Politics & Policy

The Pro-Life Pay-Off

In Erie, Pa., an organization pays women who are considering abortion to choose life.

One day in early June 2011, Hope Rose learned that she was pregnant with her fourth child. Unmarried and living with her children in a trailer on the outskirts of Erie, Pa., the 33-year-old initially sought counsel from her boyfriend, who had told Hope that he wanted her to conceive. But soon after learning that she had, he bolted.

“That’s when my whole world fell apart,” Hope told me last October. Without her boyfriend’s support, and barely getting by financially on a meager income from driving a school bus, Hope felt she had just one option. “My first thought was ‘I’m not going to have this baby.’”

The next day, she made an appointment for the following week at a Pittsburgh abortion clinic and asked her sister to drive her there. But instead, her sister relayed the news to their mother, who immediately called Hope, insisting that she call a woman named Brenda Newport.

Newport runs the Women’s Care Center, a pro-life pregnancy center in Erie. Over the next couple of days, Newport met with Hope several times, first confirming her pregnancy, then counseling her about her options. She eventually urged Hope to call Laura Merriott, a former Navy nurse practitioner and president of a group, called Save Unborn Life (SUL), located nearby.

Save Unborn Life exists for the sole purpose of offering abortion-minded women money to bring their babies to term. After a meeting with Merriott, Hope was offered $3,000 not to go through with the abortion, which was scheduled for the next day. She immediately accepted the offer.

In the 41 years since abortion was legalized nationally in the United States, pro-life advocates have employed a variety of strategies in their quest to end abortion. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, they organized mass demonstrations to block entrances of abortion clinics (until a 1994 federal law outlawed the tactic); they have devoted considerable resources to passing laws that restrict abortion; and they have opened thousands of centers for women with crisis pregnancies, providing them everything from adoption referrals and parenting classes to free diapers.

But Save Unborn Life’s mission of paying abortion-minded women to bring their babies to term may be their most audacious plan yet.

The contract Hope signed with Save Unborn Life did not stipulate whether she had to keep the baby or place it for adoption — only that she bring her baby to term. After months of deliberation, including several tearful counseling sessions with Newport, Hope decided to keep her baby.

Hope told me her story when we met last October at a coffee shop in Gerard, Pa., on the outskirts of Erie.

She confessed that her life had been a series of failed relationships. She became a mother at 16, got married, then divorced. Only two of her children share a father.

Hope was uncomfortable with the idea of abortion — several family members had had abortions, she said, and “they never really forgave themselves for it” — but she was nevertheless prepared to abort her recent pregnancy. Until, that is, she got the $3,000 offer, which she received on delivering her child and used in part to pay for tuition in pursuit of a college degree.

Three thousand dollars may not sound like a life-changing amount. It’s a pittance compared with the nearly quarter of a million dollars it now costs to raise a child, on average, according to a 2013 Department of Agriculture report.

But the money SUL offers is meant to serve as a stopgap, not to replace income. “The money gave me a minute to breathe,” Hope said. “It got me to the next student-aid dispersal.”

Merriott said that SUL also encourages poor women to sign up for federal assistance programs such as Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and that adoption is often the best option for women who cannot afford to care for their children. But SUL’s main objective, she made clear, was to save one life from death and another from a lifetime of regret.

Hope views her decision to give birth as a “turning point” in her life. As she contemplated the prospect of having a fourth child, she quit smoking, started attending church again, and began taking more responsibility for her decisions. “I didn’t want to become a statistic. Or be on welfare,” she said. During her pregnancy, Hope obtained an associate’s degree and is now working toward her bachelor’s degree in social work.

Hope credits the Women’s Care Center and Save Unborn Life not just for giving her money but also for their timely moral and emotional support. “It’s nice to know that there are people who will stand next to you when you’re walking through the fire,” she said. When Hope gave birth in late January 2012, Merriott visited the hospital to congratulate her.

The idea of paying women to bring their babies to term is based on evidence that most women who abort do so at least in part for financial reasons. According to a 2004 Guttmacher Institute survey, 73 percent of abortion patients said they chose to abort because they could not afford a baby, and 74 percent because having a child would interfere with their education, work, or ability to care for dependents.

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.


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