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Can we talk about abortion without tearing each other apart?

The Supreme Court seems ready to hand the matter back to state legislatures and the people.

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion activists demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1 as the court heard arguments in Mississippi abortion law case.
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion activists demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1 as the court heard arguments in Mississippi abortion law case.
Andrew Harnik/AP Photos

Those of us who have long criticized Roe v. Wade for usurping the power of legislatures to make serious policy decisions must now contemplate the reality that We the People may yet get a chance to legislate on this fraught matter. Hold the brass bands. Are we capable of discussion and debate? Congress cannot seem to pass a budget and perpetually accelerates to the edge of the default cliff before veering off at the last second and raising the debt ceiling. As Windsor Mann quipped: “A country that goes berserk over masks is about to debate guns and abortion.”

Still, we must try.

Some, like Emily Bazelon of Yale Law School, who support upholding Roe and its progeny are willing to acknowledge the unique moral quandary of abortion. But that is rare.

In the few days since the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in its latest abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, commentators have mocked Justice Amy Coney Barrett for mentioning that safe haven laws permit women to relinquish their babies if they are unable or unwilling to be parents. That spawned outraged takes, including a guest essay in The New York Times by Democratic digital strategist Elizabeth Spiers with the title “I Was Adopted. I Know the Trauma It Can Inflict.”

Spiers castigates Barrett for supposedly characterizing adoption as “some kind of idyllic fairy tale.” But Barrett was merely noting that limiting the availability of abortion does not force women into parenthood. They may choose to place their babies for adoption. Spiers says her own adoption and childhood were “what many would consider idyllic.” So where’s the trauma? Well, her birth mother still feels pain from the separation, even 44 years later.

It’s true that carrying a baby to term and then relinquishing him or her for adoption is painful. That’s why pro-life advocates so often praise the heroism of birth mothers and why no one (Barrett included, I’m sure) would suggest that making an adoption plan for a baby is easy or cost-free. But in terms of the welfare of children, it’s pretty darn close.

There are, of course, adopted children who have mixed or negative feelings about their lives and families (just as there are some biological kids who feel the same). But the overwhelming majority of adopted children are happy. According to the most extensive database on adoption compiled by Child Trends, 88% of adoptees aged 6 and over display positive social behaviors, and 85% are in excellent health. In some respects, they are even better off than the average child; 68% are read to every day by their parents, compared with 48% of kids overall. More than half perform very well in reading and math, and 85% participate in extracurricular activities. Among adoptive parents, 81% describe their relationships with their children as “very warm and close.”

Also pushing the anti-adoption theme, Anna North’s Vox article, “Why Adoption Isn’t a Replacement for Abortion Rights,” contained some whoppers. Noting that adoption is rarely chosen by pregnant women, North writes “They may know, too, that their child may not find a home quickly — there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S., and the average child spends nearly two years in the system.” The only true part of that sentence is the 400,000. The overwhelming majority of children in foster care are not placed as infants. The average age is 8. Many have been abused or neglected by their birth parents and are not eligible for adoption until their birth parents’ parental rights have been terminated, which takes time. The median length of stay in foster care is one year. About half of foster care kids eventually return to their families of origin. About 25% are eventually adopted. So, no, a pregnant woman considering adoption for her baby has no reason to believe the child will languish in foster care. The waiting list for infants to adopt is estimated to be 2 million couples.

More adoptees than biological children have learning and other problems. But when you consider the disruption that many adoptees experience before finding their permanent families, it would be shocking if that were not so.

The key thing is that the alternative to adoption is to end the life of the developing baby. And just as it is universally acknowledged to be immoral to end the life of a baby after birth — even if the child is unplanned or handicapped or if the parents are separated or if the mother is poor — it seems almost as immoral to resort to killing a child who is alive and kicking in her mother’s womb.

There has been a lot of commentary to the effect that what the justices are considering is a radical departure. That’s not really right. It will be very disruptive to overturn Roe, but not truly radical. The truly radical move would be to “find” a right to life for the unborn in the Constitution and hand it down as the law of the land. That would be the mirror image of what the court did in Roe.

The justices seem likely to hand the matter back to state legislatures and the people. Whether we can handle it without tearing each other apart is another question entirely.

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