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Adoption: Loving Option or Greatest Evil?

April 27, AD2017

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.

Post-Adoption Care

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)

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Proudly Catholic, Mary has been happily married for 20 years, is Mom to four teenagers, and primary caretaker for her 170 lb. Newfoundland dog named Bear. She is steadfastly committed to the pro-life cause, and serves as the chairperson of the Respect Life committee at her parish. Mary lives in Buffalo, NY where she is a passionate fan of the Bills, and writes about them for the website Our Turf Football. She is hopeful that her long-suffering loyalty to the team might help reduce her time in purgatory.

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  • P. C. VonP

    I know of two situations. One: a family adopted a child and never has told the child they were adopted. The second couple adopted a child and even as a young child never hid the fact that they were adopted. They helped the child feel respect for the birth parents for doing what they did. The first couple’s child although not “bad” has had turmoil and loss of direction. The other child at graduation from high school got to meet their birth mother and later in the summer got to fly out and meet the birth father. That child also got to meet the birth grandmother and cousins that grew up right around the area. The second child has gone on to a successful life with a great relationship with all the parents involved. I think it is the wise thing to do to allow the child to know they are loved by all parties and that upon turning 18 allowed to at least speak to the birth parents and if the birth parents want a relationship than allow it to occur without hurting the adoptive parents. I think in that situation all parties win.

    • Mary Pesarchick

      Thanks for this. You show the beauty of the current open adoption process which, as Maria explained in her comment above, is the way the vast majority of adoption plans are made now. I agree with you that this is the ideal situation, and I greatly admire those who have the generosity and love to make it work.

  • Maria E. Malone

    Hi Mary. You bring up many very important points in this article but it saddens me that you end this article on such a negative note. Adoptions today are handled much differently than adoptions were 20 plus years ago. Birth mothers will always grieve making an adoption plan for their child no matter how much we improve adoption. However, today, with 90% of adoptions being open or semi-open adoptions, birth mothers do find peace and feel good about their decision to make an adoption plan for their child. I have seen this personally with my three kids and their birth moms and I have seen this repeatedly over 13 years with my involvement in an adoption support group that I help facilitate. It has also been documented by organizations like BraveLove.org. I speak on the beauty of adoption often in schools and in pro-life circles through my ministry “Adoption Is a Loving Option”. Adoption is a very loving option. The power of adoption is that everyone in the adoption triad (the birth family, the adoptive family and the unborn child) helps each other in adoption. All the challenges you mention need to be acknowledged and addressed but the fact remains that adoption should be a positive compared to abortion.

    • Mary Pesarchick

      Maria, thank you for your comment and for sharing your experiences. Your point is well-taken. I didn’t mean to cast a black cloud on the idea of adoption. However, in doing the research for this article, I was saddened to find many blogs written by women who placed their children for adoption and did not find the peace that has been your experience. I thought it important to emphasize this fact so that we as a pro-life community could do a better job of supporting these mothers long term, and eliminate their fear of abandonment as an impediment to choosing adoption. Obviously, you are dedicated to providing that support, and making the adoption process a positive thing for all involved. We need more like you out there. Thank you for what you do.

  • Ruth Schmelzer

    I appreciated your article, Mary! As a birth-parent and a parent with adopted children, it’s not an easy road. However, that said, I know that the Lord Jesus had definitely led me to gift my daughter to another set of parents.
    There is one thing I would have done differently at the time of her birth, however, and that is to have held her when she was born, or to have had her placed on my belly. I understand now that the early bonding is highly significant in the ability to transfer that bond to another woman. I chose not to hold her because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my decision to place her for adoption. A mother naturally wants to have her child…!
    The Lord opened for me an opportunity to move forward in my life without her, but it wasn’t easy. I cried whenever I saw a baby, but I also saw couples with an adopted child who was so greatly loved that my pain was lessened such that I knew I had done the right thing.
    When my daughter turned eighteen, we found each other, and her Mother thanked me for the gift of my daughter as their daughter. I am now a grandmother to her children…
    Several years later, after marriage and learning that we would be unable to have natural children, my husband and I became foster parents and eventually adoptive parents. As Shannon mentioned, it is most important to “help adoptees adjust, psychologically” especially since a foster child is a foster child because of having experienced abuse or neglect. So this opens the conversation of changing the label of “foster/adopted” parent to a more positive experience.
    I don’t know if being a birth-parent is harder or easier than being an adoptive parent. God has given me the grace to be both.

    • Bruce and Jeannie Hannemann

      Ruth, Your insights are valuable for everyone involved in adoption. Thanks for sharing.

    • Mary Pesarchick

      Ruth, thank you so much for telling your story! Look at how many lives you’ve impacted by your courage, self-sacrifice, and trust in God–you certainly show how adoption is a supreme act of love. God bless you!

  • Mark McCann

    Very fascinating article, Mary. I found the study interesting. I wonder how much of how these things are perceived flows from the way in which the abortion industry had marketed itself to the women who come looking for answers. I have found that the deepest revelations about all this have come hearing from those women who have made hard choices (whether to have an abortion, keep their child, or give the child up for adoption) but have found the reconciling power of Christ. You present these ideas in a very thoughtful and well-researched way. Thank you for your writing.

    • Mary Pesarchick

      How kind of you, Mark, thank you! You are exactly right, the marketing to women is where the pro-abortion camp has gotten way ahead of us. That’s what made the whole “War on Women” nonsense so effective. Thankfully, the brave women (and men) of the “Silent No More” campaign and the like are giving the pro-life movement its own message to women, that we love *both* mother and child.

  • Shannon Marie Federoff

    This is a good start, but too focused on the adoptive parents. Adopted children (babies) don’t automatically attach to their “new” parents, and the anxiety disorders, depression, etc that adoptees experience is well documented. Even placed in loving families, the child knows their roots have been torn out.

    How can we help adoptees adjust, psychologically, when the strong baby/ mother bond is severed?

    • Mary Pesarchick

      Shannon, thanks for your comment. Sorry it’s taken so long to reply. You’re right, certainly the needs of the adopted child must be considered and cared for as well. Part of what I was trying to convey here is that it’s easy to reduce the whole adoption issue to one catchy slogan. I know I’ve been guilty of it. It really is a complex issue, and we need to address the needs of ALL of the players–birth mother, her child, and the adoptive parents–in a comprehensive way if we are to overcome the reluctance to choose adoption.