Christie Vilsack: Unintended pregnancies affect everyone


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Ellen Gaffney’s story has a happy ending. She wouldn’t share it if it didn’t. When she carried out her adoption plan in 1960, she didn’t ask if it was a boy or girl. “I made up my mind that I would never try to find him or her. I made up my mind, and I told my parents.” She didn’t expect that child to find her or to discover that she has three grandsons.

I met Ellen 12 years ago at the Buchanan County Courthouse, where she has served more than 20 years on the county Board of Supervisors. She’s hard to forget, because there are few female supervisors in Iowa. She’s probably not even 5 feet tall, but she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Ellen, now 67, says the stigma doesn’t matter anymore. She wanted to share the news of a daughter and three grandsons with her colleagues at work, her friends, and especially her parents, who played an important role in her story.

Ellen says that when she discovered her pregnancy, “it wasn’t a hard choice.” She knew she wasn’t ready to have a child. She wanted to go to college even though her father didn’t believe in college for girls. Ellen said her parents had never talked with her about “the birds and the bees.” She had no idea that the “flu” that kept her home from school was morning sickness. Unlike many parents, however, Ellen’s parents thought the decision to give the child up for adoption was hers.

The father of her child wanted to get married. She did not. Her parents already had young children to raise. She decided to attend a business school in Omaha for three months before she “showed” and then went to live with relatives in Peoria, Ill., until the baby was born. For her, giving up the baby was not a hard choice. Two years later, she met a man and married him. She told him about her pregnancy but told him she’d “lost the baby.”

In 1999, Ellen received a call at the courthouse. A voice asked Ellen if she had had a child out of wedlock in 1960. The woman was calling from an adoption agency on behalf of a child searching for her birth mother.

Without telling anyone else in her family, she agreed to meet her daughter, Lynn. Lynn was as apprehensive about the meeting as Ellen, but they talked and went to dinner. Over a glass of wine, they decided that Ellen should meet her grandchildren.

The story of Lynn finding Ellen ends happily. Many similar stories do not. It seems to me that the saddest stories have in common a failure to communicate. In Ellen’s time, many young women had been told so little about sex that they weren’t sure how they got pregnant. Many were not allowed to make the important decisions about their own lives and the lives of their babies. Some were shamed into giving up their children and often were not told of their legal rights in the adoption process.

They were often promised that contact information would be left in their files in case a birth child wanted later to contact them, but it was not. Many young women felt alienated, ashamed, and never regained their self-esteem.

Ellen hopes that sharing her story will encourage people to be more open to educating young people about relationships, sexuality, and preventing unintended pregnancies. She wants to make one thing clear about birth mothers and their babies, though. “You give them up; you don’t give them away.”

Ellen’s daughter has found comfort in that.

Christie Vilsack is executive director of the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies and the former first lady of Iowa.

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