Over the weekend, a discussion about abortion reduction between Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman and Slate’s William Saletan at the New York Times Bloggingheads site demonstrated just how easily one can, perhaps wholly unintentionally, come off as a completely clueless middle-aged guy when discussing women’s pregnancies. It may also provide a fairly substantial argument for not just ad-libbing one’s way through a videotaped discussion about to be broadcast on the Web site of the nation’s leading newspaper.
The topic, once again, is abortion reduction, a topic dear to both men’s hearts. This time, Waldman brings it back to wondering why women with an unplanned pregnancy aren’t cool with adoption. He starts off with a very good point: Most adoption policy focuses on incentives to adoptive couples, while virtually ignoring the women who will actually be carrying those children to term. He concedes that, “It’s an awfully big thing to ask the mother to carry a baby to term so that someone else can raise it.” Yep, glad we can all agree on that. But then he veers into outright lunacy. “I know this dangerous territory,” he says, “but I’ll just throw it out there.” OK, Steve, just throw it out there.
Waldman’s modest proposal goes like this: “Someone is three months pregnant, we say, ‘Just go another six months.’” Right. Just go ahead and go through that whole thing called pregnancy, with that thing called childbirth at the end. Hey, you can’t even get an associate degree in six months! Why not spend that time incubating another person’s child as a womb-for-rent? But, he acknowledges, there are problems: “You might have to drop out of school, drop out of a job, as well as taking a huge health risk.”
It’s true that pregnancy carries a “huge health risk” over abortion, but I find it incredibly condescending to suggest that a pregnant woman can’t also go to school or hold a job. And how much does he think that woman’s time is worth? “Maybe we should pay her, say, a thousand dollars. I don’t know what the right number is, because you don’t want to create a financial incentive for babies.” Because that would be baby-selling. Also, if we learned anything from the Reagan years, it’s that poor women will pop out children for cash given any opportunity. (Even if that incentive works out to a little more than $100 per month of pregnancy.)
This is too much, it seems, even for Saletan, who seems floored. (And for the record, though I’ve disagreed with him in the past, in this instance, he doesn’t really deserve to get tarred for Waldman’s display of pure idiocy). He points out, rightly, that Waldman’s proposal isn’t so far off from a kind of “national surrogacy policy.” But then he says, “It feels a little bit icky to me.”
Waldman agrees, “As the words are coming out of my mouth, they taste a little funny.”
Now why might that be? Leaving aside that a thousand dollars is an absurdly small amount to compensate anyone for pregnancy, labor, delivery and the lifelong knowledge that her child is, at that moment, being raised by another person (more, says Waldman, might leave up with “perverse incentives” — yes, I would add, the spectacle of national baby mills), this exchange demonstrates the utter failure to understand why so few women choose adoption. Saletan gets it a little right at the beginning of their discussion when he points out that “in my experience” — which he then corrects to “people I have talked to who have either been pregnant or had an unintended pregancy,” i.e. women — a child “is not like a chip you can cash in at the end. By then they feel like it is their baby.”
One cannot put too much emphasis on this point: Women feel like “it” is their baby, because it fucking is.
This is where those who would blithely suggest adoption as more or less equivalent to abortion go horribly, irrecoverably wrong. The same people who ask women to consider a three-month fetus that may only vaguely resemble a proto-human on an ultrasound as a “baby” seem to be utterly indifferent when it comes to asking a woman to disregard her connection to the actual baby she has nurtured in her womb for nine months, delivered through the mostly torturous process of labor, and held at the moment of birth, with that familiar gooey feeling of counting fingers and toes and recognizing grandpa’s eyes, dad’s nose and her lips. At that point, “it” is not a product for exchange, but that woman’s child. Most women, having gone through that experience known in every other circumstance as “the miracle of birth,” will end up looking for any way possible to keep their babies and raise them well. They will need real long-term solutions: scholarships, day-care solutions and other programs that help them to get through school and get good jobs to support their families.
But the few who do decide to release their children for adoption need something that honors their genuine emotional connection to their children. It has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with continuing to push for more openness in adoption for those who want it: adoptive parents who genuinely respect and honor the birth parents as intelligent, loving people with goals and love for their children, rather than denigrating them, whether individually or in the culture, as unfit parents who shouldn’t have got knocked up in the first place; the willingness to maintain some connection between birth parents and children, through the hard work and respect of negotiating what seems appropriate for both sets of parents and the child; and a willingness to honor the love and grief that goes into such a decision. That cost is tremendous, as it should be. Let’s say it again: You are asking a woman to give up her child. And that’s worth a hell of a lot more than a thousand dollars.