THE BLOG
06/24/2010 11:16 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Pro-Choice and Adoption: Outside the Culture Wars

Susan Dominus' article in the New York Times this weekend, "Campaigning for Common Ground in the Abortion Debate," does not open on a high note. The very first sentence, "What if groups that demanded reproductive options for women actually offered them?" shows a stunning lack of understanding about what some health centers around this country actually do for women who are pregnant and unsure of whether or not they wish to carry the pregnancy to term and become a parent to the child or not. It's an unfortunate opening because the subject of the article is one that deserves scrutiny beyond laying some sort of ineptness at the feet of abortion providers or reproductive health advocates.

The Adoption Access Network, founded by Corinna Lohser of the New York-based, pro-choice adoption agency, Spence-Chapin, and Cristina Page, author and long-time reproductive rights advocate (and previously a consultant to RH Reality Check), is a project that started long before President Obama was elected. Lohser and Page believe that reproductive justice advocates can -- and should -- take a greater ownership over the adoption industry, applying a reproductive and women's rights lens to the experience for women and families.

The Adoption Access Network is on the cusp of launching a campaign to "make adoption a subject that patients and social workers alike feel more comfortable broaching in abortion clinics." To that end, the project will be placing posters in clinics and training clinic staff and social workers on how best to discuss adoption as an option for women who come to abortion clinics. But the project is much more than posters and trainings.

According to Cristina Page,

"The whole mission of our project is to bring pro-choice standards to the field of adoption. It's been difficult for the pro-choice movement to make a claim to adoption. Providers are traditionally only as good as the resources they have available and the truth is the adoption resources haven't been very pro-choice. We decided to address this and have created a network of pro-choice adoption agencies around the country."

So while the NYT article assumes that those who work for reproductive freedom or at women's health centers aren't already either offering information, fully informed of or supportive of adoption as an option for their patients, the network takes a different approach.

Page continues, "This isn't an alternative to abortion, it sort of minimizes adoption by putting it that way. There are different choices for different women for different phases of their lives. Most women who choose adoption, their initial choice is abortion but for many, they accessed services too late. I think there is a real onus on the pro-choice movement to serve these women."

At the non-profit women's health center at which I worked not only were we allied with two major adoption agencies in the city -- both of which used the open-adoption model -- but representatives of the agencies came to speak to clinic staff women at least twice in the seven years I worked there. This is part of what Page and her colleagues want to see replicated around the country.

"We believe women who are considering adoption deserve high-quality care, accurate information in a non-coercive environment. Because there is a lack of information, as a result of the pro-life movement having a near monopoly on adoption resources, this has been a group of women [women who are interested in adoption] who have been neglected," says Page.

Since open adoption is simply not available to many women, having an agency like Spence-Chapin fully support women's and girl's reproductive rights by leading the call is critical, according to Page.

There is not a well-respected health care provider out there who offers abortion care who would not offer her or his patients information on all opportunities to ensure she is as fully informed as possible regarding her options. Connecting women's health centers that do offer abortion services, with other health providers, and social service agencies in an area is a noble and important goal.

Women have diverse needs: they may be victims of domestic violence, pregnant as a result of sexual assault or incest, or in need of mental health counseling. They may need access to health care services. At the health center for which I worked, all staff women were regularly trained, both internally and through representatives of public health centers, domestic violence shelters, adoption agencies, drug rehabilitation centers and more, to be able to speak about the various services available.

But, most importantly perhaps, our clinic staff women were trained in Pregnancy Options Counseling, perhaps the most thorough and clarifying counseling out there in terms of unplanned pregnancy. That is, before a woman was considered "fully informed" and before a physician would perform an abortion, our staff worked to ensure this was what her client really wanted. This meant engaging in counseling; it meant interviewing the woman and talking to her about her own unique circumstances; it meant uncovering whether this person wanted an abortion, wanted to continue with the pregnancy and parent the child, or continue with the pregnancy and learn more about adoption options. If a woman seeking an abortion expressed the slightest doubt about undergoing an abortion, she was connected with counseling resources that might be able to help her understand what it was she truly needed or wanted at the time.

As provider education, as another step towards connecting all of women's care, there is nothing wrong with posters on adoption or educating providers more thoroughly about what open adoption looks like. But adoption is not a "distraction" from abortion and, given the option, most women we saw at the health center seeking to terminate their pregnancies did not change their minds, even after being provided with more information about adoption -- even open adoption (laws about which vary from state-to-state and is far from cut-and-dried). Most women came to our health care center firm over their decision to terminate their pregnancy.

The Adoption Access Network seeks to look more closely at how to promote ethical and human-rights based adoption services for mothers and their children. Some have certainly taken issue with the entire industry.

Cristina Page acknowledges that this is exactly why creating a trusted, credible network of pro-choice adoption agencies, linked with centers like Planned Parenthood, is so critical:

"Adoption can be a very shadowy, sketchy field in which sometimes people with ulterior motives work under the guise of serving women but really have an interest in what a woman does with her pregnancy. But, here's the thing about the Adoption Access Network. The only interest we have is that she has all her choices available to her."

Page also reminds us that applying pro-choice standards and a women's rights lens to the adoption experience means not just expanded rights and options for birth mothers but for those gay and lesbian parents desperate to adopt but often kept out of the pool by more religious-in-nature or conservative agencies. Developing a network of pro-choice adoption agencies changes family rights. Anecdotally, she tells me, pro-choice adoption agencies have an active pool of gay and lesbian parents wanting to adopt.

The New York Times article also, unfortunately, (and I don't think this is what the Adoption Access Network project does) sets up a false dichotomy that plays on the absolutely wrong notion that those health center and care providers that offer abortion services are simply abortion-mills more intent on providing abortions than comprehensive care for women. Dominus writes,

"Discussing these choices is always delicate, but perhaps even more so in this setting. Social workers in abortion clinics run the risk of sounding as if they're offering a refutation of the service they are there to provide."

In fact, most providers who offer these services (like Planned Parenthood but including the non-and for-profit health care centers around the country, independent providers and hospitals), provide a full range of health care services for women's reproductive and sexual health. They offer abortion services because they understand that this is a safe, legal medical option for pregnant women who do not wish to carry their current pregnancy to term; they offer abortion care as one type of service not because they believe abortion is the only option but because they believe abortion is an option.

So while the New York Times article pits adoption against abortion, as if they are opposite sides of a coin, the Adoption Access Network acknowledges that this is exactly what reproductive rights and health advocates and providers do not do. In fact, what reproductive justice advocates and providers know -- and carry forth in their vision and their work with women -- is that respecting women's bodily autonomy, ensuring women's rights is about not elevating one option ahead of another. It's about integrating them all as full-spectrum, comprehensive women's care.

It's why training providers at Planned Parenthood (PP) and connecting them to pro-choice, supportive adoption agencies in a network organized by geographic region, could be -- and is -- extremely successful. Page told me that, recently, a woman who came to Planned Parenthood was able to place her child up for adoption with the help of newly trained PP staff women. The process was so seamless that the woman -- and Planned Parenthood staff--barely needed the assistance of Spence-Chapin at all.

Where the Adoption Access Network does not want to go? Political. Using adoption as solely a common ground tool or, worse, as a wedge-issue between anti-and pro-choice advocates is unfair most of all to women, but it also does nothing to further the discussion on either side of the debate.

Page responds to the idea, "We're not responding to the other side, with this project. This takes place outside of the culture wars. It wasn't born out of a need to appease any culture war and was created long before Obama's common ground efforts."

She even recalls Dr. Tiller to make a point:

"Dr. Tiller stepped up three weeks before his murder at the NAF (National Abortion Federation) conference, at a presentation I gave on adoption, and made a plea to his provider colleagues that they take a more active role in caring for women who are choosing adoption. Was that a political strategy? No. He said some of the most fulfilling parts of his career were about helping women place their babies up for adoption."

Page feels that the Adoption Access Network, if used as a tool to expand women's access to information and resources when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, can be useful. They hope to ignite deeper discussion about the ways in which we can and should be furthering reproductive and sexual health and pregnancy options in equitable, just and rights-based ways. It's what reproductive and sexual health and rights advocates have been doing for years.