Basketball, Reproductive Policy, Adoption, and Shame

Basketball. I came to the sport of basketball in the early 1970s when the rules of play were “in between.” That is, a team consisted of two stationary guards on one side of the court who could not cross the centerline, two stationary forwards on the other side of the court who could not cross the centerline, and two “rovers” who could travel the length of the court. In other words, the game was played four-on-four on either end of the court. By the time I advanced to the varsity level, girls’ rules had become boys’ rules, and we all had to learn to run the length of the court to play the game five-on-five.

I mention this because I was at a conference at Emory Law School last weekend where the keynote speaker was Sarah Weddington, the attorney who represented “Jane Roe” to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade. Weddington was only 26 years old at the time, the youngest person to ever argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. Her speech to us included examples of discrimination against women during her early years. One example she gave was the rules of basketball. During the 1960s, women played with three stationary guards on one side of the court and three stationary forwards on the other side of the court. A player was only allowed to dribble twice before she was required to shoot or pass; and a player never crossed the mid-court line. Weddington says she once asked her coach: “Why can’t we keep running?” The coach’s response was: “All that running and jumping could hurt your innards. And that’s your meal ticket.”

Thanks to Weddington and others who saw gender discrimination and inequality, and chose to challenge it, there have been many changes in the laws pertaining to sports, employment, health care, and the like.

Reproductive Policy. The case of Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, is now 40 years old. The decision legalized abortion (within certain parameters). Prior to Roe, women who needed to terminate a pregnancy suffered infections, loss of reproductive capability, and even death through illegal, backroom procedures by unlicensed practitioners. Today, many of us take for granted that abortions are delivered by medical professionals with the safety and well being of women in mind.

I was a teenager when Roe v. Wade was decided, and I remember some of the controversy and slogans. Sarah Weddington told a story about being on an airplane recently while wearing one of the buttons from that time. The button is a coat hanger with a slash through it. The flight attendant walked past Weddington a number of times, staring at the button, until she finally stopped and said, “I just have to ask. What do you have against coat hangers?”

Younger generations do not remember the time before Roe. Many do not understand its significance in protecting the lives and health of women. Weddington and others at the conference talked about the importance of safe-guarding those rights and of moving forward to make access to reproductive services available to all regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.

Adoption. As I was listening to the panelists at the conference, I was acutely aware that the sides of the debate were staked out as parenting versus terminating a pregnancy. Where was adoption?

The reality, I believe, is that adoption has been collapsed or submerged into the anti-choice camp and is associated, primarily, with religious groups that decry abortion. Adoption is the shameful alternative to parenting children that one gives birth to.

Shame. There should be no shame associated with infertility – but there is. There should be no shame associated with any disability (like ADHD), illness (like cancer), or difference (like sexual orientation) that is not self-created. There should be no shame associated with loving and raising children one did not give birth to. Shame is the root of the bizarre practice of naming the adoptive parents on the child’s birth certificate once the adoption is finalized. Shame is the root of sealed records that bar the child from knowing about his/her original parents and that creates the illusion of fertility for the parents who raise the child.

There should be no shame associated with the courageous decision to forego day-to-day parenting in the best interests of one’s child – but there is. Shame is the root of agency or attorney control over adoption and closed records that prevent birth parents from knowing what happens to their children. Shame is the root of the historic U.S. practice of tricking women into relinquishing their children because they did not fit the profile of a married, financially-stable mother – a practice continued in other countries today by stealing or buying babies from poor women or families. Shame is the root of the unwillingness of some adoptive parents (supported by a cultural milieu) to maintain contact with original parents deemed unworthy and suspect. Shame is the root of our failure as a society to provide birth parents with counseling and their own independent legal representative, not paid for by adoptive parents.

Sarah Weddington’s ongoing commitment to seek justice and equality inspires me to want to do my part to change the way we view and handle adoption. Adoption needs to be brought into the spotlight when making decisions about reproduction as an equally valid and dignified alternative. Those of us who have lived in/with open adoptions know the courage and selflessness it takes from extraordinary women and men to place their children with others. We also know the courage and selflessness it takes to “share” our children with the people who gave them life. But, we do it, because we know it is so important to our children’s well being.

Every woman – whether she chooses to end a pregnancy, to parent the child she gives birth to, to place her child for adoption, to adopt the child of another, or to remain childless – deserves respect, dignity, legal protection, and safe and accessible health care in support of her choice.

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