If worry were prayer, my mother would have been the greatest of saints.
That was how her love manifested itself; her sensitivity to human suffering led her to want to take all possible measures to prevent it. To her, being “pro-life” meant piling up sufferings for those least equipped to endure them—forcing women to undergo the hardships of pregnancy and childbirth, then the crushing burden of raising an unwanted child, usually in poverty and usually alone. Since she believed that the being in the womb does not have the moral status of a person in the early weeks, her passionate pro-choice position was a logical and compassionate moral conclusion.
The week before my mother’s death, I was reading a biography of Mother Teresa. A constant theme of that saint’s ministry—especially when she came to speak in America—was that abortion is a horrific evil, the greatest destroyer of peace in our world. Since she believed that the being in the womb is a person from the very beginning, her passionate pro-life position was also a logical and compassionate moral conclusion. The two women’s premises were opposed, but their hearts were in agreement. It was painful to see them on opposite sides of the war.
But one key fact offers hope that a détente in our time may yet be possible: even if there is some profit to be made from the industry, few people regard abortion as desirable in itself. For the most part, the pro-choice side is indeed pro-choice, advocating for the “right to choose” rather than for more abortions. Surgical and abortifacient procedures are, at the very least, unpleasant experiences everyone would rather avoid. If there is widespread agreement that reducing the number of women who feel the need for an abortion is a worthy goal, then we should be able to work together to achieve it.
By focusing on the underlying moral issue that so fiercely divides us, we reinforce the idea that pro-life and pro-choice people are enemies between whom there can never be collaboration. Yet there is a way to make significant progress even without resolving the moral issue, changing anyone’s core beliefs, or compromising anyone’s principles. It could be possible to harness the energy of both sides—and of many from both left and right political factions—toward the preservation of life, if the emphasis were on creating positive incentives that would help influence women’s choices in such a way as to bring about a broadly recognized good.
The essential question to ask is this: How can we make it more attractive, and more beneficial to everyone, for women facing unwanted pregnancy to choose to carry their babies to term?
The pro-life movement typically employs two strategies that are all but guaranteed to increase conflict. One is to try to persuade women to keep their babies. While there are many beautiful testimonies from women who have done so, and pro-lifers understandably want to honor and support such women, this is simply not a generalizable solution under present conditions. Most women seek abortions because they feel economically and/or emotionally unprepared to raise a child—or in most cases, another child, since the majority of women who choose abortion are already mothers (in 2014, 59 percent); 75 percent are low-income, and 86 percent are unmarried. As pro-choice advocates are quick to point out, having more children under those conditions usually means perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Even for affluent women with supportive families, unplanned single motherhood, especially before completing one’s education, can present life-derailing difficulties.
The other common strategy is to try to make abortion illegal or otherwise unavailable. This may indeed reduce the number of abortions in certain areas, especially for women too poor to travel, but it does so at the price of fueling resistance that ultimately works against any broader efforts to decrease the frequency of the procedure. Most of the hostility toward the pro-life movement stems from its perceived threat to the “freedom of choice” so deeply engrained in the American psyche. Restrictive legislation jammed through by a narrow margin rarely endures, especially on polarizing moral issues.
Moreover, suppose the pro-life movement were to succeed and the availability of abortion were to be seriously curtailed. Nearly a million women per year have abortions in this country, most of whom are poor, unmarried, and already struggling to raise the children to whom they have given birth. The cost of raising a child through high school graduation in the United States is over $200,000. The national birthrate is below replacement level and falling (1.87 in 2016, at 3.94 million births), so overpopulation is hardly a pressing problem here. In fact, only immigration is staving off the opposite problem. But have we really thought through what it would mean suddenly to have over half a million more babies a year raised by unwilling single mothers in poverty?
Finding Common Ground
In spite of these difficulties, there is a way that we can not only address this concern but also preserve both “choice” and “life.” When a woman facing unwanted pregnancy freely chooses to give the gift of life to her baby and the gift of parenthood to others by bearing her child and then placing him or her for adoption, the world is changed for the better.
I call this generous offering gift-motherhood. Its potential benefits are very great: the birth mother is freed from the demands of raising a child she feels unprepared to raise, the child receives parents who are eager to raise him or her, and the adoptive parents receive the blessing they have been longing for. In spite of the absurd difficulty and expense currently associated with adoption, the number of people hoping to adopt in this country exceeds, by somewhere between one and two million, the number of babies available (around 150,000 per year). Even an explosion in gift-motherhood would be unlikely to satisfy so great a demand.
The only real impediment—but a potentially fatal one—is the very understandable resistance of the pregnant woman herself. Through an abortion, she can be freed from her burden quickly and privately. Entanglement with the baby’s father, who might well be abusive in some way, can be severed and shame erased; he and the rest of the world need never even know anything happened. The less time there is to become attached to the being in the womb, the less wrenching the parting will be. Maternal instinct screams against surrendering the baby to another person. To endure the physical and emotional trauma of unplanned pregnancy and childbirth, so that they can then say an agonizing goodbye and wonder about the child ever afterward, must seem to many like the worst of all worlds.
Though gift-motherhood is unlikely ever to feel like a win to most women facing unwanted pregnancy, much, much more could be done to make it feel like less of a loss. What our society stands to gain from such an effort is substantial—not merely in the lives of those directly affected, but in the possibility of uniting diverse social movements, and people all over the political spectrum, in a common goal.
Why Aren’t We Doing More to Promote Adoption?
Making gift-motherhood more attractive is pro-choice and pro-life and would help to break the cycle of poverty. It would have tremendous appeal to the 25 percent of the electorate who identify as Catholic, and to other Christians and people of faith, without violating modern liberal orthodoxy. Furthermore, it is not only compatible with the pro-life movement’s current aims and strategies, but an important complement to them: if abortion ceased to be an option, it would be even more imperative to make gift-motherhood more feasible for those unwilling to raise a(nother) child. So why is this approach not being more vigorously pursued?
There is no simple answer to this question, but several psychological barriers are immediately evident. Part of the resistance lies in the attitudes toward sex and pregnancy that characterize both sides. Traditional Christianity, for instance, condemns extramarital sex, but sees babies so conceived as beloved children of God. People with a different worldview frequently condone extramarital sex, but see babies so conceived as an unfortunate side effect. Thus, both are wary of making gift-motherhood attractive, but for opposite reasons: one wants to discourage the sexual behavior that leads to it and encourage traditional family structures, while the other wants to be able to separate sexual pleasure from its natural consequences altogether.
Another factor working against promoting adoption is discomfort with suggesting something that goes against maternal instinct. The pro-life movement often appeals to this feeling in order to dissuade women from having abortions. Once such a powerful emotion has been aroused, it can seem cruel to try to persuade women to entrust their babies to others better prepared to raise them. Especially among childless women and girls, one of the main reasons for unwanted pregnancies is the longing for love, and those who have been used and deserted are all the more susceptible to the hope that a baby will provide that missing love.
A third deterrent to cooperation is that we are rapidly losing the sense that cooperation is possible on anything between people who disagree. Obstructionism, name-calling, and increasingly bitter showdowns between the parties have become the new normal in American politics. Not coincidentally, some of the most strident recriminations from both sides center on abortion—our most toxic social issue since slavery, which similarly involved a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes a human being. From the standpoint of the present political situation alone, Mother Teresa’s characterization of abortion as the greatest destroyer of peace was an accurate prophecy.
These are formidable obstacles. Yet people are capable of tremendous self-sacrifice, and even cooperation, when the right incentives are in place. In tomorrow’s essay, I propose some practical and rhetorical strategies for creating those incentives.