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Speaking of abortion — and adoption — at the U.S. Supreme Court

Why was I so uncomfortable with Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s suggestion that adoption solves the problem of an unwanted pregnancy?

Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett
Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett
Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS

I have never had an abortion, nor have I given birth. My husband and I wanted to be parents and, after facing infertility, adopted two children internationally. I am grateful to be a mother and I love my children. Why then, was I so uncomfortable with Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s suggestion, offered during arguments last week about the constitutionality of Mississippi’s abortion law which limits these procedures to 15 weeks after conception, that adoption solves the problem of an unwanted pregnancy?

As an adoptive mother, Coney Barrett seems a credible source. But why, when she added that safe haven laws, which allow women to relinquish their children without legal penalties and with anonymity, “take care of” the obligations of motherhood, did I find her remarks both foolish and insensitive? Because an unwanted pregnancy is not easily “taken care of.”

We women have a unique gift, the ability to bear children. And yet this ability is often fraught with complications. We face miscarriages, difficult pregnancies and deliveries, infertility and, yes, decisions regarding abortion and adoption when an unplanned pregnancy happens. These decisions started early for some women I know. In high school, classmates who became pregnant often disappeared for a semester. Some got married at 16 or 17, becoming mothers shortly thereafter. By the time I was in college, I was aware of abortion as an option, although it was still illegal. More often women simply married their boyfriends. Some of these early marriages survived; many did not. As I grew older, I knew married women who chose abortion, for all sorts of reasons.

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I faced a different choice. How long to pursue infertility treatments, some of which might impact my future health? Could I be a good mother to a child not born to me? Should we adopt domestically or internationally? Should we adopt a child of our race or a child of a different race? We chose the latter, believing our social workers who said love would be sufficient to create a successful, though racially mixed, family. Years later, I began to think more deeply about the morality of this choice, an issue I explored in my memoir, “Missing Mothers.” I, a well-off white woman, benefited from the losses of two women in South Korea and Guatemala, women who were victims of poverty, racism and sexism. Was it fair to my children to bring them into a family that didn’t look like them? To expose them to racism? Could there have been a better way?

I wonder if Coney Barrett, the adoptive mother of two children born in Haiti, has considered these moral dilemmas. Does she assume her experience or opinions are universal? She, an adoptive parent, represents only one side of the adoption triangle, which also includes the child and birth mother. And it is often the adoptive parent who has the most power in this equation, due to social status and financial means. For adoptive mothers, adoption is a dream come true. For birth mothers, adoption often follows an agonizing journey.

In her memoir, “Sunlight On My Shadow,” Judy Liautaud describes her humiliation during the months she lived in an unwed mother’s home and the indifference she experienced during the delivery of her child. Although such homes may be a relic from the past, women choosing adoption still face public shame and scrutiny, not to mention the stress, psychologically and physically, of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Martha Bordwell
Martha Bordwell
And adoption has consequences for the child. As Heidi Schlumpf has written in the National Catholic Reporter, “It is a traumatic loss not to be raised by one’s birth parents.” Many adopted children describe feelings of abandonment and loss of identity, no matter how loving the home in which they were raised. The desire to connect with birth relatives has fueled searches and DNA testing.

One aspect of good character includes integrity: honestly taking responsibility for the decisions one makes. That doesn’t mean an individual never regrets a decision. Women who abort and women who place children for adoption have the right to regret what they chose. But when that decision is imposed, such as when a woman is either forced to get an abortion or to place a child for adoption, or forced to bear a child because the state does not allow termination (especially when that child was conceived due to rape or incest), then the choice is not hers. She is being infantilized and denied agency over her own life. And that can cause life-long trauma.

An unwanted pregnancy confronts a woman with difficult choices and moral dilemmas. And yes, adoption is one option she might choose. But to oversimplify this dilemma by sugarcoating one choice over another is dishonest. Let the woman decide. Let her claim responsibility for her choice, whatever it is. Show compassion, not judgment. But let her decide.

Martha Bordwell is a retired psychologist who lives in Minneapolis.  Besides her memoir “Missing Mothers,” her poetry and essays have been published in both local and national journals.