Friday, September 4, 2009

The Slow Erosion of Hard-Won Freedoms

Via Pandagon, I found this jaw-dropping article in The Nation about crisis pregnancy centers, those innocuous-seeming places offering "alternatives to abortion."

Apparently, rather than give women the help they need to make their own choices, crisis pregnancy centers often coerce women into 1) having the baby, and then 2) giving the baby up for adoption.

This coercion might take the form of misinformation and scaremongering about abortion and single motherhood, of isolating her from her family and friends and hammering her with messages about her unfitness to be a mother, or even of denying a woman money she needs (like, say, reimbursing her for hospital bills she incurred during pregnancy and delivery) unless she agrees to give up her child:
When Jordan arrived [at Bethany Christian Services crisis pregnancy center in Greenville, South Carolina], a counselor began asking whether she'd considered adoption and talking about the poverty rates of single mothers. Over five counseling sessions, she convinced Jordan that adoption was a win-win situation: Jordan wouldn't "have death on her hands," her bills would be paid and the baby would go to a family of her choosing in an open adoption. She suggested Jordan move into one of Bethany's "shepherding family" homes, away from the influence of family and friends.
Bethany guided Jordan through the Medicaid application process and in April [of 1999] moved her in with home-schooling parents outside Myrtle Beach. There, according to Jordan, the family referred to her as one of the agency's "birth mothers" - a term adoption agencies use for relinquishing mothers that many adoption reform advocates reject - although she hadn't yet agreed to adoption. "I felt like a walking uterus for the agency," says Jordan.

Jordan was isolated in the shepherding family's house; her only social contact was with the agency, which called her a "saint" for continuing her pregnancy but asked her to consider "what's best for the baby." "They come on really prolife: look at the baby, look at its heartbeat, don't kill it. Then, once you say you won't kill it, they ask, What can you give it? You have nothing to offer, but here's a family that goes on a cruise every year."
Jordan selected a couple, and when she went into labor, they attended the birth, along with her counselor and shepherding mother. The next day, the counselor said that fully open adoptions weren't legal in South Carolina, so Jordan couldn't receive identifying information on the adoptive parents. Jordan cried all day and didn't think she could relinquish the baby. She called her shepherding parents and asked if she could bring the baby home. They refused, chastising Jordan sharply. The counselor told the people Jordan was having second thoughts and brought them, sobbing, into her recovery room. The counselor warned Jordan that if she persisted, she'd end up homeless and lose the baby anyway.

"My options were to leave the hospital walking, with no money," says Jordan. "Or here's a couple with Pottery Barn furniture. You sacrifice yourself, not knowing it will leave an impact on you and your child for life."

The next morning, as Jordan was rushed through signing relinquishment papers by a busy, on-duty nurse serving as notary public. As soon as she'd signed, the couple left with the baby, and Jordan was taken home without being discharged. The shepherding family was celebrating and asked why Jordan wouldn't stop crying. Five days later, she used her last $50 to buy a Greyhound ticket to Greenville, where she struggled for weeks to reach a Bethany post-adoption counselor as her milk came in and she rapidly lost more than fifty pounds in her grief.

When Jordan called Bethany's statewide headquarters one night, her shepherding mother answered, responding coldly to Jordan's lament. "You're the one who spread your legs and got pregnant out of wedlock," she told Jordan. "You have no right to grieve for this baby."
This story is almost an exact duplicate of the stories collected in Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade --- the helplessness, the loneliness and desperation Jordan felt going in; the "choices" she made because her alternative was homelessness; the utter refusal of the people at the adoption agency to treat her like a person, with interests and feelings of her own. Instead, they alternately praised her or demonized her: when she decided she would go ahead and keep the baby (after five sessions' worth of strongly pro-life, pro-adoption "counseling"), she was "a saint," but if she ever entertained other ideas, she became a selfish monster, either a murderer or a weak, childish woman who couldn't see past her own fleeting emotions to make The Right Choice.

The strength of these terms of praise or blame --- seesawing wildly between angelic and demonic --- is itself a pretty powerful persuasive tactic. First, remember that Jordan was living in a strange city in the home of the couple that was "shepherding" the adoption; most people want to be well-liked by the people they see every day, especially if those are one's only social contacts, as those people were hers. It would take an unusual degree of independence, emotional self-sufficiency and self-esteem to make a choice that everyone around you was telling you was a catastrophically bad idea: irresponsible, financially ruinous, destructive of the would-be parents' hopes and the child's future, and just plain selfish. Second, those extreme categories --- saint or monster --- and the nanofiber-fine line that seems to separate them serve, along with the dislocation and the isolation among near-strangers, to disorient Jordan and break down her will. Not being able to predict how an authority figure will react to what you say or do, especially when their reaction might be an angry one, makes most people especially anxious to stay on that authority figure's good side.

For comparison's sake, here are some descriptions of what giving a baby up was like from The Girls Who Went Away:
Any of my conversations I had with the social worker before giving birth were all basically trying to help me understand why I couldn't keep my son. Afterward, I had to go to the district court in Augusta and sign the papers. The judge was not friendly; he was being very businesslike. He put the papers in front of me to sign and I just kind of stood there. Finally I said, "What happens if I don't sign?" He got very angry and said that I'd already cost the poor, hardworking taxpayers enough time and trouble and if I didn't sign the papers he'd declare me incompetent, and how would I like my son to know that about me?

One of the questions that come up when you go to court and relinquish is they ask you if you have been coerced in any way, and I thought it was the height of hypocrisy. Of course, you're coerced. You're coerced by your parents, who said "Don't come home again if you plan to keep that child. We're not going to help you." You're coerced by everyone around you because of the shame and lack of acceptance by society and your community. You're not acknowledged as a fit mother because you had sex before marriage.

The judge congratulated me on how courageous I was. I was furious that he would tell me about courage. It was about defeat. It was totally about shame and defeat.

I stayed in the hospital about two days afterward and then it was this very strange Twilight Zone sort of time. I had to go back to the maternity home to collect my things, knowing what I knew. I couldn't say anything. They're all happy, happy, happy, chatter, chatter, chatter, and I've just experienced this loss. How could you tell people that? So I just became voiceless. I couldn't speak it. I really just kind of shut down.

I went back to Penn State. I started school again in four days. I finished school and then I was on to happily ever after. But I wasn't happy anymore. I mean, I realized there was something really wrong.
Now, these women gave up their babies as young, unwed women in their teens and early twenties in the 1950s and '60s, before legal abortion, contraception and the second wave of feminism. Few of them had any idea, before all this happened to them, exactly how sex and pregnancy even worked; they were not things that respectable people talked about.

For almost two decades now, conservative policymakers have been trying their hardest to bring back this set of circumstances. If overturning Roe itself isn't feasible, they've still managed to put as many barriers as humanly possible between women and abortion: mandatory waiting periods and counseling, parental notification laws, mandatory ultrasounds, etc. That's been going on since at least the 1990s, when the Hyde Amendment banned the use of government funds (i.e., Medicaid) to pay for abortions. A newer development is the attempt, through misinformation (abstinence-only and abstinence-plus sex education, which dwell on inflated failure rates of various contraceptive methods and urge students to stay celibate until they marry), to recreate the cultural climate of silence, shame and ignorance that kept unwed mothers so powerless in the first place.


Alderson Warm-Fork said...

Good dissection of the methods used. This is horrible.

Anemone said...

Holy crow. How did I miss this post? This is insane.

kathleen said...

Well done! I have always found it astounding when abortion is being debated-especially by the people who are adamently against it, the actual woman carrying the child(her thoughts, her feelings, her body) never come into consideration. I find it equally astounding that we have roughly over 500,000 children in our foster care system..yet those who continually fight against a womans right to choose never discuss that-nor offer any ideas, plans, solutions as to how to help these children.
Please understand, I am not advocating that those children not have been born-I am just pointing out that the people who profess such reverence for an unborn child-seem not to worry or care about what happens after they are born. Makes me wonder what the basis of their argument really is..

Sadderbutwisergirl said...

This whole business makes me think of The Handmaid's Tale and the system of issuing a Handmaid to each childless Commander. In both situations, the mother is treated only as a walking womb for the child she is carrying without any thoughts or feelings, and the babies are immediately surrendered to adoptive mothers. It's very chilling to find that this is so real in the here and now.