Desert News Interview

Desert News Interview

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WELLNESS – 

Meet the retired nurse who pays women not to have abortions

ERIE, Pa. — After two decades as an Air Force nurse, it was time for Maj. Laura Merriott to retire, and she had the perfect place: a secluded home that fronts a gurgling creek in northwestern Pennsylvania.

There, she could sit on the deck with her husband of 32 years and plan trips to visit her sons and siblings, scattered across the country. Most often, when she sits under a thick canopy of trees, Merriott is thinking about babies and how she can save them by writing a check.

Through her nonprofit foundation, Save Unborn Life, Merriott, 65, has given 77 women who were considering abortion $3,000 each in exchange for carrying their babies to term. A staunch Catholic, she got the idea for the unconventional ministry, which she runs out of her home, when she learned nearly three-quarters of women who have abortions cite financial hardship as a reason.

“If money makes a difference, I thought, why aren’t pro-life people standing up and saying ‘we’ll help you’? It does make a difference. We make an offer, and hopefully they’ll choose life and have no regrets,” Merriott said.

As a nurse, Merriott was present for the birth of about 100 babies and helped to deliver two of them. Other than her own two sons, it’s the babies pictured on two bulletin boards full of snapshots that have brought Merriott the most joy. They are babies she believes would have been aborted if their mothers had not connected with her organization.

“They (the mothers) are so happy, and most of them say, ‘I can’t believe I considered having an abortion,’” she said. “This is what I envision happening across the country.”

All she needs, she says, is to get the word out – and for more donors to come forward. So far, nine people, besides Merriott and her husband, are listed on the group’s website as major donors, meaning they give $3,000 or more. She accepts donations in any amount and promises every dollar goes to a new mother.

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Merriott’s work has drawn praise from some quarters, including Americans United for Life, a pro-life advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which said in a statement, “We admire all efforts to support women who choose life for their baby.”

Others in the pro-life movement decline to comment, seemingly leery of a gesture that solves one problem while creating another: How a poor mother with little support will provide for the child over the next 18 years.

Even Mark Crutcher, founder of the anti-abortion group Life Dynamics Inc., said, “I’m not sure how I feel about this” when he began an interview with Merriott on his online talk show and said he first thought the gesture seemed like a “ransom.”

In 2007, Texas Sen. Dan Patrick (now lieutenant governor) suggested pro-life advocates approach women at abortion clinics and offer them $500 to continue their pregnancies. The proposal failed to garner support, and opponents said the concept was insulting to women and amounted to a bribe. One critic likened it to “baby purchasing.”

Merriott, however, is undeterred by naysayers and gives both her home address and telephone number on the group’s website. “I’ll take whatever they say, so a baby gets to live,” she said in an interview in her living room earlier this month, where the coasters on the coffee table say “Practice Kindness.”

Worldwide, about one in four pregnancies is aborted, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, where abortion has been legal since 1973, the figure is smaller — about one in five — and declining. This is, in large part, because of improved contraception, which has also led to a drop in teen mothers.

The pro-life movement is happy to take credit, too.

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More than four decades after the Roe v. Wade decision, pro-life advocates are still hammering away at abortion, from legislative efforts — such as the Texas case before the U.S. Supreme Court that would, among other things, require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — to grass-roots initiatives — such as the controversial undercover video of Planned Parenthood workers that was released last year.

In 2011, 21 percent of all pregnancies in the US, excluding miscarriages, ended in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which compiles data on reproductive health.

The board of Save Unborn Life wants that rate to be zero.

One ad equals three babies

Merriott’s story began in her hometown of Panna Maria, Texas, where she was raised by a mother who gave birth to 11 children and gathered them every evening to say the rosary on their knees.

Merriott’s mother was the granddaughter of immigrants who helped to create the oldest existing Polish community in the U.S., and religious faith was essential to their lives. (The town’s name, “Panna Maria,” means “Virgin Mary” in Polish.)

The family was close, and Merriott returned home to Panna Maria for her wedding to an Air Force pilot, Ron Merriott, whom she met at a helicopter squadron party. They have two sons, ages 30 and 31, and hope to have grandchildren some day.

In 1993, the couple settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, a city of about 100,000 on the shore of the Great Lake, after Merriott retired and her husband, by then a colonel, took a job teaching Junior ROTC at a local high school.

Still wanting to contribute, Merriott began volunteering for a local women’s center that offered free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.

There are no abortion clinics in Erie — the closest are in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., all about a two-hour drive away — but women often go to the center, run by pro-life advocates, to date their pregnancies through ultrasound before booking an abortion elsewhere.

One day in 2005, Merriott was talking to the center’s executive director about the reasons pregnant women give for having abortions, and she was struck by how many said they didn’t have enough money to have a child. She decided to use her retirement savings — about $100,000 — to start the foundation.

The group, which has a four-member board, does not advertise much because of the cost, although it has run an ad seeking donors in The National Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper owned by the Eternal Word Television Network. (“That’s like three babies,” Merriott says of the cost of taking out an ad in a newspaper.)

Instead, it connects with “abortion-prone” women through counselors at women’s health centers run by pro-life advocates.

When someone comes in for a free pregnancy test or ultrasound and seems to be leaning toward abortion because of financial stress, the counselors use their discretion to decide whether a pregnant woman is someone that Save Unborn Life could help.

Over a decade, Merriott has collected 77 signed and notarized contracts. Seventy-two have been paid, and five women are currently pregnant. Most of the women live in Erie, and Merriott meets with them twice — first, to sign the contract, and second, to deliver the check and take a picture of the baby.

In addition to signing a contract, the women must provide an ultrasound image to document the pregnancy and the fetus’s age. The contract they sign, available on the group’s website, <saveunbornlife.org>, says the mother will not “intentionally or negligently” harm the child and will “do her best to assure proper nutrition to insure (sic) maximum development of baby/babies.”

The contract does not stipulate whether the mother must raise the child herself or offer it for adoption, a change from the organization’s beginning when adoption was required. Most women, however, keep their babies; only seven have chosen adoption. If they choose adoption, they arrange it on their own. Save Unborn Life does not work with adoption agencies nor get involved in the process.

The contract also attempts to protect the foundation from fraud, asking women to attest they did not become pregnant for the purpose of collecting the money.

Two, with another on the way

Skeptics have said $3,000 is insignificant compared to the costs of raising a child over 18 years. It costs more than $10,000 a year for a single parent to raise one child, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture calculator.

Merriott points out the women that come to her live below the poverty line, and most often their health expenses, including the delivery of the child, are paid by Medicaid, and they have government assistance for housing and food. For these women, a lump sum of $3,000 is “amazing,” a life-changing amount, she said.

Some have used the money to go back to school; others have used it to pay rent and basic expenses, so they can have time with the baby before returning to work.

Sharon, who did not want to use her real name, is a 33-year-old woman in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who recently signed a contract with Save Unborn Life. A customer service representative who describes herself as low income, she already has two children and is not married. She’s 15 weeks pregnant with a child due in December.

“When I told the father I was pregnant, he went from a nice human being, who said he was in love with me, to a complete monster,” she said in an email. “It really seemed like abortion was my only option.”

She learned about Save Unborn Life while looking for information about abortion on the internet.

“I began thinking that if I had $3,000, I may be able to pull this off,” she said. “The money would get me over the hump after the baby is born. I could then afford to take time off work, move to an apartment bigger than my current one-bedroom, and it would give me some time to figure out how I’m going to support three kids.”

Sharon is on Medicaid, which pays for prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postpartum care for about 40 percent of births in the U.S.

She is undaunted by the prospect of adding another child when she is already struggling, even though the money from Save Unborn Life will likely be spent before the child is 6 months old.

“I am well aware that it’s a baby I can’t afford, and I know I’ll have to find a way to bring in and save more income to support a third child. However, this at least gives me some time and the opportunity to do so. It helps.”

Baby bounties

As far as Merriott knows, hers is the only group in the U.S. that offers women money to have babies. She’s not the first in the world to do so.

The province of Lombardy, in Italy, provides financial assistance to mothers, up to $5,500, for the first 18 months of the child’s life. It’s an effort not only to prevent abortion in the predominantly Catholic country, but also to boost Italy’s flagging fertility rate. Italians have 8.4 children per 1,000 people, compared to Americans’ 13.

Other countries that are struggling to boost their population, such as Estonia andAustralia, offer “baby bounties” — cash, tax breaks, gifts and other incentives — to encourage women to give birth.

Merriott isn’t worried about America’s replacement rate, only about embryos denied their shot at life.

She hasn’t met Sharon nor the other women she has helped outside of Erie (three in Pittsburgh and one in Texas), and she knows expanding her ministry means she will no longer get to meet women and present checks in person, like she does in Erie.

She believes, however, her ministry is an important one and wants it to grow. While there are many good organizations seeking financial help, hers is the only one to which a person can contribute $3,000 and know another person is going to be alive because of the donation, Merriott said.

“They can actually say, ‘I saved a human baby,'” she said