Posted by Jay Livingston
I’m on my way to another baby shower today. It’s a celebration, but as Lisa at Sociological Images pointed out a couple of weeks ago, how you view a pregnancy depends on where you are in the society. Lisa was responding to the recent PSA video by Bristol Palin (see the video and Lisa’s comments here .) Lisa’s take is that while the ad is telling teens to be cautious about sex, it also makes the point that the consequences of teen pregnancy are much harsher for girls who have little financial or social capital.
For me, the ad was a reminder of how different my own world is from the world of the intended audience of that ad. One obvious difference is abortion. For the cosmopolitan, educated, relatively well-off women I know, abortion is always an option. Not so for the Bristol Palins.
But there’s a cultural difference regarding adoption too.
Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir, what I thought I knew, gives a personal, poignant example. It’s a very complicated story, for as the title implies, everything that the medical experts tell her about her own fertility turns out to be wrong. She is told she can never conceive because she is a DES daughter, but in her forties, she becomes pregnant. Then she is told that the baby will have severe physical and mental defects, but she does not know this definitely until late in the pregnancy. A late-term abortion would be risky.
“I think adoption is the right path,” she writes, but her husband, sisters, and friends all disagree.
In this liberal, Upper West Side community, where abortion is accepted as a woman’s inalienable right, giving up a baby for adoption is inconceivable. . . . Where I live, I’d be more harshly judged for giving up my baby for adoption than for having an abortion.[Full disclosure: where she lives is three short blocks from where I live, and we’ve known each other for 17 years.]
The debate about abortion – pro-life vs. pro-choice – may have something to do with religious beliefs. But, at least for those most deeply involved, as Kristin Luker pointed out a quarter-century ago in Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, the debate has a strong subtext: clashing ideas about the position of women in society. Should a woman be more honored for success in her role in the family or her success in the world of work and career?
Luker’s explanation may be less useful for understanding the culturally different views of adoption. Adoption is not so much about the role of women; it’s more about the role of babies and children. For some women, babies are a gift from God, and the gifts just seem to keep on coming, even to those who are unmarried and who took abstinence pledges (see my earlier post on this here.) There’s no shame in sharing with people who have not been similarly gifted.
But here on the Upper West Side, the more typical woman’s plight is not so much that she didn’t want to get pregnant but did. It’s that she wanted to get pregnant but couldn’t. For these women, babies are rare and precious. You’d no more give one away than you would (forgive an extreme analogy) give away a winning lottery ticket.