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A Pro-Nurturing Alternative to Abortion

The Washington Post By Colman McCarthy


Speaking to the faithful at a recent Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, President Clinton won applause for jabbing antiabortion activists. He told of a campaign stop in Iowa and meeting a divorced mother wearing an abortion rights sticker. Not far away, demonstrators were picketing Clinton for his abortion rights position.


The woman, who carried in her arms a baby with AIDS she had adopted, said to Clinton: "I'm for you, and I wish you'd tell those people back there with their signs that if they feel so strongly about it, come help me adopt these babies and stand up for their right to grow up and live a good life."


The predictable applause for that anecdote springs from a handy misperception: that those who publicly oppose or demonstrate against abortion do only that. "Have the baby," they tell women in crisis pregnancies, but when the baby is born they vanish.


This convenient and politically popular stereotype ignores the large numbers of citizens who haven't disappeared, who personally involve themselves in alternatives to abortion. They have no taste for picketing or bullhorn theatrics. Their stance is the useful and usually quiet one of opening their homes and pocketbooks - or being present with other support services - for women facing an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy and who, pressured by fear and often isolation, see abortion as the only option.


Since 1985 the national organization to which these altruists turn is the Nurturing Network, a Boise, Idaho, nonprofit that runs on the belief that no woman should think that abortion is her only choice. It provides practical assistance for such needs as housing, medical care, employment, finances, adoptioncounseling and education.


Some women need only one form of help - a transfer to a different college perhaps, a family to live with during pregnancy, free medical care, a job. A 50- state network with more than 18,500 participants- including doctors, employers and 700 couples and individuals who have opened their homes - has served more than 4,500 women who rejected abortion in favor of birth.


Nurturing Network's founder and director is Mary Cunningham Agee. After earning an MBA at Harvard and working for the Bendix Corp. in 1979-80, Cunningham married William Agee, who is now CEO of Morrison Knudsen Corp. in Boise. The couple staked Nurturing Network with $300,000 of their own money and have seen their work endorsed by groups on both sides of the abortion divide.


On where she herself stands, Agee states that her views aren't worth public attention - they are meaningless to the women her organization serves: "I've never found that hearts and minds are changed by theories. It's at the experiential level where change happens."


This is a non-intellectual approach on an issue that has both sides hellbent on flattening the other with legalities and moralizing. If only a dollop of the energy squandered by activists on the issue in their wearisome square-offs were put into nurturance, two sure results would follow that both sides could embrace: more choices and more lives.


"We need a lot less rhetoric and judging," Agee says."We need a lot more practical compassion." As for "pro-choice" and "pro-life", she says, "Since these two words or concepts are not logical opposites, this issue will never be resolved through rhetoric or debate."


On a recent visit to Washington, Agee met with network members William and Knowles Harper, an Alexandria couple married for 14 years and with two children. The Harpers have twice welcomed to their home women who wanted to complete their pregnancies but needed help. "Our first guest," recalls Harper, a vice president for Paine Webber, "was married at the time of her pregnancy but her husband didn't want the baby. When the child was born, he had a change of heart and the marriage got back together. The second woman was single. Her boyfriend didn't want to marry. He, too, had a change, and now the couple are married and doing fine."


Like Agee, the Harpers are not given to intellectualizing about abortion, William Harper contacted the Nurturing Network in 1992 and volunteered to be a host family: "Five months later, we were called and asked if it was convenient to take a woman in need. We said yes. It was one of the most satisfying things my wife and I have ever done. And we came to know two pretty courageous young women."


They came to understand a truth not much pondered in abortion shouting matches: When the problems of an unwanted pregnancy are eased, what usually results is a wanted child.