent on the pro-life community to provide long-term, post-adoption counselling. There also should be opportunities for the community to come together and acknowledge what has taken place. For example, in the Buffalo diocese, there is a special Mass offered annually for those touched by adoption. Such measures can give birth mothers the assurance that “their grief is not the grief of death and shame, but of love and reconciliation. It is the grief that leads to peace.” (31)