Making Room for the Unborn, for the Other

I recently attended a fundraising banquet for a pregnancy care center. I found the banquet’s presentations to be in parts inspiring, challenging, and off-putting. It highlighted for me my attraction to and difficulties with the pro-life movement. Ultimately, this is an issue I continue to struggle to find a home in, for reasons I’ll detail below. I won’t name the organization or the speaker, but I will share what they discussed as well as my reaction to it. Some of my objections to the presentations has to do with the pro-life movement in general and this organization in particular. I sat at a table with a couple of pro-life ob/gyns, one being my wife. We had a lengthy conversation about the evening afterward.

It was encouraging to see a room full of a couple hundred people gathered to support a pregnancy center focused on giving pregnant women options so they might receive good healthcare and carry the life of the child growing inside them to term. People spoke with conviction. The organization clearly wore their Christian faith on their sleeve and I do find it inspiring to watch people live out their moral and spiritual beliefs. They challenged me to do the same. The tone during the dinner and first few speakers was very inviting. Maybe the speakers used a bit too much insider language, but they expressed sincerity. I shouldn’t be surprised the talks came across as preaching to the choir, since this was a fundraising banquet. These sorts of events aren’t meant to convert outsiders, but to rally insiders and mobilize folks who already agree with the group.

A member of  the center gave a presentation for the night’s main fundraising goal: a mobile services vehicle the organization can drive to specific locations to offer pregnancy screening, ultrasounds, and general counseling. Currently the center has only a stationary bricks and mortar facility. By bringing a facility to where women who have unintended pregnancies are likely to congregate, the organization hopes to increase their client load.

Both the main speaker and the organization quoted many statistics about the numbers and effects of abortion, but offered no statistics of the center’s own work. The speaker said there had been 50 million abortions in the forty years since Roe v. Wade and then said pregnancy care centers had saved “countless” lives. I think of giving donations to organizations like an investment and just as I research a fund or company I invest in, I also research organizations I support financially. I want to see statistics. There are plenty of pro-life organizations and I want to know my money is making a difference. They need to answer questions like: How many women do they currently see every week? How many ultrasounds do they perform? How many adoption referrals were placed last year? What is the average age of women they see? What are the ethnic and socio-economic breakdowns of women seeking their services? How many more women do they anticipate they will be able to see by going mobile?

The night’s main speaker was an activist within the pro-life movement who used to work for an organization that performs abortions. This speaker has written articles and a book and she has told her story on television shows. It was her speech in particular that gave me the most discomfort. She told her story of how she became involved with the abortion provider and why she eventually left. This is a strong, moving story. Throughout her talk, however, she fell into the trap I see so often in the pro-life side. Namely, she emphasized protecting the unborn without ever really showing compassion toward the pregnant women and their partners who consider abortion an option. With so many abortions in the US, I believe she was right to emphasize saving the lives of the unborn. We must care for the parents in these situations as well.

The speaker argued that apathy on the side people who consider themselves pro-life, especially in the Church, is the main reason abortion continues in our country. She said if the Church unified and said, “Stop,” abortion would end in the US. In this argument, she only addressed the supply side of abortion. She made no mention of the demand side — why do women feel compelled to seek out an abortion? How can the Church help these women and their partners either parent or support them to place for adoption? For the whole evening, there was little mention of adoption at all. The only actions this speaker could persuade us toward were praying at abortion clinics, voting for pro-life candidates, donating money to the pregnancy care center, and pastors speaking about abortion from the pulpit. If the Church is not ready to welcome unwed pregnant women, if the Church is not ready to adopt these children, if the Church is not ready to financially assist these families through and after pregnancy, we have no witness.

The speaker stated in order to participate in abortions as she did, one must dehumanize the unborn. This is an important point and we should not diminish it. The problem came, however, as the speaker then dehumanized those who work in abortion clinics. Granted, she was including her former self as she described what happens in an abortion and asked with disdain, “What kind of person would participate in that?” She made it sound, however, as if the pro-choice side was corrupt, only chasing money. One of the ob/gyns I was with said in his training at a very liberal medical center, the family planning doctors were some of the most compassionate people he knew. He said they were excellent doctors who could make twice as much in private practice, but they chose to work among low-income families. I think it is fair to question the content of these doctors’ compassion, but their motivation was to help women in crisis. We do not win over people on the other side of the argument by treating them as less than human. How we speak to our opponents shows our character. How we speak about our opponents when they are not with us also shows our character. I sadly hear a demeaning, self-righteous tone in the pro-life side. This tone is present in the pro-choice side too, but if we are calling out the human worth of all people, including the unborn, we must commit ourselves to see the human worth of our opponents as well.

I also have difficulty finding a home in the pro-life movement because so much of it is anti-contraception. I understand the Roman Catholic arguments against contraception, but I don’t ascribe to them. There is also a large anti-contraception push within pro-life folks who are not Catholic. The center holding the event only offers abstinence counseling and education as its forms of pregnancy prevention. While from a virtue and character standpoint, I applaud a chastity education (abstinence and monogamy), I also acknowledge room for harm-reduction methods in the medical field. People have pre-marital sex. Some who have been given abstinence-only instruction have pre-marital sex. Physicians and nurses have to take human behavior into account. The main speaker scoffed at birth control, quoting misleading statistics about pregnancy rates with contraception. She failed to mention the majority of pregnancies while someone is on contraception come from user error (e.g., not taking the pills as prescribed) and forms of birth control that reduce the possibility of user variability (e.g., intrauterine devices) are far more successful. The speaker mentioned she grew up in a “good Christian home” and still had an unplanned pregnancy. A pastor who spoke from the podium mentioned his daughter had an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock. Presumably both these women were taught abstinence and yet they still became pregnant. The evening’s speakers were ready to dismiss contraceptives as ineffective because some women who use them still get pregnant, but they were unwilling to dismiss abstinence-only education even though some women who were given the education still get pregnant. It is frustratingly inconsistent. I believe we need a robust mix of both if we want to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

The self-righteous tone, the dehumanizing of the pro-choice side, and the misleading information, particularly about contraception, all left a bad taste in my mouth. Some of these problems are unique to this specific center, yet I also find some of these problems in the larger pro-life movement.  If the truth is on the pro-life side, we should present it without spin. If we are committed to the dignity of all human beings, we must treat our opponents with love and dignity. If we are serious about valuing all lives, we must emphasize care for mothers and fathers and advocate for adoption.

For a helpful alternative to the preaching to the choir I heard on Friday night, I recommend listening to this episode of On Being in which Christian ethicist and pro-life advocate David Gushee has a dialogue with former Catholics for Choice president Frances Kissling. In it they answer thoughtful questions, such as: What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you’re attracted to?

My Interview on Parenting Reimagined

My friend Sherry Walling interviewed me recently for her podcast, Parenting Reimagined. She wanted to know about my experiences as an adoptive parent and as an at-home dad,  as well as how the experience of parenting is shaping me and my faith. Sherry asks thought-provoking questions and edits really well to make me come across coherent and articulate. You can listen to the interview at the show’s site. The interview is titled, “Grace, redemption…. and Snot.” I’m honored to be a part of this endeavor. I really enjoyed Sherry’s first interview with her mother.

A New Career and a Weekend of New Experiences

The past weekend marked several firsts in Elijah’s life. We traveled as a family to the San Joaquin Valley, to the place where I grew up so that we could see my side of the family. What better season to expose Elijah to the Valley, but the summer? Fortunately we visited during an especially mild few days so he did not experience the oppressive heat and dust often found there from June through September. We also took the opportunity to travel to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It was Elijah’s first time in the mountains, first trip to a National Park, and first time seeing the Giant Sequoias. Carey and I want Elijah to know and love these trees, which John Muir called, “the noblest of a noble race.” Elijah did not express awe that I think Muir would find sufficient, but we have time to foster that sense of wonder — the kid can only see a few feet. As a family we hiked down to the General Sherman Tree to show Elijah the largest living thing in the world and then we trekked along the Congress Trail where we saw a black bear cub.

Once we descended the mountain, we took Elijah swimming for the first time of his life. He seemed fairly ambivalent about the water. The kid’s skin is so fair — he burned once from an hour in the shade of a tree — we made sure very little of his skin was exposed.

We came home on Saturday because a colleague had given us tickets to Sunday’s interleague game between the Athletics and Giants. This was Elijah’s first Major League game and we decided to take BART, so it also marked Elijah’s first trip on public transportation. I tried to help him appreciate going to a game so young since I did not attend my first game until I was in the second grade. Many people around us were excited that it was his first baseball game. It was a great event — an A’s win after a solid pitching dual and a walk-off home run by rookie catcher Derek Norris.

This past week also brought a significant change in my professional life. On June 20, I resigned as pastor of mission and evangelism at South Bay Community Church. Once Carey and I adopted Elijah, we quickly realized that we wanted one of us to be at home with him. After prayer and conversations with wise counsel, we decided that I would be the at-home parent for the next season. How long of a season, we are not sure. We are excited for this next period and I am thankful that I have the opportunity to be at home with my son. This is not a career I had spent much time considering before Elijah came into our lives. The church was gracious to us. So many men at South Bay expressed that they were at home with their kids and said it was the some of the most meaningful times of their lives. I cannot wait to taste some of that same goodness.

Story of the Kid, Part 5: Reflections, or How to Become a Parent in 48 Hours

Writing Elijah’s story has offered me space to reflect on the frenzy between the night of March 29 and the morning of April 2. I know that with parenthood the frenzy does not stop, but how our son came into the world and into our home seems to me to be an account worth recording and sharing. While the posts have been long, I have left a lot out because some of the stories are not mine to tell. Carey and I also believe Elijah needs to be the first person to hear certain details and, well, his language faculties are not that strong at this point. We are working on his spelling.

We adopted Elijah on April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday. The fact that we adopted our son at the beginning of Holy Week rings with significance for me. Beginning with Palm Sunday each year, the Christian Church remembers the events of a week that culminated in Jesus’ unjust death and glorious resurrection, changing the world forever. We remind one another that death and evil never have the final word. We remember God’s great power is seen not only in the ability to orchestrate events, but more in God’s ability to take the worst humans can do — executing an innocent and holy man — and redeem it so that it becomes the means of salvation and reconciliation for the whole world. A hateful crime is transformed into the most loving act ever known. We celebrate redemption and resurrection. Elijah’s young life is a resurrection story, full of surprise and grace.

I mentioned in the first post of this series that our Christian faith greatly influenced our decision to adopt. Adoption stories are often significant in the history of God’s people (e.g., Moses, Esther). It is hard to read the Bible without seeing a command to care for the orphan (see this list of verses for examples). Yahweh is described as “the great God” who, “who executes justice for the orphan…providing them with food and clothing.” (Deut 10.18) Because caring for children who need homes is central to God’s character, it is also central to who the people of God are — it is not an extracurricular activity. Finally, I have to see that I too am adopted, for the Bible speaks of God’s people as adopted children. Paul beautifully writes about this reality in his letter to the Romans:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (8.14-17)

From the perspective of the Bible, adoption is a picture of grace. God takes people who are not in God’s family and welcomes them as sons and daughters. I have to remember that I was a spiritual orphan, without family or home until God welcomed me as a son. As people whom God has adopted, Carey and I believed we needed to extend that same love to a child who needs a home.

As I said in the first post of this series, Carey and I have wanted to adopt even before we knew each other. Adoption played a significant role in each of our families’ histories. The adoption of Carey’s great-grandfather changed the trajectory of his life and created a legacy of higher education in her family — Carey attending college and becoming a physician can be traced back to that adoption years ago. Elijah represents at least the third consecutive generation in my family to have an adopted child. Adopting on my mother’s side is as common as eloping, also on a three-generation streak. In our family we do more than merely accept adoption as a reality, we embrace it as a beautiful way to grow a family. The adopted children know as much of their stories as possible from an early age. I have never seen any of my adopted relatives treated differently and I am so thankful that this has been my experience.

Although I knew my faith and family history prepared me for adopting a child, the great joy and love I have felt in the past week and a half has surprised me. I knew adoption was good, but experiencing its sweetness firsthand as a parent has caught me off guard. I find myself speechless, full of gratitude that can only be expressed in tears as I hold my son, feed him, pray for him, tell him his story, read to him the biblical accounts of Elijah and Jesus’ resurrection. Carey remarked last week that she could not remember the last time she saw me so happy and I have to agree with her. When we met Elijah on April 1, he was a stranger to us. In a short time we realized he was the child, the exact child for whom we prayed and wanted. We did not want to adopt just any child, we wanted to adopt Elijah specifically — we just did not know it until we met him.

Many people have wondered what it is like to become a parent in 48 hours. It was not easy, but the anxiety I felt is slowly melting away each time I hang out with my son. I know we made the right decision. I was so worried that we did not have the infrastructure to care for Elijah. Usually when families go on the last-minute parent list, our agency requires them to provide proof that they are ready to bring home a child at any time. Because we were not officially on the last-minute list, we did not have to provide similar proof and were caught off guard. The generosity of our families, friends, and co-workers has humbled us greatly. People have given us so much stuff that we started returning things we purchased. The grandparents stayed with us, supported us, and gave us great parenting lessons. The meals from friends and friends of friends remind us of God’s providence. The prayers and congratulations have encouraged us, especially as we feel the cumulative effects of interrupted sleep and the stress of constantly looking out for the needs of a helpless infant. While I would not recommend every adoption happen so quickly, we have seen God’s blessing and love expressed in inventive ways.

The process of adopting Elijah has also turned my mind to societal and more controversial matters, namely abortion and the difficulties facing parents who want to adopt. Elijah’s birthmom found herself with an unintended pregnancy and knew early on that she did not want to parent him. So many similar cases end in abortion in the U.S. Make no mistake, the circumstances leading to abortion are often the same circumstances leading to placement for adoption. Half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and half of those end in abortion, meaning there are 1.3 million abortions a year. According to a Child Welfare Information Gateway study done in 2011, only 135,813 children were adopted in the U.S. in 2008. I mourn the fact that adoption is not seen as a reasonable option either for women who find themselves with unintended pregnancies or for many prospective parents. I cannot now imagine a world without Elijah and it frightens me to think that if he had a different birthmom, he may not be alive today. I am so grateful, eternally grateful, that Elijah’s birthmom chose to bring him to term. What an incredible act of love.

Having heard the stories of birthmothers who have placed their children for adoption, I know that it is not an easy choice. I also know the way our society views the participants in our situation discourages women who do not want to parent from placing their child with another family. Adoptive parents are often seen as heroes, rescuing innocent children from the jaws of poverty and neglect. A birthmother is viewed as immoral and unfit and clearly does not love the child growing in her womb because no good, loving mother would never abandon her baby. Birthfathers are talked about even less and are seen as deadbeats at best. Abortion thus becomes a more attractive option because it can be done with greater secrecy and seemingly with less societal shame. But the stereotypes of birth families are not based on much reality. The fact is Elijah has been surrounded by love his entire life from his birth family to his adoptive family. His birthmom and birthgrandma made sure he received his prenatal care. Carey’s colleagues worked hard to keep him and his birthmom healthy and safe. This is not to make adoption a pollyannaish process, but to say that though this situation was born out of difficulty, the people involved truly love Elijah and express it in unique ways.

Having gone through an adoption, I can say there are many disincentives for adoptive parents along the way. Private adoption, either domestic or foreign, is expensive. We were subject to background checks, financial checks, fingerprinting, and home inspections. All of these are reasonable, but as we proceeded in the process, I kept thinking, birth parents never have to do any of this stuff. A pregnant couple’s custody of their child does not depend on correctly answering questions about their philosophy of discipline or making sure all their medicine is in a locked box. Adoption agencies are non-profits and ours certainly earned their fees, but I could not help thinking that while adoption was an excellent use of our money, a good portion of our fees could have started a college fund for my child. In our research of which adoption route to take we also looked into the public foster-adopt system, which is even more difficult to navigate. There are similar background checks and home studies. While it is less expensive, the bureaucratic maze is worse than the private option. There are mandatory classes held over several weeks, each offered only once a year, meaning it could take years for parents to be considered ready for adoption if their schedules do not line up with the local government’s. There are groups in America working hard to ensure abortions are available regardless of ability to pay. I wonder why there is not a similar cry for making adoption available regardless of ability to pay. How many incredible parents are out there who would gladly adopt a child who needs a home but cannot because they are unable to afford the high costs? Health insurance plans often cover infertility treatment, but offer little help with adoption. With the large amount of kids in foster care and the continuing high percentage of unintended pregnancies, why do we not support adoption and adoptive parents with more resources?

The day we adopted Elijah I turned 33 years old. It was, as many people have stated, the best birthday present I could imagine. And as someone who has studied Christian theology, I take great comfort in the fact that no one has ever accomplished anything of importance at the age of 33. Wait a minute.