Those numbers may be even higher in Erie, where nearly a third of residents live below the poverty line (roughly twice the national average). This reality prompted Merriott to found Save Unborn Life in 2005. “If it’s about money, then let’s put it where it will help women make the good choice for life,” Merriott told me in an interview at her home. Or as SUL’s website puts it: “How much would you pay to guarantee this child’s life? Our mission is to offer poor pregnant women considering aborting their child a sum of $3,000.”
Pregnant women seeking financial help do not approach Merriott directly. They are referred to her, often by Newport, who will first determine if a woman’s desire to abort is sincere and based on a legitimate financial need. “And if it’s just some material help and if it’s just, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do for an apartment, I’m going to need a deposit for my first month’s rent,’ well, a few thousand dollars will really help,” Newport told me. “If money is the overall motivating factor, then that’s when [the offer] is helpful.”
Merriott estimates that about a third of women approached by SUL take the offer. Fifty-three have signed the contract, and word is slowly spreading. A Texas pro-life pregnancy center recently referred two women to Merriott; both are now under contract.
Elizabeth (a pseudonym) is another woman I met with in Erie who signed a contract with SUL. She discovered that she was pregnant as a 19-year-old in 2009. At first, she told me, “I really wanted to do abortion. I was scared.”
But then she heard about the Women’s Care Center, and soon she was talking with Merriott. Elizabeth was surprised by the offer of financial assistance. “I didn’t think I deserved it,” she said.
Elizabeth considered the offer for two months before deciding on adoption. “By that time, I could feel that it’s alive, that I needed to make sure this baby has the best chance,” she said. She placed her child with a married couple, who gave her visitation rights. “I couldn’t raise my kids by myself without a father,” she explained.
In 2011, Elizabeth got pregnant a second time — and again took SUL’s $3,000 offer, adopting to the same family. After her second pregnancy, Elizabeth had a revelation similar to Hope’s: “I figured here’s my chance to make myself better in life, not to be working at Olive Garden for the rest of my life.”
“The money helped with a lot of bills that I had from having my baby, because I was off from work after having a C-section,” she said. “I needed to support myself a little bit.” She invested part of the $6,000, and plans to use some of it for college.
Some abortion-rights advocates claim that offering abortion-minded women cash with no strings attached to bring their pregnancies to term is inherently coercive. But it’s hard to object to a program that simply offers women in crisis pregnancies one more choice while in no way diminishing their legal right to abortion.
Plus, at least one study has shown that the vast majority of abortion-minded women who ultimately decide to bring to term do not regret their decision. Demographer Diana Greene Foster recently told the New York Times that “about 5 percent of the [abortion-minded] women, after they have had the baby, still wish they hadn’t, and the rest of them adjust.” Three thousand dollars can make that adjustment a little easier.
What’s more, abortion advocates do something similar through a group called FundAbortionNow.org, which describes itself as “a national network of abortion funds,” “groups of people who help women pay for their abortions.” The organization claims that “abortion funds” — there are more than 100 of them in North America and the United Kingdom — “are often women’s only allies as they try to raise money to pay for an abortion.”
Some pro-life advocates worry that paying women to do what God and nature intended turns unborn life into a commodity. I contacted five national pro-life organizations, and only one was willing to comment on the record.
Judie Brown of the American Life League, which bills itself as the only “no exceptions” national pro-life group, sees nothing wrong with the program. “Anything we can do to talk an expectant mother out of aborting her child is a good thing,” she told me.
The money-for-maternity program may seem like a desperate approach to a situation in which human lives hang in the balance. But it is precisely because lives are at stake that pro-life activists have taken such a bold measure.
Elizabeth said she feels “a lot of sadness” about her two pregnancies and about having to make difficult decisions but has no regrets about giving birth or placing her girls for adoption.
When I asked Hope if she felt regret, she looked down at the table for a few seconds, then looked up and said, “No, I never regret, but I know that there was that moment when I was really stressed out and tired. And I’d ask: ‘Did I make the right choice?’”
“I wouldn’t change a thing now,” she added. “There’s actually been a lot of good that has come out of this experience, and I can tell you right now that I love my life.”
— Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.