The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

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The New York Times ,
November 02, 2008

Decisions Made in the Shadows


CHERRY HILL, NJ -- WATCHING the presidential candidates speak about their views on abortion at the final debate, I wondered how many Americans understand who the typical woman getting an abortion is.

I had long assumed it was someone like Juno — the title character of the recent popular movie — a teenager in high school who finds herself pregnant and is not ready to raise a child.

This is wrong. The typical American woman having an abortion is a parent of one or more children (60 percent); in her 20s (57 percent); has never married (67 percent); is economically disadvantaged (57 percent); lives in a metropolitan area (88 percent); considers herself a Christian (70 percent); and has graduated from high school (87 percent) and attended at least some college (57 percent).

This according to two studies, one released in September and one in 2002, by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit, politically nonpartisan research center that supports abortion rights but whose work is often quoted by both sides of the abortion debate. The Guttmacher studies surveyed 10,000 women who had undergone abortions and included data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Guttmacher attracted considerable attention earlier this year, when it reported that the number of women having abortions dropped to 1.2 million in 2005 from 1.3 million in 2000, the fewest since the Supreme Court legalized it 35 years ago. This was widely welcomed as good news, although explanations varied, depending on which side of the issue people were on: One side attributed the decline to comprehensive sex education programs in states where most abortions occur, along with the availability of the morning-after pill; the other credited the demonizing of abortion and the emphasis on adoption as an alternative.

While the media have recently shown us teenagers who decide to keep their babies or put them up for adoption — like Juno, Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol, and Jamie Lynn Spears — I don’t think we know the parent in her 20s having the abortion.

After numerous inquiries, I found a clinic here that performs abortions and was willing to help me, the Cherry Hill Women’s Center. It took many more weeks to find three statistically typical women willing to be interviewed. Not one would allow her name to be used; each had told three or four people at most.

Beyond their shared demographics, the women had several things in common. All three are balancing demanding work schedules while raising children. All three are economically lower middle class, but upwardly striving. All three described their children as the most important thing in their lives and said their decision had been influenced by the need to give the children they already had the necessary support. And all three were deeply conflicted about the decision, but grateful for the option.

The head bank teller: 28; three children, ages 12, 8 and 3; “engaged to be married”; two years of college; Catholic (the two oldest children go to Catholic school and the family attends Mass twice a month).

Why: “My 3-year-old son was not speaking, and going back and forth to doctors, we discovered his speech was severely delayed. I just knew, with all I was going through with him, I didn’t want to have to go through having to care for another baby at the same time. It was too much.”

The decision: “Very hard, very emotional for me. I thought about it for five weeks. You’re ending a life, you’re cutting life short. Who knows what would have been.”

Adoption: “No. I don’t want to be found 20 years from now.”

Her Catholic faith: “It’s my decision, my body, something I have to answer for when the day comes, when I’m gone and I’m standing there before him. And I’m prepared.”

The beautician: 25; one daughter, 4; has a boyfriend of three years; works two jobs (at a beauty salon and for a beauty supply company); Baptist; has a community college degree in business.

Why: “To be honest, I kind of felt it was not the right time to have another child. I just graduated and started working in my career. I want to make a good living for my daughter. It’s hard being a single parent, and I’m trying to get to a level in a career where I’m more established. I didn’t want to be one of those barefoot-and-pregnants.”

The decision: “It was very hard emotionally. I was scared to death of everything. Scared of having another child. Me and my boyfriend are together three years, but how would our relationship change with a baby in the picture? Would he stay? It was scary thinking about having and scary thinking about not having it.”

Adoption: “I thought if I went through the pregnancy, I wouldn’t be able to go through with it, I’d wind up keeping the baby.”

Her daughter: “She’s my motivation, she makes me get up every day and do what I have to do. You do everything for them.”

Future children: “Definitely. I can’t wait to get to the point where I have more security.”

The exotic dancer: 25; 1-year-old son; “not really with his father”; works four nights a week dancing; Catholic; attends Camden Community College two nights a week.

Why: “I knew his father couldn’t help me — he didn’t help when I was pregnant with my son. He’s a scrub — even his family says — he’s relapsed on heroin again. Last time, I danced until I was five months’ and waitressed the rest of the pregnancy. I can’t do that again, working, going to school — it’s too much. I need to take care of my son.”

The decision: “Morally I thought it’s wrong and taking the easy way out. I felt horrible. It was a lose-lose situation. I was a screw-up for a lot of years. Very self-destructive. A lot of drugs. I weaned myself off it, two years now and I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Adoption: “I didn’t think I’d be able to be pregnant, dance and take care of my son.”

Her son: “Whether I would have stayed clean without him I don’t know. It isn’t about me anymore; it’s about him. My life is done, my life is getting prepared so he can live.”

Future children: “No. Not unless I find the right man, and I don’t think I ever will.”

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