Sarah Erkmann

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Alaska mom who left baby to die under bush had many other options

Sarah Erkmann
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December 5, 2013 (Catholic Anchor) - For many Alaskans it was an unimaginable tragedy. An Eagle River woman allegedly gave birth to a baby girl, wrapped her in a towel, and left her to die under a bush in a public park. A resident walking his dog later found the deceased child. The young woman now finds herself charged with murder and, if convicted, facing up to 99 years in prison.

But the life of the child might have been saved under Alaska’s Safe Haven law that allows a newborn baby to be left with a staff member at any hospital, fire or police station or with a medical service provider with no legal repercussions for the mother.

The tragedy has sparked a conversation among community members about why a woman would ever handle an unexpected pregnancy by abandoning her child in a park.

PREGNANT, SCARED, ALONE

While it is unknown whether the woman accused of causing the death of her newborn was mentally ill, it is not uncommon for women from all socioeconomic backgrounds to find themselves pregnant, scared and alone. Oftentimes these women choose to abort their unborn child. According to the State of Alaska’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, 1,629 abortions were performed in Alaska in 2012.

So what are the options available to those who find themselves in a tough situation? While they don’t receive a lot of press, there are many resources in Anchorage to help pregnant mothers make life-affirming choices for themselves and their babies.

HELP IS AVAILABLE

One of the most prominent is Catholic Social Services’ (CSS) Pregnancy Support Services. Local Catholics may be most familiar with the program’s ongoing requests for donations of diapers, baby wipes, formula and other supplies. But the program provides for much more than just a baby’s basic needs.

“We help women who choose to parent their baby navigate the process of finding medical care, housing, food assistance and other needs,” said Susan Bomalaski, CSS executive director. “More than half of our clients come to us in advanced stages of pregnancy, sometimes even in labor. Often, they already have other children and are completely overwhelmed by the additional responsibility. We try to help them through it.”

Bomalaski says pregnant women like the ones thy see at CSS share a common challenge—an overwhelming sense of being alone.

“We find these women have a difficult time coming to grips with an unplanned pregnancy, she said. “They are afraid of the cost, of the responsibility associated with having a baby on their own. They feel so totally alone to the point where they are desperate. Fear dominates their thoughts.”

The Anchorage CPC Pregnancy Center is another local agency designed to help pregnant women in need. Bill Donovan, the group’s executive director, says their services help women explore their options before their baby is born and support them once the baby has arrived.

“We offer counseling to discuss the client’s needs covering their options in a nonjudgmental way, he said. “We do not encourage or refer for abortion, but will discuss this option with them if they request it.”

The CPC works with women if they choose adoption and refer to adoption attorneys and agencies like Catholic Social Services.

Donovan added that if mothers choose to parent, the CPC  offers its ‘Earn While You Learn’ program that consists of 12 monthly or weekly classes covering everything from prenatal care and the experience of giving birth, to why is my baby crying, helping with (toilet) training and discipline. They earn the opportunity to stock up on needed supplies for their baby (diapers, clothing, car seats and formula) after each visit.

RESPONSIBILITY TO REACH OUT

Carol Szopa is a volunteer for Project Rachel, a program designed to assist women struggling with post-abortion regret. Her experience is similar to Bomalaski’s, except in her case, she counsels women who suffer pain and depression following an abortion.

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“The women we talk to usually felt totally unsupported in their pregnancy. They say, ‘I wish someone had said to me, ‘let me help you have your baby.’ At the time they chose to terminate their pregnancy, they felt this overwhelming sense of being alone in the world.”

Szopa sees it as a responsibility to reach out to these women and offer them the help they need to make a different choice. “It could make all the difference in the world to say to them, ‘you will get through this. We will help you through it.’ Of course, then they need to be connected with the appropriate social services, but a big first step is confronting their initial fears and finding support.”

Szopa is quick to point out that men could do more to change the dynamic for women facing unplanned pregnancies.

“In many cases, the women we counsel were completely unsupported by the men in their lives,” she said. “Men are supposed to be equal partners in preparing for a new baby, and when they instead pressure their partner to end the pregnancy, or say ‘fine, have the baby, but I want nothing to do with it,’ they leave the women feeling even more isolated and helpless. This causes a lot of anger and resentment later on.”

PARISH OUTREACH

Pam Albrecht is another local Project Rachel volunteer and pro-life advocate. In her opinion, Catholic churches could support women with unintended pregnancies by letting them know they can call any church, at any time, and get help.

“Many parishes have a group of women or could call on women in the parish who would be able to offer a meal, a ride to an appointment, a few hours of babysitting or whatever it takes to help a woman who is struggling with other children and a pregnancy, and that could make a huge difference in her life,” Albrecht said.

AWARENESS GAP

Advocates for life-based pregnancy choices are fairly satisfied with the amount of support pregnant women can find in Anchorage. Where they could use help, they say, is with outreach and awareness around those services.

“We provide outreach to high schools, doctor’s offices, hospitals and other entities that might interact with pregnant women,” Bomalaski noted. “Our services don’t benefit the woman who doesn’t know about them, however, so we have been trying unconventional venues recently to try and generate awareness,” she said.

Bomalaski cited staffing a booth at a recent Halloween carnival in the Northway Mall as an example. “We need to be where the people are,” she said.

Her advice is simple for the average citizen who read the story about the deceased, abandoned baby and felt compelled to do something: spread the word. “Be a mentor to someone facing a pregnancy alone,” Bomalaski said. “Tell your coworkers, friends and families about the services this community provides to women struggling with an unintended pregnancy. Talk about the Safe Haven law so people know they have options available to them, no matter how impossible their situation may seem at the time.”

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Anchor

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