Early next month at Cornell Law School, the Federalist Society is hosting an event at which a pro-life visitor, Samuel Green, will be debating and discussing abortion with my friend and colleague, Professor Deborah Dinner. I hope to attend the event because I always learn so much from Professor Dinner about the history of feminism and the ways in which women have effectively seen through the neutral patina that so often cloaks policies that systematically disfavor girls and women. I took a quick look at Green’s amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization because I had not heard of him before. One of his main arguments against abortion is that anyone who does not want to keep a baby can give them up for adoption. Lots of infertile couples out there would give their eye tooth for someone else’s child.
What I will call the “adoption option” argument is on its surface very appealing. It sounds like a “win-win” solution because the woman need not keep a child she does not want, and a childless family can rejoice in adopting their miracle baby.
In this column, I will make the best case I can for this argument against the right to abortion. It will surprise no one, however, that I find the argument unconvincing. I will explain why after developing the case for the adoption option.
The Adoption Option
A primary reason that people have for terminating a pregnancy is that they are unready for the responsibilities of parenthood. Perhaps they have a few children and cannot afford another. Or maybe they were hoping to end an existing relationship and worry that a child could make their exit difficult. In both situations and many others, the people who say they want an abortion cite factors from after the pregnancy is over, factors having to do with child support, shared custody, developmental delays, resource limitations, and the like. Few people, by contrast, say they want an abortion because they wish to avoid the burdens of pregnancy itself. “I can’t have a child now” is far more common than “I just don’t want to endure a pregnancy now.”
The reason people want an abortion is important. If people tend to cite post-pregnancy factors, as they often do, then we can perhaps conclude that what is really bothering them is the responsibilities entailed in having a child rather than the physical and emotional burdens involved in carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth. They have, in that sense, the same complaints about an unwanted pregnancy that the father might have. He too might not want another child or this child or a child with this co-parent. The salient complaint—what makes the pregnancy “unwanted”—appears to be the fact that it will result in a child that the parent or parents do not want to have now (or maybe ever).
If the problem is the child rather than the pregnancy, then adoption could solve the problem. Imagine the following hypothetical conversation between a pro-life advocate (PA) and a woman who wants an abortion (WA). PA: Why are you killing your baby? WA: I don’t have room in my life for another child right now; I’m a mother of four and we barely have enough space for them. PA: So you’re saying you don’t want to bring another child into your family? WA: Absolutely not. That’s why I need an abortion. PA: What if I could offer you a way out of bringing another child into your family without your having to kill your baby? WA: Can you stop saying “killing your baby” to me; it’s not a baby yet, okay? I don’t share your religious convictions, and if we’re going to talk, you’ll have to be more respectful. PA: Understood. So what if I could find a way for you to avoid having to bring home another child but without having an abortion? WA: Do you mean a miscarriage? I had one of those a few years ago, but you can’t count on that. PA: No, I mean adoption. With adoption, you know right away that you do not have to bring home another mouth to feed. Another family that desperately wants a child but cannot have one for medical reasons will take your child as soon as he’s born and will give him a good life. They will always be grateful to you for sparing the life of their child, and you can continue to live your life without the intrusion of another infant. What do you think?
What’s Wrong with the Adoption Option Argument?
In theory, the pro-life advocate is making sense in the above hypothetical question. She identifies the source of the pregnant person’s dissatisfaction and offers a solution that addresses that source. If you don’t want to take another baby home, the adoption option allows you to avoid taking another baby home. Abortion is unnecessary and deprives some deserving family of the opportunity to raise a child. By analogy, consider a person who says he wants to kill himself. Why? We ask. Because he does not want to go to his sister’s wedding. Here’s an idea, we say, stay alive but don’t go to your sister’s wedding. Problem solved. Perhaps the person who is unhappily pregnant imagines that she has no choice but to raise the child if she gives birth to them. The pro-life advocate offers a third way.
The problem with the adoption option as an answer to a person seeking an abortion is that most people are aware of adoption. Unlike someone who is suicidal, moreover, the person who wants an abortion is not presumptively irrational or incapable of thinking about the alternatives. They therefore have selected abortion because they do not want to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. It may be that the primary driver of one’s wish to terminate a pregnancy has to do with not wanting the finished product of the pregnancy. But once one has decided that one does not want that finished product, the process of enduring a pregnancy and then labor and delivery or major surgery is no longer acceptable. In other words, a person who wants to give birth to and keep a child may be willing to put up with the nausea and vomiting, the insomnia, the physical discomfort, the potential for serious health challenges like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, autoimmune conditions, tearing during labor, and intense and extended pain. But a person who has no intention of keeping the resulting child no longer has a reason to undergo the many extreme hardships associated with pregnancy, and those hardships accordingly become highly relevant to the decision to terminate. The answer to the question “Why are you having an abortion?” then becomes “Because I do not want a child, I also do not want to go through all that a pregnancy and labor entail.”
Anyone—no matter her position on abortion—who briefly thinks about it will recognize that pregnancy and labor are extremely burdensome. To force a person to endure these burdens against their will really presses up against Thirteenth Amendment (involuntary servitude) values. Folks who scream foul at having to wear a mask for the sake of others’ lives might think for a moment about the relative burdens of pregnancy and mask wearing, respectively. I bring up this comparison because anti-maskers seem to be disproportionately “pro-life.”
Like so many things, of course, when we want the end result, we might readily accept the sacrifices and suffering entailed in getting there. I know people who feel happy that they are nauseated in their first trimester because it reassures them that the pregnancy has “taken.” When I was pregnant, I remember thinking toward the end that I would miss being so close to my baby, and I was not wrong. At the time, I could not get into a position in which sleeping was realistic, and even walking down the street was a challenge. Yet I did not mind because I wanted my baby. Were I suffering through the same pain and discomfort so that I could hand my baby to someone else, my entire outlook on the experience would have been the opposite of what it was.
The Adoption Option Redux
There exist people who would never terminate a pregnancy, no matter how physically and emotionally painful. Years ago, I was in touch with a woman who authored a terrific book called “Inconceivable.” She and her husband went to a fertility doctor to have an embryo implanted. The doctor made a mistake and implanted a different couple’s embryo, and the author became pregnant. She was unwilling to have an abortion, but she decided not to fight the genetic parents for custody of the baby, even though she desperately wished she could keep him. She got to know the family that would be raising the child as their own, and the genetic mother made a comment to the effect that the author was kind of like a surrogate for the genetic parents. The author understandably resented this comment because she had never agreed to be a surrogate. The entire experience of pregnancy, labor, and surrender of the child was extremely traumatic for the author.
I bring up this example because it highlights the reality that pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the surrender of a child can all be nightmarish for a person who never chose to go through any of it for another family. The hormones that a person produces toward the end of pregnancy cause feelings of attachment and bonding, feelings that torment a person who will not be able to keep her child for whatever reason. To say that adoption is an option for someone who wants an abortion is to treat a pregnancy leading up to a wanted child as the equivalent of a pregnancy leading up to the surrender of a child. They are not equivalent. If you do not want a child or you cannot keep a child, then pregnancy is intimate and intense suffering in a way that it might not be when you are ready to welcome a new baby. The planned ending transforms all that came before. If you have seen The Handmaid’s Tale, just think about how pregnancy and labor must have felt to a woman who would be surrendering each of her children to the Commander and his wife.
I suspect pro-life advocates believe that adoption is the best solution because they think the pregnant person already has a baby from the moment of conception. If we have a baby all along, then the decision not to create someone with whom we will fall in love only to have to surrender him makes no sense as a description of abortion. You have already created him by the time you are thinking of terminating. But that really isn’t true. The moment of conception yields a cell that will become not only the future child but also the placenta, an entire organ dedicated to caring for the growing embryo and fetus at the (sometimes-loving) expense of the mother. Pregnancy takes as long as it does because the pregnant person is turning the raw materials into a baby inside her body. An abortion means that she did not want a baby. And no one should force her to create one against her will, regardless of how many people out there would happily raise the child as their own. Adoption is no easy alternative to abortion, except for the adoptive parents (for whom the proposition truly is win-win).