Babies Are Their Business

Pat's baby was, like the child of Hester Prynne, a pearl of great price. Pat chose to bring life out of an unwanted pregnancy, and for it suffered serious illness, destitution and fear.

Unable to call on her parents or the baby's father for help, with neither education nor a job to provide support, Pat was on her own to find shelter and medical care when she became pregnant last year. "My boyfriend was for abortion, he wouldn't marry me," she says. "But I don't believe in abortion."

Relations with her parents were so bad, Pat says, she did not even tell them she was pregnant before leaving home after a "terrible" argument with her mother. Pat wanted to give birth, she says, but knew she couldn't take care of two people by herself. "I knew right away I wanted to place the baby for adoption," she says.

Pat's efforts to find a safe haven during her pregnancy led her to the Christian Family Care Agency in Phoenix, a nonprofit agency, and later to the for-profit Southwest Adoption Center, Inc., in Scottsdale, the largest adoption agency in the state.

What she didn't know, in deciding on adoption, was that she was stepping into the middle of a "trade war" between Phoenix's adoption agencies. By the time her baby was born, she had dealt with two of the main adversaries in the fierce competition for the limited number of babies put up for adoption each year.

Southwest is under particular attack by the nonprofit agencies for shipping large numbers of Arizona babies to wealthy out-of-state couples while Arizona couples stand in line to adopt. Southwest handles the largest volume of adoptions of any private agency in the state and two thirds of its adoptions are to out-of-state couples.

The smaller nonprofit agencies, many of them with religious affiliations, say they can't compete with the for-profit agency's big advertising budget and nationwide connections.

"Wealthy couples from back East can afford to pay much higher fees than many Arizona couples," says Shirley Pusey, a child-welfare worker with the nonprofit Family Services Agency in Phoenix, the state's oldest adoption agency. "The higher fees go to support big advertising and public-relations campaigns that enable the for-profit agencies to attract more birth mothers. It's very difficult for the nonprofits, which charge minimal fees, to compete."

The nonprofit agencies would like to see for-profit adoption outlawed in Arizona, as it has been in Michigan, says Kay Ekstrom, executive director of Christian Family Care Agency, which handles the most adoptions of any nonprofit agency in the state. And she's got the ear of at least one influential legislator, Mesa Republican Leslie Whiting Johnson, chairman of the Arizona state House Committee on Human Resources and Aging.

"Southwest Adoption Center is definitely the main source of concern," Johnson says.

"I'm concerned that when these babies are transported out of state, Arizona loses control over the situation surrounding the adoption," Johnson says. "Our own laws are very strong, but in some states there are not a lot of guarantees to ensure the baby goes into a safe environment."

Mike Sullivan, president of Southwest Adoption Center, contends this war is not about ideals, but jealousy. "Every year there's a bill in the legislature to put Southwest out of business," he says. "The other agencies don't want to face the fact we're the most successful because we offer the best service to birth mothers and adoptive parents both."

Lance all the rhetoric, Sullivan claims, and his opponents' arguments can't be supported by fact. "It's ludicrous to say so many babies are going out of state that Arizona couples are being penalized," he says. "And how can you talk about a law to restrict out-of-state placements when there is an Interstate Compact specifically to allow interstate adoptions?"

Earlier this year, however, Johnson introduced legislation to do just that--limit out-of-state adoptions. The bill died because of "technical difficulties," she says, but the issue is very much alive.

"I'm going to be getting back together with Kay and the folks from [the state Department of Economic Security] to draft another bill for the upcoming session," Johnson says.

If Pat's story illuminates anything, however, it is that this war will be won not by new laws, but by whoever is willing to treat birth mothers as people, rather than commodities.

THOUGH MORE THAN two centuries separate Pat, who has spent most of her 24 years in Phoenix, from author Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan heroine, her experiences as an unwed mother are equally poignant.

An experienced survivor of the city's rough underside, Pat says matter-of-factly, "I'm not the kind of person to express my feelings." She is whip-thin and tiny, with hair the color of desert sand. Over the years, she has developed an exterior that allows a lot of hard knocks to slide off with no apparent effect. Yet as she delves into the events surrounding the birth of her daughter in 1987, her armor barely hides the vulnerability beneath it.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kathleen Stanton