In the lead-up to National Adoption Month, observed every November, Sandra was watching coverage of happy reunions. Adult children finding their birth parents, everyone hugging and crying with joy. She wasn’t seeing her family’s story represented, so she decided to speak out about the manipulation and utter lack of support she experienced.
“I could be vilified by saying I should have gotten an abortion—because that means my grandson wouldn’t be here—but I’m being honest and standing in my own truth,” Sandra, who withheld her last name for privacy reasons, told me in a recent phone interview. “If I could go back in a time machine, I would have made a different choice. It’s something I can say now knowing I shouldn’t have been overly influenced the way I was. I went to people for support and I got manipulated. Everybody involved in ‘helping’ me had an agenda; they were not thinking about me and my child.”
Narratives that erase what birth parents can go through aren’t just used by family and friends to influence those experiencing an unintended pregnancy. They are also used to prop up campaigns like the one I wrote about earlier this year called #HelloHyde, which celebrates children “saved” by the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds being used for abortion care, and to justify anti-abortion legislation.
Just days after the election, anti-choice legislators in Sandra’s home state, also that of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, announced plans to completely outlaw abortion when the Indiana General Assembly convenes in January. Indiana already has some of the harshest anti-abortion laws on the books, though the most recent of them was suspended by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in June.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.
State Rep. Curt Nisly (R-Goshen) said he will file “Protection at Conception” legislation that “would treat the death of an unborn child like you would any other human being.” Anyone participating in an abortion procedure would be subject to prosecution. Nisly will have an ally in Governor-elect Eric Holcomb, who has pledged to work with state lawmakers to craft anti-choice legislation.
“The idea here is always, always try to save the baby,” Nisly told the IndyStar. Nisly didn’t express concern for saving or helping the pregnant person, who would be forced to either parent or give their child up for adoption at the end of any unintended pregnancy. (His staff did not respond to comment requests by publication time.)
Sandra, who went through the adoption process in 1987, wants legislators and others to know that it wasn’t the right option for her and shouldn’t be held up as the obvious alternative to terminating an unintended pregnancy.
In 1986, when she was in her early 20s and living in South Carolina, Sandra was shocked to discover she was pregnant.
“I was on the pill, so to find out I’m pregnant? I just thought, ‘This has to be a mistake.’” Sandra told me on the phone.
She hadn’t thought of abortion as something people should choose.
“I knew I was too responsible to ever be in that position,” she said. “I took the pill and I didn’t sleep around.”
But Sandra had watched her mother’s challenges as a Black single mom and never wanted to raise children on her own. So she decided she was going to consider abortion and went to her older half-brother for counsel.
“[My brother] being a pastor, I felt that I could trust him and I felt he would give me good advice,” she said. “I didn’t think he would try and talk me out of an abortion; I just thought I could trust him. I should have just gone with my first mind.”
When Sandra told him she was pregnant, he said, “Oh! OK, you’re going to be a mother!”
She considered getting married to the man she was dating; he wasn’t the father, but was supportive and excited about raising her child with her. When that didn’t work out, she said, her half-brother offered for her to come and live with him in Ohio; he and his wife would help her through the rest of the pregnancy. But their support fluctuated.
Having made what she thought was a final decision to turn the child over to an adoption agency, Sandra went into labor in February 1987. Just after giving birth to a healthy baby boy, her hospital room phone rang.
“The call was from my half-brother saying that God would not help me and that everything I did would fail if I gave the baby up for adoption,” she said. As she listened to his latest plan for her, she thought, “I didn’t want God to hate me for the rest of my life, so I decided I would keep the child.”
Sandra went to live with another brother in Indiana, hoping his promises of support were real.
“When I got there I realized that I hadn’t prepared at all. How was I going to take care of a child and get a job? And the help I need wasn’t there,” she said. “That’s the thing that really gets me the most: All the people who tell you they’re going to be there for you—when the baby shows up? They disappear. My brother, who really wanted me to give him the child, wasn’t much help. He wanted me to see how hard it would be for me to raise him on my own.”
Her thoughts were always for her son.
“My decision to give him up was really based on necessity,” she said. “I can take care of myself, but I can’t take care of this baby who needs some sense of security. I definitely was not security.”
“I don’t care if I have to sleep in a car, but I’m not going to do that with my baby.”
Completely without resources, Sandra contacted the adoption agency she had spoken to while she was pregnant and was told the family she had chosen then was still interested even though the baby was no longer a newborn.
“I signed over the closed adoption papers in June of 1987 and didn’t think anything more,” she said.
She has since discovered—through her half-brother’s encouragement—what happened after she signed. When she found him and her grandson this past January, she discovered that she’s still legally his mother because, according to Sandra, the agency went against her wishes and took money to place him with a different family. (She said that there’s an investigation into the actions taken by the agency.)
Their communications have been via letter to and from the jail where he’s serving a sentence for child pornography. Sandra’s son has been hostile to her, having been told false stories about his birth mother by the family that raised him.
When she was growing up, Sandra didn’t have a good impression of adoption. “Being from the culture I was raised in, the perception was that Black families don’t adopt; they give [the child] to someone in the family,” she said. Her experience has strengthened her conviction that the pregnant person should do what they feel is best for them.
“If you don’t terminate, you will be a parent,” she said. “You have that moniker: ‘birth mother.’ If you don’t want to be a parent, termination is a viable alternative. There should be no judgment in that.”
Sandra encourages both legislators and people whose loved ones come to them about their decision to terminate a pregnancy to think of them first: “If they’ve made the decision to do it, let them do it. If it’s their decision, let them own it.”