The women the abortion war leaves out
As a lifelong feminist from California, I have always believed in a woman's absolute right to make choices about her own body. As a law professor, I have spent years studying the impact of restrictive abortion laws in places such as Chile and El Salvador. But eventually, I wanted to turn my attention to my own country, trying to understand the aims of the anti-abortion movement here. I went to Oklahoma, a state that has enacted so many restrictive abortion laws that it routinely tops the Americans United for Life's annual legislative report card.
I was grateful, if surprised, to be invited to spend a day at Birth Choice of Oklahoma, a so-called crisis pregnancy center. Such centers, some of which are currently the subject of Supreme Court litigation, typically are faith-based counseling offices working to persuade women not to have abortions. They are controversial. Pro-choice advocates like me accuse some of them of false and misleading practices, like intentionally misinforming women seeking abortion-related information, or neglecting to mention that they don't provide abortions or even referrals.
Friends and colleagues joked about my needing a bulletproof vest for my meeting at Birth Choice. Would I pretend to be neutral, they wanted to know, or even pro-life? I was nervous, sitting in the clinic's living room with five women who had dedicated their lives, since abortion became legal in 1973, to persuading women not to have them. When I arranged the visit, I think I said enough about why, as a law professor from California, I needed to travel to Oklahoma to better understand pro-life culture. I didn't hide my position on legalized abortion, but still, it felt like I was undercover behind enemy lines.
I listened as they began to speak with deep compassion for the "abortion-minded women," as they called them, who come to them for care. In my mind, centers like theirs aimed to dissuade women who had decided they wanted an abortion and - perhaps mistakenly - had made their way to a crisis pregnancy center instead of a clinic.
Their commitment to supporting women helped me understand the high costs of choosing to carry out an unplanned pregnancy.
Birth Choice sees 300 to 400 women a month at its clinic in Oklahoma City. There, they get pregnancy tests and have their vitals checked. They help women register for SoonerCare (the state's Medicaid program) and make referrals for prenatal care. They ask their clients about housing; some have violent partners or are living out of a car. Many have lost children to foster care. Some are mentally ill or are addicts. Seventy-percent are Spanish-speaking, many of them undocumented. Some have nowhere to go.
A majority of the clients need food and clothes, yet a founder of Birth Choice, Barbara Chishko, noted they don't come to the center for resources. They come, she said, because they want to "feel worthy, cared for and trusted." She added, "Even if they think they want an abortion, they come to be heard."
"People judge our clients," said Ray Ann Merchant, another founder. "Especially those on welfare. 'Why do these women keep having babies?' they ask. The common denominator is the desire to be loved." She added, "We all crave intimacy."
From the beginning, the founders told me, Birth Choice struggled to find support for women who feel too poor to have their babies. In 1986, a woman was referred to them from an adoption agency. Her prior pregnancies had ended in abortion and in placement for adoption. She had planned to give up her current pregnancy for adoption, but it became clear that she wanted to keep this child. She needed help parenting, she needed housing, and she owed the adoption agency thousands of dollars when she withdrew from that process.
Birth Choice responded by taking her in as the first resident of Rose Home, a shelter where the most vulnerable of its clients can live during and immediately after their pregnancies. At any given time, it houses five pregnant women and a maximum of 13 children.
The Rose Home shelter is a rarity among crisis pregnancy centers, a large majority of which, according to Ms. Chishko, follow "rigid rules: no shelters, no clinical services, just administer pregnancy tests and give out baby clothes. Just persuade the women not to abort their babies." And the dominant mode of persuasion, according to a congressional report on federally funded crisis pregnancy centers, involves providing either false or misleading information about the health effects of abortion.
By contrast, Rose Home's five residents get support to help them throughout pregnancy and beyond. They have weekly meetings with caseworkers to articulate goals and plan their futures. They receive counseling, drug abuse treatment and vocational training. They get help making court dates, permitting them to regain custody of their children currently in foster care.
The rhetoric of "choice" and "life" encourages us to see a pregnant woman as if she's balancing a scale, with abortion on one side and motherhood on the other. Which will she choose? Tilt her one way and she might get to finish high school or college, gaining time to plan for the child she wants. Tipped another way, she might become a mother or allow a childless couple to adopt.
The women living at Rose Home reveal the shallowness of that metaphor. Women face the surprise of an unplanned pregnancy as if on train tracks, with a locomotive barreling toward them. The only variation lies in how many other trains are coming from other directions. Homelessness, violence, addiction and the biggest of all: poverty.
I don't mean to suggest money is the only factor that shapes many women's response to an unplanned pregnancy, but let's be clear about how much it matters. One of the largest research studies on the question of why women choose abortion surveyed about 1,200 abortion patients and found 73 percent said they could not afford a baby at the time.
Those women are telling us something that is hiding in plain view: Motherhood is really expensive. Rose Home has dedicated itself to offsetting the high cost of motherhood, but the costs are staggering. The system is rigged against poor women. Ms. Chishko remarked that "the bottom line encourages abortion." She is right.
The price of motherhood is set by our government's policies. It will, at some level, always be cheaper for a woman to have an abortion than to have a baby. But if anti-abortion campaigners truly want to decrease the numbers of abortions, rather than passing laws designed to drive up the costs of abortion, they would do far better to invest in the kinds of economic supports that make becoming a parent a realistic possibility for struggling women.
Consider the medical needs of the women living at Rose Home: access to health care, substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, food and housing. Each has a price tag. Yet rather than offsetting the high price of motherhood, recent anti-abortion laws drive up the cost of abortion by closing clinics, forcing women to travel farther, and to wait longer before ending their pregnancies.
The abortion war, with its singular focus on law, distracts us from the economic factors entwined in a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy. In a world of true choice, whether a woman walked into a Planned Parenthood or a crisis pregnancy center, she would learn that society cared enough to provide her with the resources she needs, regardless of her decision.
The women of Birth Choice taught me how little "choice" is involved in the abortion decisions made by some of the poorest Americans. We fight over abortion in absolutist terms, deadlocked in a battle in which we hurl rhetoric about choice and life, while remaining distracted from the reality that so many women have far too little of either.
The writer is a law professor at Santa Clara University and the author of "Her Body, Our Laws