Birthmothers and their trauma are too often left out of the abortion debate

Louisa Cannell for the Washington Post
Louisa Cannell for the Washington Post
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If you handed an antiabortion advocate a pen and paper and asked them to reflect on the ideal teen pregnancy, you might end up with my story.

My secret attempt to get an abortion at a local Planned Parenthood was unsuccessful — I needed parental permission in Ohio, and I was not going to get it from my devout Christian parents. My search for an adoptive family was swift — my mom’s friend from church knew a couple who couldn’t conceive. I took the SAT and kept up with my classes. I smiled when strangers talked to me and laughed at their jokes.

Ultimately, a pair of new parents walked out of my family’s living room with a baby, and I went back to high school. The end!

Now I have a job, a cat and a husband. I’m aggressively normal, except that sometimes when I stub my toe or miss a bus or read something sad, I’m hit by a wave of indescribable panic and pain: My baby is gone.

Women who relinquish children experience chronic, unresolved grief, research shows. It’s a reason so few women choose adoption when faced with unwanted pregnancies — one study published in 2017 in the journal Women’s Health Issues found that 14 percent of women who were denied an abortion were even considering adoption a week later. Birthmothers take on medical risk, social punishment and years of silence and secret-keeping. Some studies have found that losing a child to relinquishment produces feelings similar to those from losing a child to death.

But the way we talk about adoption doesn’t reflect that reality. Birthmothers’ grief makes us uncomfortable and challenges our easy stories about adoption, so we tamp it down with cruelty or cutesiness. Just last week, smiling couples stood outside the Supreme Court holding signs that read, “We will adopt your baby!”

I want to ask them: Do you really believe, contrary to data, that a lack of willing adoptive parents is the problem? Or was the real problem too nuanced to fit on a sandwich board?

In my decade as a birthmother, I’ve acclimated to well-intentioned people doing ridiculous things. During my pregnancy, adults loved to tell me how “brave” I was moments before saying something scary.

“You’ll change your mind about adoption the moment you see that baby’s face,” a woman told me in the Kroger checkout line.

“I had my first son out of wedlock,” a church lady whispered, apropos of nothing.

“I’m sure the couple is glad to be getting a White baby,” my dental hygienist offered.

Teachers gossiped, and neighbors weighed in. Former friends shared theories, and new acquaintances listed every person they’d ever known who got pregnant by accident.

The people most confident in their helpfulness also tended to be the most destructive. My pastor asked me to get onstage at church and share my “testimony” — how God was working in my life despite my mistake — while I was still pregnant. The question of whether it is kind to ask a teenager to process that in front of a crowd was never raised. Pregnant teenagers were a spectacle to be pitied, advised, discussed and, over all, enjoyed.

It wasn’t until college that I came across firsthand accounts from other birthmothers in online forums and chatrooms. Their anger and bitterness shocked me. These women felt exploited by their parents, medical providers, adoptive families, the whole world. But the adults in my life wouldn’t subject me to trauma to serve their own interests — right?

For the first time, I questioned whether my choice had been a real one. How could I have chosen adoption when abortion and parenting were never legitimate options? Who was I: Someone who had fought through something difficult, or someone who had smiled through something horrible? I buried the experience deeper, hiding it from almost everyone in my life and swallowing a hot fury anytime a family announced an adoption on social media.

“That baby is so lucky to be getting a home with you,” the comments inevitably said, as if the baby had materialized on the doorstep or floated by in a basket on the river.

When I did tell people my story, I often regretted it. “Does your boyfriend know?” they’d ask immediately, concerned I hadn’t disclosed relevant vaginal information. Had I been using protection when I got pregnant? Did I ever miss the baby?

Eventually, I hit a wall. I could keep hurting alone, or I could start talking about my adoption on my own terms and risk blowing up my connection with my son and his family.

At 27, I started writing about my experience and sharing it publicly. My inbox filled with notes from strangers, co-workers and even relatives. (I got pregnant when I was 16. When I was 25. When I was 30. I lost the baby. I got an abortion. I kept it. I kept it secret. I feel so lonely.) These women showed me that the cruelty I experienced during an unplanned pregnancy wasn’t an accident; it was a sport, and everyone knows the rules.

My son’s mother wrote a long message: She was proud of me. She was sorry.

If you stacked my experience next to that of other birthparents, it would probably be one of the easiest and best. I didn’t relinquish my child because of financial hardship or illness. No one pried him from my arms. No one served me adoption papers while I lay medicated in a hospital bed. I visited my son in October, and I danced with his wonderful mom at my wedding.

But my experience doesn’t need to be tragic to be instructive. It shows that the rosy “pro-life” view of adoption relies on giant, purposeful deletions — namely, of birthmothers and their experiences. It shows that a pregnant teenager can do everything right and still get kicked around by adults eager to do some kicking.

Lately more than usual, I’m thinking about my fellow birthparents. Our ranks could soon swell, and every story will be different. But each birthmother will walk away with a painful understanding that kindness and cruelty, grief and joy, aren’t easy to distinguish. I’m thinking of us this week, moving smartly and stealthily through church services and family dinners. When our pastors and relatives wax poetic, I’m grieving. And when smiling couples hold up signs offering to adopt our babies, I’m laughing.

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