In yesterday’s article, I argued that the best way for pro-lifers to combat abortion is by finding common ground with those who are pro-choice. We could harness the energy of both sides toward the preservation of life, if the emphasis were on creating positive incentives to encourage what I call “gift-motherhood”: the choice to carry one’s child to term, giving the child the gift of life, and then give the gift of parenthood to others through adoption.
The next question is, of course, how can we encourage more women to choose adoption instead of abortion? Two modern success stories—the Toyota Prius and the Peace Corps—point the way to some practical and rhetorical strategies that could be embraced by liberals and conservatives alike.
A Lesson from the Prius: Incentivizing Altruism
The success of the Toyota Prius illustrates, among other things, the power of having a financial incentive to do the right thing. Most people believe that reducing our consumption of fossil fuels will help to slow global warming and preserve our planet. As long as that remained the substantially more expensive choice, however, efforts in that area were anemic. When gasoline was $2/gallon, some people started buying the little hybrids. When the price spiked to $4/gallon in 2008, dealers couldn’t keep them on the lot. The moral issue had not changed, but the prospect of saving more money on gasoline tipped the scales. The divergence of “financially better” and “morally better” creates a dilemma; their convergence creates a solution.
One of the cruel ironies of abortion is that hundreds of thousands of women are throwing away babies, the most precious “commodity” of all, partly because they see them as creating additional financial strain. Even if someone else is paying the direct costs of pregnancy, the toll in time and energy from carrying and bearing a child can easily translate into a net monetary loss. But that is a problem that can be ameliorated. People are inclined to act in their own economic best interest; the trick is to provide incentives so that a pursuit of their individual advantage is also advantageous to society. Currently, the occasional gentle suggestions that “adoption is an option” seem similar to suggestions that it would be nice for everyone to do more volunteer work. Most people who are struggling to make ends meet cannot afford the luxury of such altruism.
As the Prius example makes clear, the calculus becomes quite different when the morally preferable thing is also financially preferable. Abortion is at least partly an economic issue, and it needs to be addressed at least partly in economic terms.
Paradoxically, maternal feeling is one of many women’s primary motivations for preventing the birth of another child: preserving their limited resources for their older children seems like a rational moral and economic choice. But that choice might change if gift-motherhood were even slightly advantageous financially, since it would mean that for mothers to carry another baby to term no longer entailed taking so much away from their other children. And it would allow childless women and girls to make the generous choice and then get on with their lives, without adding financial hardship to sorrow.
Would this be bribery? When that for which money is given is good in itself and confers no unfair advantage on anyone, the line that separates bribery from appropriate compensation or reward is actually very difficult to define. Sometimes all we have to fall back on is a sort of intuitive misgiving, a “just because.” Though such intuitions should never be dismissed lightly, they are not always a wholly reliable moral guide: there used to be a widespread intuitive aversion to interracial marriage, for example. In the case of offering financial assistance to gift-mothers, our unease may derive partly from a subconscious feeling that it was the woman’s own fault she got pregnant, so she should have to pay. Rather than allowing unexamined assumptions or the double standard to drive policy by default, it is worth exploring whether some fresh analogies might help to reframe the question.
A New Kind of Peace Corps
Public discourse is a traffic in metaphors. Modern politicians bombard us with “wars”—on drugs, on cancer, on poverty, and, yes, on abortion—because that imagery is vivid and intelligible, whether or not the enemy is really an appropriate target for such an attack. But they tend to neglect the equally ancient and powerful metaphor of military service, Latin militia.
When Cicero details the grueling training required of the “recruit” to oratory, or the Roman citizen formerly known as Saul enjoins Timothy to “take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” they use the language most natural for inspiring determination and courage. Military service for a noble cause is attractive for both moral and social reasons. Young men flocked to join the army during the Second World War—knowing that they risked losing their lives—because they believed they were contributing to a great good, because their friends were with them, and because their community recognized, encouraged, and rewarded them. The continuing success of our armed forces in recruiting and retaining volunteers attests to the appeal of such heroism even today.
The Peace Corps is a successful example of extending the militia metaphor to a non-military enterprise. Peace Corps volunteers—“soldiers” whose “campaign” in foreign lands involves nurturing rather than fighting—are given training, structure, camaraderie, financial support, healthcare, counseling, and continuing benefits. Most importantly, they are recognized as providing a heroic kind of service for the good of the world, and therefore they are willing to undergo hardships and sacrifices. They know that their service is temporary, but that the rewards for offering it will endure.
I suggest that martial metaphor could be invoked in a positive way through the idea that, like the Peace Corps, gift-motherhood is a militia of peace. Women in the ancient world could not serve in the army, but it was recognized that their equivalent service—in terms of pain, danger, and importance to society—was pregnancy and childbirth; as Euripides’ Medea exclaims, “I’d rather stand three times behind a shield in battle than lie in childbirth once.” (Her children definitely would have been better off adopted.)
The image of the “fallen woman” is the antithesis of this rhetoric of service. Why not experiment instead with the language of heroism—and feminism? Like Wonder Woman, gift-mothers offer their miraculous ability for the good of humanity, only by giving life rather than taking it. To value and support all kinds of motherhood should be a priority for women, and men, of every political stripe. Making gift-motherhood more viable in fact gives women greater freedom of choice.
The Pain and Joy of Gift-Motherhood
There is no getting around the fact that gift-motherhood is painful, both physically and emotionally. People are willing to undergo pain intentionally only when they see it as contributing to a greater good, for themselves or others or both. That is why it is so important to highlight the enormous blessing—the gift of joy—that the gift-mother is offering. That alone can begin to compensate for her inevitable feeling of loss. A program with a name like “Bridge to Joy” would help put the focus where it should be. The gift-mother would be the bridge connecting the baby to whom she gave life with the parents longing for that baby, and it could be hoped that, despite her pain, she too could ultimately experience the joy that comes from an act of sacrificial love.
Simply having such a “program,” with an appealing name, would be an important first step. Other features, on the model of the Peace Corps, would then naturally follow in its implementation. Here are just a few:
- Companionship. Women seeking abortion often feel isolated and afraid. We do not expect people to go do humanitarian work in a foreign country alone, and we should not expect women to go through the physical and emotional stresses of gift-motherhood alone.
- Exercise. Free exercise classes and facilities, along with nutrition counseling, would help bolster the mental and physical health of mother and child. Exercise is a positive action to take while waiting for something, an excellent habit to form for life, and a way of strengthening the sense that one is in training for an important endeavor.
- Counseling. It is essential to acknowledge and empathize with the difficulty of going through pregnancy and then handing over the baby to someone else. Women need others to guide them through this emotional trauma and help them to recover afterward.
- Healthcare. Prenatal, delivery, and postpartum care should be provided for gift-mothers, as they should be for all expectant mothers. Frequent check-ups would also help to ensure against drug and alcohol abuse.
Building this sort of program would not require starting from scratch. Adoption agencies already have many of these features in place, and we should begin by listening to the people involved in all aspects of the process, researching what is done well and what could be done better. Financially it would be within reach of even fairly modest philanthropy, and I suspect that many who feel battered by the culture wars would welcome the opportunity to direct their passion—and resources—toward a new, concrete, and cooperative goal.
Breaking Down Barriers to Adoption
Some legal and psychological barriers to adoption are unavoidable, but others may be artificial, less a protection of essential rights than an imposition of unnecessary restrictions. The health of our national polity would be well-served by questioning some of our long-held assumptions and prejudices in this area. Attitudes can be changed—after all, only four decades separate the assassination of Martin Luther King from the election of Barack Obama—but it sometimes takes a concerted national effort to change them. Reimagining gift-motherhood as a valuable kind of service is a starting place, with the potential to unite rather than divide.
What could make the service metaphor problematic in this case, of course, is the same thing that makes the pro-life position as a whole problematic: the tension between discouraging the cause of unwanted pregnancy and encouraging the natural result. Since the vast majority of women seeking abortion are unmarried, the act that would make their militia possible is one that is disapproved of by the conservative Christians who drive the pro-life movement. If we were dealing only with women who were already pregnant, the moral question would be easy, for gift-motherhood is a way to make the fault a happy one, to bring beauty from ashes. But if we succeed in portraying gift-motherhood as generous and even heroic, is there not a chance of turning it into an alluring Plan A?
This is a real concern, but the danger of incentivizing some sort of dystopian breeding program seems fairly small. Even if there were no stigma at all attached to pregnancy, the weight gain, physical discomfort, and health risks alone would be enough of a deterrent to keep women from voluntarily entering into it without the anticipated reward of their own baby. No one claims, as far as I know, that the beautiful babies on pro-life billboards have caused a surge in out-of-wedlock pregnancies. It is unlikely that a positive portrayal of gift-motherhood would do so either. If anything, the current rhetoric of “giving up one’s baby” implies a kind of capitulation, and this prejudice needs to be counteracted by emphasizing that gift-motherhood is an act of tremendous courage.
Turning the Tide
Obviously, no “Bridge to Joy” or anything else will inspire everyone. The Peace Corps currently has about 7,000 volunteers; numbers on that scale would scarcely make a dent in the total of annual abortions. Yet the very existence of the Peace Corps has implications for our values and identity as a nation. Maybe the tide would begin to turn if one pregnant celebrity became a gift-mother, just as international adoptions soared after Angelina Jolie adopted from Ethiopia. Certainly, finding joyful testimonies from those who have received the gift of a child, and from happy adopted children, will be like finding sand on a beach.
The important thing is to recognize that we need to start thinking in a new, “disruptive” way in order to break the stalemate on our most divisive social issue. Inflammatory rhetoric is easy; finding common ground takes more work. Still, in this age of wonders, even cooperation may be within the realm of possibility.
Focusing on making gift-motherhood more attractive is pro-life without being anti-choice, and it could be embraced by liberals as well as conservatives, or at least open a conversation between them. My mother and Mother Teresa would have welcomed such an opportunity to make peace.
Julia D. Hejduk is the Reverend Jacob Beverly Stiteler Professor of Classics at Baylor University. She is also a faculty advisor to Baylor’s pro-life group, “Bears for Life.”