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Maternity Homes Try to Abort Abortion

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to reduce the number of abortions in the United States, fundamentalist church groups and other anti-abortion religious organizations are turning to the creation of maternity homes and adoption services as a way to persuade women with unwanted pregnancies to carry their babies to term and give them up for adoption.

“You hear young people say, ‘I would rather have an abortion because I would like to know it’s settled,’ ” said Rosemary Winder Strange, associate director for social services for the National Conference of Catholic Charities. “That’s very bizarre if you think it through--that the baby would have to be dead for you to feel it was settled.”

But, welcome as the new anti-abortion strategy might be as a practical alternative for millions of Americans, it has encountered a serious problem. In a substantial proportion of cases, women who carry babies to term prove unwilling to give them up for adoption--no matter what their intentions were at the outset.

And, for many such women and their infant children, the prospects of life in a single-parent family are far from bright. Recent cuts in welfare benefits, including Aid to Families With Dependent Children, have added to the difficulties of rearing children as a single mother.

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But it is the fear of lifelong guilt at relinquishing a child for adoption that serves as a powerful force for many single mothers to rear the children on their own, even if there is little or no family or financial support.

For many women, “It’s not socially acceptable, not morally acceptable, to give up a baby for adoption,” said Douglas Gould, vice president of communications for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Jon Ryan, who recently relocated the daughter he gave up for adoption in 1969, contends that “adoption is worse than abortion” for the parents of children who are adopted. “You’re giving up your flesh and blood. It permeates your entire life.”

At a prototype maternity home in Lynchburg, Va., affiliated with Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell’s church, unwed mothers are given a place to live, counseling and medical attention, and they attend classes on-site if they are still in school. The program also makes an effort to include the father of the child in the counseling sessions, according to the Rev. James Savely, the director.

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Homes like the Lynchburg center have existed for decades, but there are more of them now that they are getting more funds from anti-abortion religious groups, including the Catholic Church. And even many pro-choice groups acknowledge that support services for unwed pregnant women who are carrying a child to term provide a useful community resource.

Savely, as director of Falwell’s Save-A-Baby program, argues that anti-abortion programs promoting adoption fulfill a dual mission: They prevent women from being forced by financial or family pressures into abortion and they provide babies for some of the 5 million couples in America who wish to adopt. He said 261 groups--10 of them full-fledged maternity and adoption centers--are loosely affiliated with the Save-A-Baby program.

But young women who are driven by religious beliefs to carry the pregnancy to term frequently feel compelled to rear the child. Last year, only 30% of the women at the Lynchburg Save-A-Baby Center decided to give up their babies for adoption, which “is not where we’d like the figures to be,” said Savely, adding that the figure was closer to 50% during the center’s first two years of operation. In its 2 1/2 years of existence, the center has been deluged with 10,000 inquiries from couples desperate to adopt, Savely said.

Although Savely admits that he would like to see girls who are ill-prepared for motherhood give up their babies to eager adoptive couples, he said any alternative is preferable to abortion. “I’d say, interview that child when he gets to be 10 years old,” he said. “Ask him if he would rather be aborted.”

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The new, mostly quite young mothers at the Lynchburg facility are not unusual in their decision to keep their children. Specialists report that peer pressure among teen-agers often persuades a young mother to keep the child once she has carried the pregnancy to term. About 15 years ago, 13% of out-of-wedlock babies were placed for adoption, but by last year the figure had dropped to a mere 4%, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York City-based research firm.

Among women who go to maternity centers, whether religious or secular, the percentage choosing adoption is higher--ranging from a minimum of about 25% to a high of 70%. But even among those women who go to special centers, the number who elect to keep their babies remains high.

A recently completed study by the Adolescent Health Program at the University of Minnesota indicated that young women who decide to give up their children for adoption tend to be more mature than those who decide to rear them.

In a study of 60 teen-age parents who kept their babies and 60 teen-agers who relinquished them, assistant professor Michael Resnick found that those who kept the child had a weaker grasp of the effect of current actions on the future. He also found that those who gave up the children usually had a better understanding of adoption.

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But others contend that adoption is much more painful for natural parents than has been thought in the past. “Those groups do not understand how difficult it is for the birth parents to place a child for adoption,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who is the executive director of Concerned United Birthparents, a national support group for natural parents who have given up children for adoption, said abortion is a less traumatic solution to an unwanted pregnancy. The group, based in Rochester, N.H., has 1,200 members, 90% of them natural parents who have given one child or more up for adoption.

Ryan’s group fears that more unwed mothers may be forced to relinquish their children by the recent cuts in eligibility for and benefits in food stamps, Medicaid and AFDC. They also worry that mothers will be swayed by financial problems or the persuasiveness of anti-abortion groups to give up children for adoption, even though the possible long-range psychological damage of relinquishing a child is not well understood.

In a Concerned United Birthparents study of 334 natural parents--most of them members of the group--researchers found that guilt and worry tended to increase over the years after a child is given up for adoption. They also discovered that 96% of the parents had considered looking for their child and 65% had already initiated a search.

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“The results of this survey indicate that, for some individuals, the experience of relinquishing a child to adoption has a prolonged effect on subsequent life functioning,” the report said. “Placing a child for adoption was once the price expected from the single mother for the shame and trouble she had caused. For many, society’s softened stance may have paradoxically served to trigger the re-emergence of suppressed but unresolvable conflicts.”

Holy Family Services, a Catholic Charities service in Los Angeles, tries to assuage the fear of natural parents by providing “open” adoption services in which both the mother and father can pick the prospective parents from applications and then meet with them once or twice. In this way, according to spokesman Kim Leonetti, a birth parent can be more comfortable with the decision to give up the child.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” Leonetti said. “Everyone can be happy.”

Part of the training at some maternity centers is to teach young women who are planning to keep their children how to sign up for welfare. According to a survey done last year by Child Trends Inc., a Washington research firm, that skill will be necessary for many young unwed mothers.

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The survey of 837 women showed that for those who had their first child between the ages of 15 and 17, 52% either were on public assistance or had a family member on public assistance by the time they reached the 20- to 24-year-old age group.

For women in the same age group who had no children, only 6% were on public assistance or had a family member on public assistance. For those who had their first child before 15, the number who needed public assistance for themselves or a family member jumped to 65%.

Another Child Trends study of 15,000 children partially supported the sentimental view that children are better off with their natural parents--but only when both natural parents are present. The survey found that children seemed to fare better when reared by biological rather than adoptive parents. However, the survey also found that children reared by a single parent in difficult financial situations had more problems than either group.


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