In the years before Roe v. Wade, and in a context of severe stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, maternity homes in the United States housed residents who, upon giving birth, often relinquished their children for adoption. One consequence of the legalization of abortion in 1973 was that fewer American women and girls were “sent away” to maternity homes for the duration of their pregnancies. Far from a relic of the pre-Roe past, though, maternity homes in the 1980s and 1990s remained a feature of the US’s landscape, albeit still well hidden. These institutions differed from their predecessors, however, for many of these newer homes were explicitly affiliated with the anti-abortion movement. Indeed, numerous post-Roe maternity homes enjoyed close relationships with local crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) – right-to-life institutions that similarly worked to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies. Post-Roe maternity homes also partnered with state and private adoption agencies to make adoption a viable alternative to abortion, and some were sponsored by Religious Right spokespeople such as Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson.
In the hopes of “saving” those “at risk” of terminating their pregnancies, anti-abortion maternity homes advertised themselves as safe havens, offering housing and other resources to women and girls experiencing crisis pregnancies for little or no fee. While some pregnant people may have found much-needed comfort and security in these services, other residents’ stays were marred by abuse. Deliberately hidden from public view, little is known about these ever-elusive institutions. Nevertheless, the evidence we do have from residents’ testimonies and anti-abortion literature offers a glimpse into the anti-abortion movement’s evolving strategies in the 1980s and 1990s and sparks pertinent questions about women’s reproductive agency.
Political scientist Laura Hussey describes maternity homes as part of the anti-abortion movement’s “service” branch because, like CPCs, they worked to challenge the accusation that anti-abortion activists did little to temper the financial and emotional burdens of pregnancy and childrearing. Operating against a backdrop of welfare cuts, maternity homes hoped to provide an attractive alternative to abortion by providing the comfort and security necessary to make carrying one’s pregnancy to term possible. For instance, Bayard House, an independent maternity home in Wilmington, Delaware proclaimed that many of its residents felt “deprived of a free choice in deciding whether or not to keep their pregnancies because they lack[ed] necessary support or resources.” As this appropriation of the feminist language of reproductive “choice” makes clear, maternity homes sought to demonstrate their concern for pregnant women as well as fetuses: an increasingly salient anti-abortion tactic in the 1980s and 1990s.
As well as offering material services, maternity homes promised the discretion some pregnant people desired. An advertisement for Gentle Shepherd Child Placement Services in Olathe, Kansas stated, “If you have no place to turn, we have housing available for you during your pregnancy. This could be of special interest to you if you want to ‘go away’ to have your baby.” And testimony from an anonymous resident at Regina Residence in Port Jefferson, New York expressed relief that, since relinquishing her child for adoption and returning from the maternity home, “I’ve been out with my friends who knew nothing [about my pregnancy or adoption]… No one looks at me suspiciously.” Post-Roe maternity homes were thus depicted as sanctuaries for women who wished to keep their pregnancies private and thus free from potential judgment if they decided to give birth and put their child for adoption.
While some anti-abortion activists celebrated maternity homes for their ability to “prove” their movement’s commitment to supporting pregnant women, others worried that some homes’ below-board practices would threaten the integrity of the larger fight against abortion. Certainly, a slew of malpractice lawsuits against maternity homes, CPCs, and Christian adoption agencies in the late 1980s and 1990s left some anti-abortion sympathizers wary of these institutions, all of which had long been criticized by pro-choice activists. In 1987, the Alpha Center for Women in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was found guilty of false advertising, placing minors in unlicensed homes, and coercing residents into placing their children for adoption. And a Cosmopolitan article from the same year reported that A Free Pregnancy Center, a San Francisco-based CPC, arranged for a 14-year-old girl to stay in a “foster home” without her parents’ knowledge or consent under the pretense that “she’d been accepted for an overseas scholarship.” Further still, a 1994 article alleged that women and girls were “often isolated in the protective care of so-called Christian Shepherding families, then guilt-tripped and badgered… until they sign[ed] papers irrevocably terminating their parental rights.” Although adoption was not a prerequisite for residency in all post-Roe maternity homes, it appears that many residents were misled or coerced into relinquishing their children for adoption without the appropriate counseling. Interestingly, a promotional leaflet for the New Beginnings maternity home in St. Cloud, Minnesota boasted of an apparent rarity: “After screening many” maternity homes, one woman favored staying at this home because, here, “there was no pressure put on the women to choose adoption.” Indeed, many anti-abortion maternity homes were effective feeders for private Christian adoptions: a lucrative industry in a country where, with abortion recently legalized, young white American adoptees were a rarity.
One maternity home that came under particular scrutiny was Our Father’s House in Pensacola, Florida. John Burt, a former KKK member with connections to the anti-abortion movement’s most violent extremists, and his wife Linda ran what Linda called “a tight-ship” at Our Father’s House, with a strict set of house rules dictating residents’ dress code and restricting their communications with the outside world. Alongside mandatory church attendance, residents were encouraged to join John Burt on “field trips” to protest local abortion clinics. In December 1995, Linda Burt relayed that Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had “filed a vicious, unjust, anti-life lawsuit against Our Father’s House.” The lawsuit was not, as Linda Burt claimed, a direct attack on Our Father’s House, but instead concerned John Burt’s involvement in the 1993 murder of abortion provider Dr. David Gunn by violent extremist Michael Griffin. Nevertheless, as Our Father’s House was funded by the Burts, the legal repercussions of John Burt’s anti-abortion extremism were sure to affect the maternity home. In July 1996, John and Linda Burt informed their supporters that they had settled out of court due to fears the case would leave them bankrupt. Although Our Father’s House was not implicated in the SPLC lawsuit, less than a decade later, John Burt was found guilty of molesting a teenager in his care. Clearly, at Our Father’s House, the claim that anti-abortion maternity homes had pregnant people’s best interests at heart was a façade.
As sites that blur coercion and care, post-Roe anti-abortion maternity homes have left a complex legacy, offering much-needed support and discretion to some women and girls while exploiting their concealment from the outside world to inflict great harm onto others. Although, like CPCs, the services offered by maternity homes helped the anti-abortion movement depict itself as concerned with pregnant people as well as fetuses, untold abuses occurred in some of these institutions, and many homes appeared more interested with providing anti-abortion supporters with adopted children than caring for their residents. In a now post-Dobbs United States, anti-abortion maternity homes may come to play an even bigger role, making an exploration of their 1980s and 1990s resurgence timelier than ever.
- Laura S. Hussey, The Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Movement: Serving Women or Saving Babies? (University Press of Kansas, 2020), 2. ↑
- “Bayard House: A Community Resource,” Bayard House (n.d.). Papers of Therese Hester Vaughn, 1971-2009, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. ↑
- “Pregnant? In need of a friend? We care about you!!!” Gentle Shepherd Child Placement Services, Inc. (n.d.). Papers of Bill Baird, 1930-2015 (inclusive), 1963-1999 (bulk), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. ↑
- “Unmarried and Pregnant?” Regina Residence (n.d.). Papers of Bill Baird, 1930-2015 (inclusive), 1963-1999 (bulk). Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. ↑
- The Alpha News, The Alpha Center for Women (June 1987); Papers of Bill Baird, 1930-2015 (inclusive), 1963-1999 (bulk), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. ↑
- Jacqueline Austin, “I Went (Undercover) to an Anti-Abortion ‘Clinic,’” Cosmopolitan (March 1987). Takey Crist papers, 1944-2002, n.d., David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC. ↑
- Marc Cooper, “Robbing the Cradle,” The Village Voice (July 26, 1994); Takey Crist papers, 1944-2002, n.d., David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC. ↑
- “A Home for Single, Pregnant Women,” New Beginnings (n.d.), Papers of Bill Baird, 1930-2015 (inclusive), 1963-1999 (bulk), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. ↑
- Letter to supporters from Linda Burt (December 1995), Hall-Hoag Collection of Dissenting and Extremist Propaganda, John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI. ↑