Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Carol Jordan, a 32-year-old pharmacy technician, was living in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1999 when she became pregnant. She'd already decided against abortion, but she was struggling financially and her boyfriend was unsupportive. Looking through the Yellow Pages for help, she spotted an ad under "crisis pregnancies" for Bethany Christian Services. Within hours of calling, Jordan (who asked to be identified with a pseudonym) was invited to Bethany's local office to discuss free housing and medical care.
Bethany, it turned out, did not simply specialize in counseling pregnant women. It is the nation's largest adoption agency, with more than eighty-five offices in fifteen countries.
When Jordan arrived, a counselor began asking whether she'd considered adoption and talking about the poverty rates of single mothers. Over five counseling sessions, she convinced Jordan that adoption was a win-win situation: Jordan wouldn't "have death on her hands," her bills would be paid and the baby would go to a family of her choosing in an open adoption. She suggested Jordan move into one of Bethany's "shepherding family" homes, away from the influence of family and friends.
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), the nonprofit pregnancy-testing facilities set up by antiabortion groups to dissuade women from having abortions, have become fixtures of the antiabortion landscape, buttressed by an estimated $60 million in federal abstinence and marriage-promotion funds. The National Abortion Federation estimates that as many as 4,000 CPCs operate in the United States, often using deceptive tactics like posing as abortion providers and showing women graphic antiabortion films. While there is growing awareness of how CPCs hinder abortion access, the centers have a broader agenda that is less well known: they seek not only to induce women to "choose life" but to choose adoption, either by offering adoption services themselves, as in Bethany's case, or by referring women to Christian adoption agencies. Far more than other adoption agencies, conservative Christian agencies demonstrate a pattern and history of coercing women to relinquish their children.
Bethany guided Jordan through the Medicaid application process and in April moved her in with home-schooling parents outside Myrtle Beach. There, according to Jordan, the family referred to her as one of the agency's "birth mothers"--a term adoption agencies use for relinquishing mothers that many adoption reform advocates reject--although she hadn't yet agreed to adoption. "I felt like a walking uterus for the agency," says Jordan.
Jordan was isolated in the shepherding family's house; her only social contact was with the agency, which called her a "saint" for continuing her pregnancy but asked her to consider "what's best for the baby." "They come on really prolife: look at the baby, look at its heartbeat, don't kill it. Then, once you say you won't kill it, they ask, What can you give it? You have nothing to offer, but here's a family that goes on a cruise every year."
Jordan was given scrapbooks full of letters and photos from hopeful adoptive parents hoping to stand out among the estimated 150 couples for every available baby. Today the "birthmother letters" are on Bethany's website: 500 couples who pay $14,500 to $25,500 for a domestic infant adoption, vying for mothers' attention with profuse praise of their "selflessness" and descriptions of the lifestyle they can offer.
Jordan selected a couple, and when she went into labor, they attended the birth, along with her counselor and shepherding mother. The next day, the counselor said that fully open adoptions weren't legal in South Carolina, so Jordan wouldn't receive identifying information on the adoptive parents. Jordan cried all day and didn't think she could relinquish the baby. She called her shepherding parents and asked if she could bring the baby home. They refused, chastising Jordan sharply. The counselor told the couple Jordan was having second thoughts and brought them, sobbing, into her recovery room. The counselor warned Jordan that if she persisted, she'd end up homeless and lose the baby anyway.
"My options were to leave the hospital walking, with no money," says Jordan. "Or here's a couple with Pottery Barn furniture. You sacrifice yourself, not knowing it will leave an impact on you and your child for life."
The next morning, Jordan was rushed through signing relinquishment papers by a busy, on-duty nurse serving as notary public. As soon as she'd signed, the couple left with the baby, and Jordan was taken home without being discharged. The shepherding family was celebrating and asked why Jordan wouldn't stop crying. Five days later, she used her last $50 to buy a Greyhound ticket to Greenville, where she struggled for weeks to reach a Bethany post-adoption counselor as her milk came in and she rapidly lost more than fifty pounds in her grief.
When Jordan called Bethany's statewide headquarters one night, her shepherding mother answered, responding coldly to Jordan's lament. "You're the one who spread your legs and got pregnant out of wedlock," she told Jordan. "You have no right to grieve for this baby."
Jordan isn't alone. On an adoption agency rating website, Bethany is ranked poorly by birth mothers. Its adoptive parent ratings are higher, although several adopters described the coercion they felt "our birth mother" underwent. But neither is Bethany alone; in the constellation of groups that constitute the Christian adoption industry, including CPCs, maternity homes and adoption agencies, Bethany is just one large star. And instances of coercion in adoption stretch back nearly seventy years.
Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, has meticulously chronicled the lives of women from the "Baby Scoop Era": the period from 1945 to 1973, when single motherhood was so stigmatized that at least 1.5 million unwed American mothers relinquished children for adoption, often after finishing pregnancies secretly in maternity homes. The coercion was frequently brutal, entailing severe isolation, shaming, withholding information about labor, disallowing mothers to see their babies and coercing relinquishment signatures while women were drugged or misled about their rights. Often, women's names were changed or abbreviated, to bolster a sense that "the person who went away to deliver the baby was someone else" and that mothers would later forget about the babies they had given up. In taking oral histories from more than a hundred Baby Scoop Era mothers, Fessler found that not only was that untrue but most mothers suffered lifelong guilt and depression.
The cultural shift that had followed World War II switched the emphasis of adoption from finding homes for needy infants to finding children for childless couples. Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, founder of the Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative, has compiled sociological studies from the era, including Clark Vincent's speculation in his 1961 book Unmarried Mothers that "if the demand for adoptable babies continues to exceed the supply...it is quite possible that, in the near future, unwed mothers will be 'punished' by having their children taken from them right after birth"--under the guise of protecting the "best interests of the child."
The Baby Scoop Era ended with Roe v. Wade, as abortion was legalized and single motherhood gained acceptance. The resultant fall in adoption rates was drastic, from 19.2 percent of white, unmarried pregnant women in 1972 to 1.7 percent in 1995 (and lower among women of color). Coinciding with this decline was the rise of the religious right and the founding of crisis pregnancy centers.