I was born on Jan. 11, 1973, 11 days before Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion across the United States. As a self-described politically aware, adopted teenage girl, this was a chilling factoid for me. Phew, I always thought. Made it. Of course, it was also insignificant, because I was born, adopted and raised in New York, where abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy had been legalized in 1970, long before I was conceived.
Adoption isn’t simple on any level, and suggesting it can be a replacement for abortion reinforces the misconception that it is.
Women with unwanted pregnancies have always been able to give their children up for adoption, as my mother did. Yet this isn’t the choice every woman has wanted to make, which is why legal abortion is also a necessary option. I know because I’ve experienced all sides of this issue as both an adoptee and a woman who decided to have an abortion. So I was outraged when Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett earlier this month resurrected the canard that adoption removes the need for access to abortions.
During oral arguments over Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which challenges the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks, Barrett brought up state safe haven laws, which protect from prosecution parents who anonymously abandon newborn babies at designated places like hospitals. Barrett said Roe and another court precedent affirming the right to an abortion “emphasize the burdens of parenting.” So, she asked, “why don't the safe haven laws take care of that problem?”
Barrett didn’t seem to notice the irony in her comment implying that women don’t still need the option to have an abortion. She is an adoptive mother of two and biological mother to five more — so she exercised her choice to bring new children into her family in two ways even as she seems to want to deny choice for biological mothers who aren’t in a position to carry a baby to term. And to suggest that a woman be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy ignores that giving up a baby for adoption and choosing to adopt a child are not decisions to be made lightly. They carry their own hardships and even traumas, including for the child involved, and each individual should be able to decide whether she wants to take that on.
Being adopted meant I didn’t have great answers when people asked me where my real parents were and when they were coming to get me. My birth mother’s decision to give me up was nothing but a mantra that played over and over in my head: She was a teenager, she couldn’t keep you, she was a teenager, she couldn’t keep you.
The worst question I was ever asked was meant to be rhetorical: Wasn’t I glad I wasn’t aborted? I couldn’t help but think about the answer, though. Was I glad? Well, that depended. At 15, for example, I wasn’t sure. Most of my life until that point, I had been angry at being left and angry at being taken, even if I couldn’t articulate it. My parents didn’t understand why I was so unhappy. They thought I was ungrateful and difficult. After all, I had everything I needed.
Nobody knew yet about the trauma of adoption. But I felt it.
I also came to know the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy, which I experienced at 23. I can spin the situation two ways: I was single and unemployed. This is true. It’s also true that I was engaged to a Parisian and I was a graduate student at Harvard.
Either way, I had been using birth control to prevent an unwanted pregnancy since I knew neither of us was ready for children and that I wouldn’t be able to carry a baby to term and then surrender it. But because I’d been born with a kidney condition and got chronic UTIs, I took my diaphragm out early one night because it was hurting me. Burning. Stinging.
How did you let this happen? the Parisian hissed through the phone when I told him the news.
How did I? I’d known when I took it out that I was taking a chance, but it hurt so much I didn’t care. Couldn’t care. To him, that made it my fault. I let it happen.
With no support, it was a painful decision but an easy one. I was raised in New York City by Democratic, pro-choice parents. I knew I was not prepared for single parenthood.
I went to my appointment without the Parisian. He stayed in France. He didn’t offer money. He didn’t comfort me. And I buried it so deep I forgot about it for years.
At the time, though, I kept hearing in my head: Aren’t you glad you weren’t aborted?
A friend suggested point-blank that I continue with the pregnancy. Maybe you should have it and give it up, she said. Make a family for someone else.
No. Just no. I couldn’t give birth and then give my baby away.
Why not? She did that for you.
Did she do that for me? I couldn’t say. I’d always wondered why my birth mother decided not to have an abortion. Was it unsafe? Was she afraid to talk to her mother?
By the time I reunited with my birth mother three years later, thanks to the New York state adoption registry, I’d long since broken up with the Parisian. When I met her, I asked her why she chose adoption for me.
I didn’t choose anything. Her eyes were cast down. I wanted to keep you. It was her parents who’d forced her to give me up.
Barrett’s suggestion that women who find themselves unintentionally pregnant can simply carry their babies to term and then easily surrender them because they are protected by safe haven laws are forgetting that some women and girls who want to keep their children are forced into giving them up either by their families or by socioeconomic or other circumstances, causing them irreparable pain and loss. Adoption isn’t simple on any level, and suggesting it can be a replacement for abortion reinforces the misconception that it is.
I love my life now, so of course my current answer is that I am glad I wasn’t aborted. But I do wish my mother had been allowed to make her own decision, even if that decision had resulted in an abortion or better use of birth control so I’d never been conceived in the first place. I wish for a world where women and girls, their bodies, their babies and their choices are not left to the courts to be batted around like badminton birdies. I wish for a world where no woman has to surrender a baby unwillingly. I wish my mother had felt empowered, not shamed.
Now I teach my daughters what I wish she had been taught: It’s their bodies, their rules.