An Op Ed Loaded with Oversimplifications about Abortion & Adoption

I’ve avoided writing about abortion for a while. It’s an issue tangential to my core concerns around disability, reproductive technology, and faith. The topic brings out the worst in some commenters. But this op ed on abortion, published by USA Today, was so chock full of poor word choices, faulty reasoning, and wrong assumptions that I had to write something so I wouldn’t scare my children by ranting under my breath in the kitchen, occasionally shouting things like “INCONVENIENT?!”  and “HISTORY, PEOPLE!!” while smacking the countertop with my wooden spoon.

The author, Grazie Pozo Christie, explains that she used to look down on pro-life protestors with their posters and slogans. Then she adopted a little girl from China, and realized that “one person’s inconvenient, unwanted child could easily become another’s priceless treasure,”  a revelation the author saw as “a timely reminder of the infinite value of every human.” The odd implication is that this mother of five (the adopted girl was her fifth) had never before made the leap from “I adore my child” to “children are valuable gifts.” (And seeing children as “priceless treasure” is not a sentiment exclusive to those who identify as pro-life.) But setting aside this core argument for a moment, let’s take a look at how Christie frames abortion, and those who support abortion rights.

The author describes unwanted children as “inconvenient.” This characterization of why women abort perpetuates a popular myth: That women who get abortions do so with no more thought than they would give any other “inconvenience,” such as a trip to the dentist to have a troublesome tooth checked out or to the DMV to get a license renewed. There are no doubt some women who approach their pregnancies and abortions with nonchalance, but women’s stories reveal that ambivalence and confusion are far more common than nonchalance. Grief, relief, sadness, gratitude…women report a gamut of thoughts and emotions about their pregnancies and abortions. But they rarely frame their pregnancies and abortions as mere inconveniences. (The author, by the way, notes that she and her husband adopted from China primarily because of “convenience and ease.” For her, convenience and ease are acceptable reasons for making reproductive and family-building decisions.)

The author writes, “I looked around our country and realized that our culture had erected a temple to self-realization and sexual liberation, and therefore abortion has to be available, because unwanted children will continue to be conceived…” By linking loosening sexual mores with abortion, Christie ignores research showing that abortion rates have actually declined over the last 40 years, as sexual norms have relaxed. She ignores human history, in which unwanted pregnancies have always occurred and women have always sought ways to end them. She ignores her own daughter’s history, as her daughter was conceived in a very different culture with different sexual mores. I am no great fan of 21st century American sexual morals, especially the false notion that having multiple sex partners with minimal commitment is somehow empowering to women. But the sexual revolution is not the cause of all that ails us, abortion included.

Christie concludes with this gem: “Those who believe in unrestricted abortion license do not acknowledge the conflicting right of the little human being, who might be unwanted, but is just as valuable and beautiful as a wanted child.” Sigh. Where to start? Many pro-choice people do not believe in an “unrestricted” right to abortion, instead supporting reasonable restrictions on such things as when in pregnancy an abortion can legally occur. More important, while some on the extreme right may focus solely on fetal rights, and some on the extreme left may focus solely on maternal rights, the conflict between maternal and fetal rights, needs, and well-being is precisely why most Americans dwell somewhere in the middle on abortion. Christie’s argument here, and throughout the piece, implies that pro-choicers have never stopped to consider that an abortion kills a living creature that could grow into a baby that someone could love. The idea that pro-choice people have never stopped to think about the fetus being aborted is so simplistic and naive that it’s almost sweet. Almost.

Finally, there’s the faulty assumption at the heart of the writer’s argument—that bearing a child and making him/her available for adoption is the obvious superior alternative to having an abortion. There is no doubt that if a child is placed quickly, legally, and ethically with an adoptive family, with the birth mother secure in the knowledge that the child she bore is loved, this would be preferable to abortion. But adoption is rarely so straightforward. The choice to place a child for adoption carries its own considerable burdens and risks. There’s that whole growing-another-human-being-inside-one’s-body-then-pushing-him/her-out-through-one’s-vagina process known as pregnancy and birth—rarely easy, sometimes dangerous, and often a jolting ride through every sort of feeling there is—physical, psychological, emotional. Ethical adoptions require a host of complex, unpredictable, and expensive processes, paperwork, assurances, checks, and balances. International adoptions, such as the one that Christie pursued, are increasingly limited in many countries by legitimate ethical concerns, which means a baby could end up in an orphanage instead of being adored by grateful parents. In a preferable scenario, a baby could instead be placed with a loving foster family until matched with an adoptive family; good foster care can help babies learn to attach and trust, smoothing the way for healthy relationships with adoptive families. But even in a best-case scenario, children and their adoptive families may have traumatic years ahead dealing with grief over the loss of the first family.

Adoption can be a far better option than abortion for some women and children. But even when it leads to a happy ending like the author’s, adoption is far from a simple process in which a child makes a straight, smooth journey from unwanted pregnancy to adoring adoptive family.

Why am I picking apart this well-meaning, if poorly argued, op ed? Why does this matter? It matters because abortion has become nearly impossible to talk about productively. Instead, conversations about abortion tend to exacerbate divisiveness and derision. Rampant use of loaded, assumption-laden language is one major roadblock to effective conversation—a roadblock built by both sides in the abortion debate (e.g., the frequent lefty statement that pro-life people only care about babies before they are born). If we care about actually changing the world rather than simply scoring points for our side in the culture wars, then we must change how we talk about abortion and its alternatives. To that end, I welcome conversation in the comments.  What do you think about the op ed and my response? Do you want to take a crack at arguing for your position on abortion without making assumptions or oversimplifying? (Just know that I will be particularly quick with the “delete” button for comments that violate my comment policy.)

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Jeannie

    I would not be surprised if Christie’s story were actually a lot more complex than she makes it out to be here. But the black-and-white epiphany stories seem to have more cultural appeal than the messy awkward ones — which I guess is exactly what you’re pointing out, isn’t it? When we were talking about Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree (in a Facebook exchange, I think), I was thinking how that book gently but very firmly challenges a lot of either-or stances. I’ve always been
    pro-life (in the popular sense of that term) yet I couldn’t hold that position as staunchly after reading his chapter on rape, especially in the context of war, genocide, etc. But it wasn’t a pretty aha moment — it was and continues to be really uncomfortable for me, and I would still ultimately say I’m on the same side as before. But I’ve learned a lot from your posts on this subject, Ellen, even though sometimes I think “Do I really want to read what she has to say today or would I rather just watch cute animal videos?”

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Ha! I don’t blame you for preferring cute animal videos. I hesitate to write on this topic because it’s hard and reactions can be so strong.

      You’ve hit directly on my main point here, and in so much of what I write around reproductive ethics–the black and white stories are neat and clean, but they are not entirely true in that they don’t address any complexities at all. The messier stories are indeed “awkward.” But vital. And yes, Solomon’s book did a wonderful job of challenging many black-and-white assumptions about many hot button issues. That’s part of why I loved it.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “It matters because abortion has become nearly impossible to talk about productively. ” I am in very strong agreement with your desire to take the conversations about abortion out of the purely emotional arena. It seems time to take the conversation out of the “woman’s rights” arena and into a conversation about each child having the right to be wanted and cherished.

    My biggest issue with the op-ed is the fact that the writer waited until the end to reveal that she is a physician, and used what physicians refer to as “anecdotal” to make a sweeping statement about all physicians. “As a doctor I can tell you that no scientist questions the fact that a zygote, embryo, fetus and infant are all human beings in different stages of development.” What a cheap shot, and untrue. Honest scientists ( assuming that she believes that medicine is a science) see the zygote as having the potential to become a full human being.

    Her downy soft-haired child probably would not have been considered adoptable had she been born with severe deformities. I also find it hard to believe that the author couldn’t find some seemingly “unadoptable” child in the United States. We give more chance for dogs that are not physically or mentally “perfect” to find loving homes than we do to children who don’t meet our standards of the norm.

    Why do the pro-lifers never show photos of the children that are left out of their fantasy, universal love loop? Do they really believe the people who fill our prisons are the ones who were cherished by responsibly compassionate community when they were being brought up?

    As for this woman with excess resources taking her time to impose her ideas of morality on others, I am livid about those who become zealots after they have had a good outcome for an effort in their own lives and attempt to paint all the world with their brush. I wonder who is minding her children while she marches. She doesn’t even mention the expense incurred by those who want to adopt, probably because she has excess income. Perhaps she should have offered to pay for some not-so-wealthy childless couple to become parents for the first time.

    I would love to organize counter marches with placards that say how much it costs to bring up a healthy child from birth to the age of eighteen. I would also carry a credit card reader so that these pharisees could put up or shut up. We wouldn’t even talk about the time and money it takes to bring up a child with special needs who may never be able to support or care for himself or herself. That would be too sensational, much like the photos of dismembered full-term babies that the pro-lifers like to present

    As a child of Roman Catholic parents who really didn’t want the last seven of their nine children and spent their lives attempting to torture us into being “perfect even as our heavenly father is perfect,” I can say with some certainty that there are many things worse than being put to eternal sleep before becoming sentient sacrifices to a jealous and punishing “god”.

  • Mirah Riben

    EXCELLENT!! Your point about the author’s convenience is spot on and goes directly to her judgmental attitudes.

    Many abortions are performed for a vast variety of reasons that have nothing to with the want or not of the child and by women for whom carrying a pregnancy is simply not an option. Every time these two words – adoption and abortion – are used in comparison to one another it is hurtful to every adopted person who is made to feel gratitude for having not been aborted, when it may have been the furthest thing from his mother’s mind – and not an option at all.

    A conversation about abortion and adoption is extremely flawed from the jump because it is assuming a choice between the devil and deep blue sea. Such a limited conversation that pits these two difficult, painful losses against one another overlooks the most moral, ethical, compassionate option for both mother and child: Family Preservation!

    We must begin by rephrasing our language. Pregnancies are often unexpected or unintended. That does not always equate to child being “unwanted.” The use of the word “unwanted” in regards to adoption may make adopters feel noble, but it is hurtful to every adoptee… a vast majority of whom have mothers who never considered abortion and who fought for and would have loved to keep and RAISE their child, but could not because of social stigma or finances. Couching such a loving, painful sacrifice or women who are pressured or exploited for their children as “unwanted’ is beyond cruel.

    Every adoption begins with a tragedy of a family who has not received the support and resources they need to remain together. Ninety percent of children in orphanages worldwide are not orphans but have families who rely on that institutional care to provide medical srvices or education they cannot afford. they do not intend for their chidlren to be taken away permanently.

    The humanitarian thing is not to take the children of the poor and exploited and create more loss and grief for them, leaving them in the conditions that caused their loss…but to donate to charities that provide medical acre, dig wells, and build school for those who are impoverished. Closer to home, one could foster a mother and her child till she gets back on her feet! Some churches ‘adopt’ families during the holidays – why not all year round? Every adoption beings with a tragedy and we need to PREVENT more tragedies!

    China is one of many countries where trafficking for adoption is rampant. It is not being ‘unwanted” that leads children to be adopted away from their families – it is quite the opposite! it is DEMAND for babies to adopt.

    I would suggest anyone considering adopting read:

    Finding Fernanda by Erin Seigal; the Child catchers by Kathryn Joyce; Fugitive Voice, and the Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka and also research child trafficking for adoption.

    Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry

  • melissia

    “the frequent lefty statement that pro-life people only care about babies before they are born”

    … if the “pro-lifers” would support welfare, maternity leave, et cetera, I might agree with you here. But they instead of supporting welfare, instead of supporting childcare, instead of supporting maternity leave, instead of helping parents and children who are poor and suffering… they oppose all of those things.

    I’m not even convinced that anti-choice people really care about reducing abortion. After all, the best, most proven way to reduce abortion in a country is through making contraceptives widely and cheaply available, but they also oppose that.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree that, on the policy level, there can be a huge and troubling disconnect between those who argue against abortion rights but also argue against funding programs to support families raising children without adequate resources, given that poverty is a reason behind many abortions. But on an individual level, many pro-life folks take offense at the notion that they don’t care about children. Many of them support women, babies, and children in their own communities through private organizations or personal relationships. Now, I think that private charities and individuals and government must all work together to support low-income families and children. Private efforts are not enough, and pro-life folk who consistently speak out against government programs to support poor children do have an obligation to explore and take responsibility for that disconnect. But I also believe that accusing the other side of nefarious motives keeps us mired in useless debate rather than exploring places of agreement and consensus that might actually get us somewhere.

      • melissia

        “But on an individual level, many pro-life folks take offense at the notion that they don’t care about children. ”

        Does the truth hurt them that much, that we should cover it up and spread lies to make them feel better?

        One can claim to have sympathy for the poor, for children, for mothers, and so on, all one wants, but when all of these are starving and suffering around, and yet one does nothing in spite of having the power to help them… those claims are empty. That belief is worthless. That stance is nothing more than an ill-comforting lie.

        What they are actually DOING matters more than what they are saying. In this case, they’re doing worse than nothing; they’re actively taking away from the poor and unfortunate. Even as they claim that it is wrong, they actively encourage abortion.

        Either they’re fools, or they’re liars. Which one do you think is more accurate here? And really, shouldn’t this kind of hypocrisy offend them? It certainly offends me!


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