Beginnings of a Post-Roe World
Some Thoughts on Affording Children, IVF, Abortion, and Infant Adoption in America
On paper, my husband and I are the picture of an American couple who can afford children. We are a double-income household, making middle-class wages, we have no student debt, no car debt, and a refinanced 15 year home mortgage with an average monthly payment. We fund trips with travel rewards credit cards that we pay off every month. The only real debt we carry right now is the debt from fertility treatments and even that is less that the average credit card debt that the majority of Americans have.
One of the reasons I put off fertility treatments was because of the cost—at minimum, a round of IVF is $20K but it isn’t unheard of for couples to spend upwards of $100K on multiple cycles just to have one child. But I was getting older and the open window was now just a crack and so, knowing that if it came down to it we could sell the house, we went for it. And thankfully it worked on the first try. But then I sat down last summer to start getting on wait lists for daycare.
This past weekend we switched out the bassinet for the crib in our baby’s room. We hung long blue velvet curtains, the blue the color of the sky just before a storm arrives. We had meant to re-organize our office and hang patio lights as well but my body was just too tired, too heavy with the grief of Friday’s announcement that Roe had been overturned. Our baby popped his first tooth and fussed in pain and frustration; the only thing that would soothe him was holding him close to my body, rocking side to side, singing low, you’re getting your first tooth, boop boop boop, your first tooth is coming, bop bee bop.
I grew up in a pro-life, evangelical household and the transition to being pro-choice was a slow one. To be honest, I’m still squeamish about it. Pro-lifers—anti-abortionists— use flagrant language like “murdering babies” and that language, heard so often in my formative years, still ricochets in my body. I know that evangelicals would probably say I’ve stumbled down a slippery slope since I started extreme (life—personhood— begins at the moment of conception) and now am pro-choice; a woman, a person, an American should have autonomy over their own body.
When my husband and I got married, I learned that birth control pills can be considered a form of abortion since they work by preventing implantation of an embryo. I did research. I came across the point that embryos can still split into twins up to 9 days after conception, therefore personhood did not begin at conception. And so, I felt peace about preventing pregnancy with the pill.
In 2008 I voted democrat for the first time. Not only was I excited about Barack Obama as a potential president, I had also recently learned that democrats tend to support social services and therefore abortions tend to go down during a democratic presidency. And wasn’t that the point? To reduce the need so that hopefully abortions weren’t even necessary?
And then, 6 years later, we tried to get pregnant. And failed and failed and failed. I was forced to start confronting alternative ways of family building and what the ethics were. As a Christian teenager who loved music, I was a big fan of Rock for Life—an anti-abortion organization; the logo is a baby rocking out on a guitar. I had donated, I bought stickers and t-shirts. I read their pamphlets; one of their tenants was that IVF was morally wrong because it creates embryos that may be discarded at some point. I had to wrestle with this belief—I had to research and read and talk to friends.
The conclusion I came to was that in these anti-abortion conversations there was something essential missing, a third component to conception, to the actual beginning and creation of a life. We tend to focus on the sperm and the egg and forget that there also must be an organ, the uterus, to provide the house, the oxygen, the meals. The uterus—and the environment that the mother provides— contributes to the creation of a person just as much as the sperm and the egg. Anti-abortionists adamantly believe that the fetus and the mother are two entirely different bodies but I’m not so sure anymore. At what point does the mother’s body end and the baby’s body begins? It’s a symbiotic relationship, even long after viability.
It still took several years of learning and research but I am now adamantly—ethically, holistically— pro-choice. The vast majority of abortions happen in the first trimester. Those that happen in the second or third trimester are almost always because of something tragic. Or, sometimes in the case of second trimester, because a woman didn’t have access to an abortion in the first trimester.
The reality is that we don’t know when personhood—the consciousness that animates the soul, that determines and develops the personality, that thing that makes you you— begins. In end of life decisions, when it’s time to shut off a life-support machine, it isn’t just whether the heart is beating; physicians also look to brain waves and the ability to breathe on one’s own.
Raising a child in America is fucking hard (I had a fair amount of ambivalence towards it while going through infertility) and without social services, women should not be expected to bear the burden—the physical, emotional, mental, financial— unless they choose to do so.
In evangelical circles, the directive to adopt always comes on the heels of abortion. Adoption, family planning, shouldn’t be political but it quickly becomes so in these conversations about abortion.
Three years into infertility, I started researching domestic infant adoption. I need to state this clearly: I am not anti-aDoption. I do believe that adoption, in all its complexity, can be a beautiful way to build a family. It can be the only way a same-sex couple can do so. I also believe that it is deeply problematic in the U.S. From forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools to Baby Scoop Era to the disproportionate number of black children in foster care, the U.S. has worked to take children from a family they deem not worthy enough and giving them to one they do; ahem, generally always one that is hetero-normative—white, with a husband and wife.
At the time, there were plenty of adoptive voices online in the form of blogs—mostly women who hoped to be mothers and who tried and were unable to get pregnant via IVF or opted out of fertility treatments. They expressed their hope that they’d be chosen by a birth mother, that they felt God was on their side, that God was working for them to bring just the right baby to their arms. They posted long mournful grievances when they were chosen only for the birth mother to back out. These posts made me feel icky; I know many evangelicals might say, well, who are you to determine what is God’s will? But I can’t believe in a God who causes suffering so that someone else can benefit. The evangelical God is a God who heals; another woman doesn’t need to OP! Accidentally get pregnant so that a woman with more means can adopt that baby. Pregnancy is hard on the body; saying goodbye to a part of you is hard on the soul. Adoption—on all sides of the triad—involves sitting with and confronting trauma as well as working to lessen the effects, in whatever way possible, on the child.
More digging and I started finding the voices of birth mothers, many who had felt coerced into giving up their babies. I found that one of the top reasons women give up their children is because they can’t afford a child. I knew enough at the time that the U.S. did not have social support for parents—no guaranteed paid leave, no childcare funds, a requirement to work if receiving welfare thus complicating the no childcare funds situation. Many, if not most, of these women wanted their babies but they felt they had to give them up to someone with more money, better resources. This did not land well with me.
I found the voices of adoptees, who expressed the trauma of being separated from their parent.
I grew up hearing “Adoption is imperative because God is the great Adopter” (which is weird, because, like, according to the Bible, he created us??). I heard that it was the ultimate Christian thing to do, to adopt. I heard it was the way to save all those babies from being slaughtered.
I never once heard: we must do whatever it takes to keep a child and mother together.
Private and Christian adoption agencies have come under scrutiny in the past several years as they’ve become bigger and bigger businesses, taking advantage of clients who are in heartbreaking and vulnerable situations. It’s a recipe for a terribly moral failure—putting dollar signs on human lives.
All adoption agencies aren’t corrupt; there are many that due their due diligence in making sure a birth mother knows all her options. That are transparent about where each dollar goes and work to keep costs down. It just takes work to find those. It takes the willingness to ask hard questions. It takes the intuition to know when something isn’t right and to walk away.
There are somewhere between 1 and 2 million couples waiting to adopt an infant in the U.S.; dozens of couples to every one baby. Ultimately, when I sat down to start the paperwork, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t find the words to sell myself, my husband, our life. I knew that, statistically, it could take several years, thousands (and thousands and thousands) of dollars, many failed connections and that, in the end, we may not have a baby. Infertility—doing low-level treatments—had already given me a lifetime of heartbreak and grief.
We turned to looking into adoption from foster care, something that many evangelicals forget is an option. This was not the right path for us at the time, something I plan to explore more here.
It’s hard not to feel like there is a conspiracy, that white, heternormative, Christian Nationalists are still pushing for one white culture, or at least a culture that adapts to their ideals. It’s hard not to feel like the elite conservatives and the evangelists are continually working to broaden the space between lower and upper class. In the article “Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties”, published last September, writers Jack Goldstein and Peter Turchin say":
“Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins. First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny…
Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.”
In my grumpier, more fatalistic moments it feels like these wealthy conservative elites are working to make sure that fewer people can achieve upward mobility; it’s well-known that an unexpected pregnancy can put a significant dent in education and career plans. The wealthy class needs a working class to supply materials and labor. It feels like they continue to make it as difficult as possible to have a baby AND to achieve an American Dream.
There’s already talk about what the revocation of Roe means in the IVF world. Pro-lifers believe that life starts at fertilization, that an embryo has just as many rights as you and I do. One of the biggest ethical quandaries someone who has done IVF has to face is what to do with the extra embryos if there are any and if they are done building their family. Donate to another couple? Destroy? Donate to science? Continue paying storage fees? In the IVF groups I’m still a part of we wonder if IVF will be outlawed (probably not—it’s a massive money-maker). We wonder if we’ll be forced to implant our extra embryos or if we’ll be forced to donate them to places like Nightlight, an overtly Christian adoption agency that specializes in embryo donation. (They call it adoption and require social-worker involved home evaluation. They are very “we are saving all the babies!” By law, embryos are actually considered property.)
Nothing will change immediately but it’s hard to know what the future will look like for those in extreme anti-abortion states.
If you’re someone who identifies as cis-gendered, got married, have enough money, and wanted and got pregnant easily, you don’t have to confront these issues. You don’t have to think through the nuances, you don’t have to weigh the ethical considerations. You can sit in judgement without considering that, for many people, family building is complex and difficult. It’s always struck me as strange that evangelicals are so family centered; if the apocalypse is coming, then why bring more children into the world to suffer? My philosophy on having kids has changed but I had to work through a lot of trauma and grief.
Telling people to wait to have children until they can afford it is rooted in classism; Americans treat children as commodities and little gods instead of recognizing that, to continue our society, caretaking children is essential and important labor, one that each individual should have the choice to make.
We are the picture of a couple that can afford children and yet we can’t. I mean, we can, but not really. We need to buy another car so we both have transportation to our jobs and we need to take on some costly house projects. Daycare costs in our area are about the same as our mortgage. We are trying to figure out some work-arounds—my sister will watch our baby one day a week. We’re trying to figure out if we can make one more day work without sending him to daycare. After years of finally feeling “financially free”, we feel the tightening—and that’s OK. That’s part of the reason we work to make money; we get to choose what to spend it on to help build and create our lives. There’s nothing else we’d rather be spending money on right now.
I started this letter several days ago and my office is still a mess but now the posts are in the ground for the patio lights. Soon I’ll set out a blanket and bring out some toys and the baby and I will play and chat while my husband strings up the lights. We’ll listen to the birds, the breeze in our shrubs. Our dog will parole the perimeter of the fence before she settles down with a sigh next to me and the baby. Perhaps our neighbors will be outside, perhaps we’ll be able to say hello. I might dig in the garden for any final strawberries. But over and over, each moment and the next, I’ll offer gratitude that I get to exist, that I got to have the choice of when and how to build my family, that I can have this little American life. Those moments and that gratitude will fuel me as I do what can so that others can have the life of their dreams.
We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe; We’re Going Somewhere Worse—from The New Yorker
When Does Personhood Begin? from Swathmore College, Professor of Biology Scott Gilber
The U.S. Leaves Parents on Their Own for a Reason—from The Atlantic
The New Question Haunting Adoptions—from The Atlantic
Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change—book by Angela Garbes