In 1984 Leslee Unruh, founder of Abstinence Clearinghouse, established a CPC in South Dakota called the Alpha Center. The first center had opened in 1967, but in 1984 Unruh's CPC was still a relatively new idea. In 1987 the state attorney's office investigated complaints that Unruh had offered young women money to carry their pregnancies to term and then relinquish their babies for adoption.
"There were so many allegations about improper adoptions being made and how teenage girls were being pressured to give up their children," then-state attorney Tim Wilka told the Argus Leader, that the governor asked him to take the case. The Alpha Center pleaded no contest to five counts of unlicensed adoption and foster care practices; nineteen other charges were dropped, including four felonies. But where Unruh left off, many CPCs and antiabortion groups have taken up in her place.
It's logical that antiabortion organizations seeking to prevent abortions and promote traditional family structures would aggressively promote adoption, but this connection is often overlooked in the bipartisan support that adoption promotion enjoys as part of a common-ground truce in the abortion wars. In President Obama's speech at Notre Dame, he suggested that one solution to lowering abortion rates is "making adoption more available." And in a recent online debate, Slate columnist William Saletan and Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman proposed that unmarried women be offered a nominal cash payment to choose adoption over abortion as a compromise between prochoice and prolife convictions.
Compared with pre-Roe days, today women with unplanned pregnancies have access to far more information about their alternatives. However, Fessler says, they frequently encounter CPCs that pressure them to give the child to a family with better resources. "Part of the big picture for a young woman who's pregnant," she says, "is that there are people holding out their hand, but the price of admission is giving up your child. If you decide to keep your child, it's as if you're lost in the system, whereas people fight over you if you're ready to surrender. There's an organization motivated by a cause and profit. It's a pretty high price to pay: give away your first-born, and we'll take care of you for six months."
Christian adoption agencies court pregnant women through often unenforceable promises of open adoption and the option to choose the adoptive parents. California's Lifetime Adoption Foundation even offers birth mothers college scholarships. Additionally, maternity homes have made a comeback in recent years, with one network of 1,100 CPCs and homes, Heartbeat International, identifying at least 300 homes in the United States. Some advertise almost luxurious living facilities, though others, notes Jessica DelBalzo, founder of an anti-adoption group, Adoption: Legalized Lies, continue to "bill themselves as homes for wayward girls who need to be set straight."
Most homes are religiously affiliated, and almost all promote adoption. Many, like Christian Homes and Family Services (CHFS), reserve their beds for women planning adoption. Others keep only a fraction for women choosing to parent. Most homes seamlessly blend their advertised crisis pregnancy counseling with domestic and international adoption services, and oppose unmarried parenthood as against "God's plan for the family."
Religious women may be particularly susceptible to CPC coercion, argues Mari Gallion, a 39-year-old Alaska mother who founded the support group SinglePregnancy.com after a CPC unsuccessfully pressured her to relinquish her child ten years ago. Gallion, who has worked with nearly 3,000 women with unplanned pregnancies, calls CPCs "adoption rings" with a multistep agenda: evangelizing; discovering and exploiting women's insecurities about age, finances or parenting; then hard-selling adoption, portraying parenting as a selfish, immature choice. "The women who are easier to coerce in these situations are those who subscribe to conservative Christian views," says Gallion. "They'll come in and be told that, You've done wrong, but God will forgive you if you do the right thing."
Mirah Riben, vice president of communications for the birth mother group Origins-USA, as well as author of The Stork Market: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry, says that many mothers struggle for decades with the fallout of "a brainwashing process" that persuades them to choose adoption and often deny for years--or until their adoptions become closed--that they were pressured into it. "I see a lot of justification among the young mothers. If their adoption is remaining open, they need to be compliant, good birth mothers and toe the line. They can't afford to be angry or bitter, because if they are, the door will close and they won't see the kid."
Such was the case for Karen Fetrow, a Pennsylvania mother who relinquished her son in 1994 through a Bethany office outside Harrisburg. Fetrow, a formerly pro-adoption evangelical, sought out a Christian agency when she became pregnant at 24. Although Fetrow was in a committed relationship with the father, now her husband of sixteen years, Bethany told her that women who sought to parent were on their own.
After Fetrow relinquished her son, she says she received no counseling from Bethany beyond one checkup phone call. Three months later, Bethany called to notify her that her legal paperwork was en route but that she shouldn't read it or attend court for the adoption finalization. "I didn't know that the adoption wasn't final and that I had three months to change my mind," says Fetrow. "The reality was that if I had gone, I might have changed my mind--and they didn't want me to."
Although for thirteen years Fetrow couldn't look at an infant without crying, she continued to support adoption and CPCs. But when she sought counseling--a staple of Bethany's advertised services--the director of her local office said he couldn't help. When her son turned 5, she stopped receiving updates from his adoptive parents, although she'd expected they would continue until he was 18. She asked Bethany about it, and the agency stalled for three years before explaining that the adoptive parents had only agreed to five years of updates. Fetrow complained on Bethany's online forum and was banned from the site.
Kris Faasse, director of adoption services at Bethany, said that while she was unaware of Fetrow's and Jordan's particular stories, their accounts are painful for her to hear. "The fact that this happens to any mom grieves me and would not be how we wanted to handle it." She added that only 25-40 percent of women who come to Bethany choose adoption, which, she said, "is so important, because we never want a woman to feel coerced into a plan."
Shortly after Fetrow was banned from Bethany's forum, the local Bethany office attempted to host a service at her church, "painting adoption as a Christian, prolife thing." At a friend's urging, Fetrow told her pastor about her experience, and after a meeting with the Bethany director--who called Fetrow angry and bitter--the pastor refused to let Bethany address the congregation. But Fetrow's pastor seems an exception.