The “A” Word: Intertwined Histories of Infertility, Adoption and Abortion

By Katrina Ackerman

I never anticipated that my research on abortion politics would collide with my recreational interest in CrossFit. I found the sport of CrossFit while trying to manage the stress of the PhD qualifying year, and it remained an important form of escapism for me throughout my doctoral studies. But there I was, sitting at home watching the much-anticipated CrossFit documentary Froning: The Fittest Man in History (2015), and my CrossFit hero was brought to tears after uttering the ‘A’ word. Rich Froning and his wife Hillary were sitting outside their home in Tennessee, telling the filmmakers about their fertility problems and the process through which they eventually adopted their daughter Lakelyn Ann. I was captivated when the CrossFit champion choked up while describing the birth mother’s initial plan to terminate her pregnancy and then requested that people “think twice” about having abortions. Froning then went on to say thank you to the birth mother, and those who were thinking about or had given babies up for adoption and “not done the other, other option….”[1] After watching this emotional scene, I began to revisit the letters to the Atlantic provincial governments that I had in my possession, as well as an interview that discussed a couples’ struggle to reproduce and adopt. The strong emotion displayed by Froning prompted me to explore the ways in which infertility and adoption fuelled anti-abortion sentiments.

It was through conversations with women opposed to abortion that I began to understand how a heartbreaking and unexpected circumstance, like infertility, could so profoundly shape a person’s stance on the issue. One woman from Prince Edward Island frankly told me that pregnant women called it a ‘baby’ if they wanted it, and a ‘fetus’ if they did not. She was not an activist, but she certainly opposed abortion. Her anti-abortion sentiments existed long before her fertility issues, but they undeniably heightened her frustration with the abortion law. She recalled writing a letter to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney after the birth of his son and congratulating him on his ‘blob.’ In an effort to criticize both the federal government and abortion rights rhetoric, she suggested that his child was just a blob of insignificant tissues. It was not until she was drugged and raped at a house party after receiving fertility treatments that she gained insight into why some women might choose to terminate their pregnancies. She became pregnant and later miscarried, but she would have kept the baby. This woman, like many across the country, struggled through the fertility treatment process and eventually turned to adoption to create their families.[2]

The long-wait lists for babies, however, fuelled frustration. Throughout the twentieth century, infertile couples sought “explicitly babies, not children,” and supply could not meet demand.[3] The declining birth rate in Canada, as well as increased state funding for economically disadvantaged unmarried women to keep their babies by the 1970s, created mounting challenges for couples, who now had to wait several years to adopt a child. Their resentment towards the abortion rights movement intensified as a result.[4] A number of factors determined one’s ability to adopt, including where they lived in Canada. Newfoundland, for instance, was the only province without private adoptions.[5] Therefore, some couples waiting to adopt became frustrated with fertile women’s unwillingness to carry a pregnancy to term and put the baby up for adoption. In a letter to Member of Parliament James A. McGrath, a woman from St. John’s argued that “every effort should be made to persuade her to give her child up for adoption. There are thousands of childless couples, myself and my husband included, who are on adoption lists with a wait of 2 to 3 years.”[6] This woman was not alone in her distress over the seeming ease of terminating pregnancies. As the abortion rights movement continued to challenge the abortion law and eliminate restrictions on access, couples became increasingly concerned that adoption would be nearly impossible.

After the Supreme Court of Canada declared the abortion law unconstitutional in 1988, some citizens wrote letters to their provincial governments to protest liberal access to abortion services because of its negative impact on couples who struggled with fertility issues and wanted to adopt.[7] In a letter to New Brunswick’s Minister of Health and Community Services J. Raymond Frenette, one woman who adopted “two perfect babies” decades ago feared for young couples that wanted to be parents, but instead witnessed a “needless waste of beautiful lives and lost opportunities.”[8] She believed that liberal access to abortion would have prevented her from adopting. Another couple who had “been on endless waiting lists, had our private life scrutinized, and carefully answered questions” were eventually successful and adopted a baby. However, they were on “another endless list” for a second child. “Therefore, I feel particularly threatened by the Supreme Court decision on abortion,” she argued.[9] Her personal opposition to abortion was echoed by many other couples who desperately wanted their own children and perceived liberal abortion access as a threat.

With the release of the abortion pill Mifegymiso in 2017, coupled with the increasing difficulty to adopt, it is likely that resentment over abortion access will persist. Many Canadian couples, like the Fronings, relied on women’s unplanned and unwanted pregnancies to adopt. Furthermore, the public funding of Mifegymiso in New Brunswick will likely upset some couples who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments. The federal government recently announced that couples can receive tax credits for their fertility treatments, which may tamper the resentment and frustration, but these concessions will not eliminate the stress of saving for assisted reproduction. Providing greater access to assisted reproduction may not overcome the resentment some couples feel towards women who choose to terminate their pregnancies, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Katrina Ackerman is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Regina. Her research has been published in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Acadiensis, and Labour/Le Travail. Her current project is under an advanced contract with UBC Press.

[1] Froning: The Fittest Man in History, Netflix, 29:40-30:48, directed by Heber Cannon (Washington, D.C.: Crossfit Inc., 2015).

[2] Personal Interview in Prince Edward Island, 12 February 2013.

[3] Lori Chambers, Misconceptions: Unmarried Motherhood and the Ontario Children of Unmarried Parents Act, 1921-1969 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 89.

[4] Veronica Strong-Boag, Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Encounters Adoption from the Nineteenth Century to 1990s (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2011), 8, 88.

[5] The Rooms, WPO, RS 2008-027, Box 60, File 18-74-14 (4) Pre-Meeting RE: New Reproductive Technologies – October 31, 1991 Minutes.

[6] Memorial University Archives and Special Collections, Hon. James A. McGrath Collection, C-156, 5.01.012, Abortion: Correspondence 1982-1984, K.M., St. John’s to James A. McGrath, 15 November 1984.

[7] Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB), RS 765, File 10-1515: [redacted] to Minister of Health and Community Services J. Raymond Frenette, 13 February 1988; [redacted] to Premier Frank McKenna, 15 February 1988; [redacted] to Minister of Health and Community Services J. Raymond Frenette, 16 February 1988; [redacted] to Premier Frank McKenna, 18 February 1988; [redacted] to Premier Frank McKenna, 19 February 1988.

[8] PANB, RS 765, File 10-1534, [redacted] to Minister of Health and Community Services J. Raymond Frenette, 5 March 1988.

[9] PANB, RS 765, File 10-1514, [redacted] to Minister of Health and Community Services J. Raymond Frenette, 8 February 1988.

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4 thoughts on “The “A” Word: Intertwined Histories of Infertility, Adoption and Abortion

  1. Robyn Schwarz

    I really enjoyed this Katrina, thank you! I had never thought about the connection between anti-abortion rhetoric and infertility, and it adds more lays to my understanding of the anti-abortion movement in Canada. They seem to be using the human rights rhetoric more and more these days, without discussing adoption. Anyways, very interesting and well thought out. Loved it!

  2. Bruce Douville

    Thanks for a great article, Katrina. I remember the popular anti-abortion literature of the eighties (particularly Melody Green’s “Children — Things We Through Away?”), and my recollection is this: at the time, it was a fairly common argument to frame adoption as the alternative to abortion. I’m not sure when “Adoption Not Abortion” became a popular slogan, but I’m guessing it was the 1970s or 1980s. Judging from a quick Google Image search, it’s still very much a part of the anti-abortion discourse.

  3. Shannon Stettner

    Thanks, Katrina. This research highlights the value of studying abortion in a reproductive justice framework and I look forward to seeing the project develop.

    It’s important to understand people’s motivations. It makes sense that some people’s experience with infertility would lead to (increased) anti-abortion sentiments – in the same way that women’s experiences with unplanned/unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortion inspired many reproductive rights activists to push for the legalization of abortion. I appreciate that your work has always been respectful of and sensitive to the people you study. And, I agree that it’s important to at least partially fund some fertility treatments. However, I believe that such funding is important in and of itself and not premised on the idea that it would help reduce resentment toward those who choose to terminate pregnancies. Pregnant people (whether they want to be pregnant or not), don’t owe anyone a baby or even an explanation of why they themselves don’t want one.

    As scholars, we really need to question from where the intense desire that some people experience to have biological children stems. From the day they are born, little girls are socialized to become mothers to the point that many women don’t even question whether or not they really want to be mothers. My interest in abortion studies has led me in a different direction – to think more about purposeful childlessness and the overwhelmingly negative ways that childless women, in particular, are viewed.

    We should consider the role that reproductive technologies have played in changing how people experience infertility. There’s a great article I use in my women’s health class on the history of infertility (sorry, name and title escape me right now) that demonstrates how such technologies have increased the pressure on those who are having difficulty conceiving to try for longer and to try more invasive techniques, which means more money, time, and energy. It seems to me that there needs to be a real questioning of how we think about in/fertility and how that the plays out on related issues like the stigma and judgment faced by aborting (and purposefully childfree) women.

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