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Home for life

National | Maternity homes provide new choices for women in crisis pregnancy

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

Julie, six months pregnant, cross-stitches a blanket for her child-to-be, but cheerfully pops up for an impromptu tour of her dorm room at the Gladney Center for Adoption in Ft. Worth, Texas. "It's pretty clean," the blonde 26-year-old says with a note of warning. Behind her, the two-story dormitory rises around an open living area dotted with potted shrubs. Near a white baby grand piano, six young women-each in a different stage of pregnancy-watch Tom Hanks in The Green Mile. On a plaque near the door to the kitchen is Gladney's motto: "It's nice to know that when you're not ready to be a mom, someone else is."

About 400 maternity homes across the country help women deal with crisis pregnancies in practical ways-without choosing abortion. Maternity homes traditionally provided housing, medical and prenatal care, financial assistance, education, and career training to women who wanted to be away from embarrassed families and finger-wagging hometowns. Today, some of those still exist, but some women choose small facilities closer to home.

"The pro-life movement has been caricatured with picketing, arguing, and yelling," says Beth Burton, director of operations for the Elizabeth Home, a Grapevine, Texas, maternity home. "The [pro-abortion] side says, 'Fine, but what are you going to do when girls choose life?' Maternity homes are the pro-life answer."

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Gladney was Julie's answer to a pregnancy she didn't want to abort and a family she didn't want to embarrass. She dated her boyfriend for a year before "it" happened. "I bought a real expensive pregnancy test and a real cheap one. They were both positive. My parents were like, 'What are you going to do?'" She swings back the door to the room where she's lived for three months, swiping up a few stray clothes from the floor. Tacked above a twin bed: sonogram pictures of her unborn baby. "My father is very active in the community. We all decided that I needed to come down here to keep it confidential." No one in her hometown knows Julie's pregnant.

"It's different living with 30 pregnant women with raging hormones," she laughs. "But we're all going through the same thing."

Today the average stay in a maternity home is four to six months, and the average age of residents is 16. Girls come from all backgrounds and ethnicity. Many flee abuse, drugs, and poverty. Others just want to save face. Maternity homes sprouted during the 1800s to shelter "wayward" women whose families wanted a hush-hush solution to a risqu* problem. Few mothers chose single-parenting in a society critical of questionable pregnancies. So girls disappeared into large, out-of-state homes where babies were quietly adopted. But in the wake of the sexual revolution and the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, abortion offered a quick answer. Single parenthood also became another well-accepted option.

The 113-year-old Gladney Center has assisted more than 36,000 women in crisis pregnancy with counseling and referral services. The nonprofit also has placed more than 26,000 children into adoptive homes. Women who move into Gladney are assigned a caseworker, and each receives free prenatal care and delivery, as well as counseling and education. Residents may arrive anytime during their pregnancies, and can stay up to six weeks after delivery, 12 if they have a caesarean delivery. But all these services aren't cheap. With an annual budget of $5.7 million, Gladney spends about $32,000 per resident. Adoption fees offset costs, but Gladney still loses about $10,000 on every resident, money the center replaces through foundation grants and private support.

Most smaller maternity homes spend about $100,000 annually, largely from private contributions. Few, especially if they are faith-based, accept government funding. Anne Pierson, director of Loving and Caring, a national evangelical organization that has launched more than 100 small maternity homes, said government funding "has been a problem in the past because of the evangelistic thrust" of many homes. A recent national survey, Maternity Homes for Adolescents, found that the federal government is the least common source of funds for homes. Such homes also swing outside of the welfare loop since residents usually stick around for less than a year.

Still, maternity homes manage; some even boast innovative extras, like Gladney's auditorium, cafeteria, education building, counseling center, and three dormitories. There's even a swimming pool where girls in bright bikinis can tan rounded bellies on hot Texas afternoons. Sunday dinners out, a fitness center, pool- and ping-pong tables, volleyball courts, a greenhouse, and a computer lab help girls keep their minds off swelling ankles and homesickness.

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