The first time either of us ever had sex she became pregnant. It was the late 1960’s and policy forbade a pregnant girl from attending high school. There was no such policy for the boy (me, in this instance) who made the girl pregnant.
Her parents were devout Christians; mine were devout alcoholics. As teenagers, we had kept secrets from the world, each other, and even from ourselves; but a growing belly was one secret we could not keep. It felt like there was a bomb in my girlfriend’s belly that was about to explode. We were pregnant with fear, shame and regret. We decided to figure this out by ourselves, keeping all options open.
One option we quickly ruled out was marriage. We were high school students. We had no money or jobs; and no one would rent us an apartment. We called the county “welfare office” but couldn’t navigate the system or the shame.
We considered abortion. We lived in a midwestern city with a large university during the “Sexual Revolution.” We decided that it was I who should be the one to walk around campus, asking young women for information about abortion. We saw posters about ending “coat hanger abortions” but we found no one willing to talk about options to us two baby-faced teenagers. We ruled-out abortion, admitting it would never be our choice, but we had agreed to consider all options ~ and we were relieved that options existed.
The last option was to tell our parents. Her parents were sad and turned to prayer and scripture for guidance. My parents were angry and turned to liquor and lawyers to prepare for a likely paternity suit.
We decided she would go to a “home for unwed mothers” and offer the child for adoption. Her mother and father were in the front seat, and we were in the back, as we drove to the home. I was alone in the back seat when we returned. My girlfriend’s mother had a seizure in the front passenger seat as her father drove. They never blamed me for the seizure. They didn’t have to. I blamed myself. We drove endlessly home in empty silence.
After giving birth, my girlfriend held our child once before the adoption. I was not allowed to be there. We were treated kindly all through the pregnancy, but another message was equally clear: abortion was illegal and sinful but offering our own child for adoption the right thing to do after doing the wrong thing. Everything was secretive, anonymous and transactional.
My girlfriend returned home with dripping breasts, a flabby tummy and no baby. There was nothing about what happened that I could understand. She knew what had happened to her body but was as stunned and empty as I was, and we had no idea how to process what had happened to us. We loved each other very much and tried to be a couple again but drifted apart, forever.
Years later, both of us married and had more children. One night, while putting my daughter to bed, I said, “You’re my favorite little girl!” She said, “That’s because I’m your only little girl.” I said nothing. The secret and the shame remained sealed.
Twenty-one years after our daughter’s birth, I located my long-lost girlfriend and got her permission for me to hire a search investigator. A couple of months later I learned from the investigator that my daughter’s name was Linda. I wrote a letter to Linda that began, “My name is Dwight Lee Wolter and I vow to never try to contact you again without your approval, but I believe I am your biological father.”
Our daughter wrote back immediately. At one point, she was living in San Diego. Coincidentally and ironically, I was to deliver a speech there on a book I had written about forgiveness. We met and the next day she sat next to me at a banquet table. I was introduced and as I walked to the stage, a woman at the table said to my daughter, “You must be very proud of your father.” My daughter said, “I am.” The woman then asked, “Has your father been doing this for long?” My daughter answered, “I don’t know, I just met him.”
As I departed for home the next day, she hugged me and softly and tearfully said in my ear, “Thank you for not choosing an abortion.” She never knew, she told me, that I even knew I had a daughter. I was shocked. When I thought about it, I could have been a rapist or a drunken sailor on a one-night stand. I might not have known that I has a daughter. Her mother, however, would certainly know she was pregnant. Her birth mother, for all our daughter knew, may have been desperate to get an abortion. She was not, but our daughter never knew. She also never knew I had carried her in my heart every day for twenty-one years.
My daughter and I now know much about each other from the past three decades that have passed. Her adoptive mother is deceased. Her birth mother has also passed, but not before they were reunited. Her adoptive father was a guest in my home, along with our mutual daughter, Linda, and her husband and children. Her adoptive father, whom she still adores, has also passed, but not before he and I ~ alone together ~ worked it out that he would call himself her dad and I would call myself her father. I thanked him and his wife for doing a wonderful job, raising Linda. And I remain immensely grateful that he welcomed my sudden appearance in his life.
Linda and I have very different experiences, feelings and beliefs about several things, including abortion. The choice my girlfriend and I once made is obvious. But it was a choice. And like any choice ever made by anyone, it was made in part out of conviction and also of circumstance. It would have been disastrous, for many reasons, if we had chosen to try to raise Linda and we knew it. We did not grow horns on our heads for choosing abortion; but we did not received haloes for choosing adoption either. Everybody was eager to tell my girlfriend what to do with her body and to tell us what to do with our lives. Shame, stigma, pain, and regret resulted for having “given her away” just as it would if we had chosen abortion. But we did not give her away. We released her from deep inadequacy into loving arms better able to do, we hoped and prayed, what we knew we could not.
I am now an ordained pastor. I have an opinion about virtually everything. And yet, I remain deeply convinced that it is not my right to violate the sanctity of a woman’s body, and to force her to carry her pregnancy to birth or to force her to abort, for that matter. I may have an opinion as a citizen and a father, and I hope to have an opportunity to express it. But a woman’s choice concerning her own body and pregnancy is not my choice to make. No matter what you believe and what choices you have made or would make in our situation. But I want to remind you that the people, especially the women, in situations like the one I describe here ~ are not fodder for arguments in churches or the Supreme Court. They are very real people trying to navigate their way through very difficult situations. They deserve compassion, mercy, and freedom to choose.
Dwight Lee Wolter