Pro-life bumper stickers make me uncomfortable. So do pro-life t-shirts with their large pictures unborn babies.
They don’t make me uncomfortable because I’m pro-abortion. I agree with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life at every stage. I do not believe in the death penalty; don’t believe in euthanasia and rarely think that war is the only answer to an international problem. Rather, my discomfort with some aspects of the pro-life movement in general, and the Catholic piece of it in particular, arises from my perspective as a foster and adoptive parent. I see too little of a connection between the pro-life movement and the foster and adoptive community.
As of December of 2008, there were 2,638 children in Milwaukee County who needed placement outside of their homes because of allegations of neglect or abuse by their parents. That year, there were just 857 active, licensed foster homes able to receive those children. The rest of the children had to be placed with unlicensed relatives or in group homes. In Milwaukee, as well as in other cities its size or larger, the families who do step forward to foster are too often marginal themselves. Recent tragedies highlighted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s series on the ills of the Milwaukee foster care system illustrate just how dire the situation is.
While I understand that not every Catholic family is called to foster or adopt, a Catholic pro-life identity must include a highly visible commitment to those children who were not initially aborted, but whose current life of neglect and abuse leaves them vulnerable and at risk.
Our Catholic pro-life voice is well-known. But what if we could become equally well-known for our commitment to providing safe families for foster children? If alongside their work to change legislation regarding abortion, pro-life groups would work within the foster care arena, the movement would gain necessary credibility. A commitment to foster care, when put next to a commitment to end abortion, demonstrates an understanding of the complexity of the abortion question. It underlines our Catholic teaching of the sanctity of life— life threatened within the womb, but also facing just as serious danger outside the mother’s body. At a recent Catholic conference I attended in Chicago, there were four booths dedicated to the anti-abortion aspect of the pro-life movement. Yet, I didn’t see even one booth—or even one small part of a pro-life booth— dedicated to recruiting new foster parents.
Although Adoption, not abortion! makes a catchy bumper sticker slogan, the issue of adopting would-be aborted children is not as simple as it might appear. Of the more than a hundred thousand children currently awaiting adoption in the U.S., almost half are African American, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of this group, severely disabled children and black boys must wait the longest for adoption. At the same time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics show that more than a third of the U.S. women each year who choose abortion are black. When we, as church, tell these women to put their children up for adoption, do we back up our words by pointing to families open to adopting black children? Right now, the answer is no — there is a shortage of parents willing to adopt black children, and our words are hollow.
I recognize that some pro-life activists might bristle at the idea that they are not doing enough for children. Many of these people give tremendous amounts of time and energy trying to prevent the tragedy of abortion and the emotional fallout it causes for women. I am not suggesting that they stop. But I am suggesting that we, as Catholics, begin to look at the issue of abortion in a less simplistic way. I’m suggesting that we open our arms even wider—that we challenge each other to create a line of households ready and waiting to accept unwanted, abused or neglected children. And when we do this, when the word “Catholic” is linked with foster care just as surely as it is with “pro-life,” then we will be able to hold our heads high when we tell others to “Choose life.” Because others will have our assurance that life will be protected, once it is chosen.