Does Adoption Stigma Drive Women to Abortion Regrets?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am pro-choice. I believe in a woman’s right to legal abortions, period. No one should be forced into any choice — parenting, adoption, or abortion. At the same time, it is also true that my believing in a woman’s right to abortion does not equal believing abortion is right for everyone.
In the Waiting Room
It was a chilly day in November 1995. I am in the abortion clinic waiting room in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Why am I here? You might consider the answer to be obvious. I am single. I don’t know who the father is. I cannot imagine taking responsibility for a baby 24/7. Lately, I haven’t even been able to take care of myself. My parents will be deeply disappointed in me. Being pregnant feels shameful.
Getting an abortion will erase all the shame. The shame from conceiving a baby with a complete stranger. The shame of being unable, right now, to raise the baby I conceived. The shame that will come from my family finding out. The shame of potentially being labeled “a bad mother” who “gave away” her child for adoption.
Before I can even enter the clinic examination room, my tears begin to wash over the pre-abortion paperwork. This is not for me. Although I want to erase my shame, I cannot bear to do it at the expense of the tiny baby growing inside me. I abruptly leave the clinic. I choose adoption, the only option left.
So maybe the real answer to “Why am I here?” isn’t as obvious as it seemed. Why did I start my journey abortion clinic instead of an adoption agency? Why is placing a baby for adoption so rare in the Jewish community? Why was adoption my last resort — when clearly, in my heart, something was telling me not to abort and parenting was not an option?
The Adoption Stigma
In my last post, “Is the Jewish community anti-adoption?” I asserted that most Jewish communities stigmatize the choice to place a baby for adoption. The 2014 movie “The Obvious Child” inadvertently reveals the power of the stigma. In the film, the Jewish comedienne protagonist gets pregnant through a one-night stand and has an abortion. The absence of a real discussion of adoption reveals how people commonly view adoption: too shameful and too painful to even be considered. Too painful. Too shameful.
Erica Pelman, director of In Shifra’s Arms (ISA), recently shared with me another poignant Jewish example of the adoption stigma. Years ago, Dara* called the ISA Helpline, pregnant from a casual sexual relationship with her roommate. She immediately told her ISA counselor that she did not want to abort and that she wanted to explore adoption. When she told the baby’s father, a 20-something law school student, about her wishes, he said he would refuse to sign adoption papers (making adoption legally impossible). He didn’t want to raise the baby either. He insisted on abortion and brutally asserted that he would “make her life hell” if she didn’t. After weeks of fighting with him, facing a lifetime of being tied to him through the baby, Dara acquiesced to an unwanted second-trimester abortion.
Aside from the abuse clearly present in the story, the notion that it is better to abort than place a baby for adoption is a common belief in our community. The often-unstated understanding is placing your child for adoption means you are a bad mother or a bad father — you are shameful. Rather than be a bad mother or father, it’s better not to have the child at all.
Pain vs. Shame
At this point, let’s distinguish between the pain of adoption and shame/stigma that surrounds adoption. The first is inevitable, the second is not. Pain comes from not having something you want. The deeper and more profound the desire, the more intense the pain. Adoption is painful because you almost can’t help but attach to a baby growing in your body. Yearning to hold my baby after birth and not being able to was agonizing. No one can sugarcoat or diminish the reality of a birthmother’s grief, even when she has a healthy open adoption with wonderful adoptive parents.
It is also true that unwanted pregnancies are often painful one way or another. If you raise your baby, you are guaranteed at least some painful times that go along with the joyful ones. Alternatively, if you abort, it may be painful for you either short-term or down the road.
Some pain of adoption can come from wanting support and not having any. Unfortunately, back in the time before Internet reviews, I ended up picking a dishonest lawyer. She intentionally thwarted the open adoption she promised, and her social worker completely abandoned me after birth. I had no support system. Today, no one needs to repeat these tragic elements of my story. With the Internet, women can research their options and find ethical agencies which support open adoptions. Some such agencies have lifelong support groups for birthmothers. There are also a number of organizations dedicated to serving birthmothers. (Second Nurture and Birth Mom’s Today for example.) Jewish women in the United States can also count on In Shifra’s Arms to provide caring and sensitive support throughout their journey, no matter what they decide.
Ending Shame and Stigma
While a birthmothers’ pain is inevitable, the shame and stigma which clouds our community’s view of birthmothers are not. Shame comes from the feeling that you are bad and wrong. Stigma is a social force which attaches shame to ‘forbidden’ activities.
Labeling birthmothers as “bad mothers” is the very essence of the stigma. I struggled for years with people telling me that I was a bad person and a bad mother for placing my baby for adoption. My own mother, once she found out, was angry with me saying, “I’ll never forgive you for giving away my grandchild.”
But is it true? Should this choice really be something women are ashamed of? Should it really be so stigmatized? Does placing my baby for adoption make me (or anyone) a bad mother? Or can this choice demonstrate the highest quality of motherhood- putting my baby’s needs ahead of my own comfort and convenience?
“If everything were easy, you’d never discover the strength within.” — Tzvi Freeman
Despite all the pain I’ve discussed, adoption was the best choice I could have possibly made at the time. The results turned out far better than either parenting or abortion would have — for both of us. I am fundamentally a responsible, caring, decent human being. Melanie (the daughter I did raise) told me recently, “You are my best friend.” But I was not ready to raise my daughter April. Instead, I chose for her a fantastic Jewish family who was and who gave her tremendous opportunities I could not.
Nevertheless, swayed by the stigma, I was afraid that my birth daughter might hate me. In reality — it’s quite the opposite. Now reunited, we have a beautiful relationship. She knows and understands I have always loved her. Even in the darkest moments of pain during our 18-year separation, I never regret walking away from that abortion clinic. I always knew her life was worth it — and the world is a better place with her in it. Adoption stigma could have led to abortion regrets. I am glad, for me, it didn’t.
When parenting is not a viable option, the potential benefits of adoption for everyone involved are profound. For the woman who does not regret an unwanted abortion. For the baby who is not aborted. For the Jewish community as a whole. At the same moment that I was pregnant with a baby that I couldn’t raise- another Jewish woman was yearning to conceive and unable. This dichotomy happens every single day.
Yet the shame and stigma scare women away. No one wants to be considered a bad mother.
As far as I am concerned, this taboo is meant to be broken. Adoption is a choice good mothers sometimes make. What if these mothers could lean on our community every step of the way? That would have meant the world to me- and I am not the only one. Will our community learn to honor birthmothers and adoption as a choice? As far as I am concerned, the time has come.
*Name changed for privacy.