Dear Prudence

To Have or Have Not

Our mentally disabled daughter is pregnant. Should we take her for an abortion?

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
We recently discovered our daughter is pregnant. She is 18 and mentally disabled, and there is a police investigation under way. My wife and I have decided to take her for an abortion, but I question whether this is the right choice to make on her behalf. My daughter knows the basics of what is happening and she keeps talking about her baby. We have the resources and family support to care for this child if it were born. I also know this may be the only chance we have at being grandparents. I need some outside perspective here.

—Maybe Baby

I think the perspective you need here is your daughter’s. The first question is a legal one: Even assuming you have medical conservatorship over your adult daughter (guardianship laws vary from state to state), from your description it does not sound to me as if she is clearly giving her consent to an abortion. Even if you did have guardianship, you would almost certainly need a court order before you were authorized by an abortion provider to give informed consent on her behalf. If you don’t already have a lawyer advising you, I suggest finding one through the Disability Rights Bar Association.

But the most important thing for you and your wife to bear in mind is that your daughter still deserves to have autonomy, whatever her limitations. It sounds as if your daughter was sexually assaulted; I hope you make sure she receives counseling and support for this trauma, regardless of what decision she ultimately makes about her pregnancy. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, another excellent resource, reminds us that society still suffers from “notions that individuals with mental disabilities are inadequate parents and place their children at high risk of abuse or neglect.” Whether or not you want to have grandchildren should not enter into the decision-making process. You must put aside your own concerns and desires and act in your daughter’s best interest, taking her wishes very seriously into account.

If she does want to carry to term and you and your wife are willing and able to help raise a child, you should again consult a lawyer to consider what the best legal and financial arrangement might be. What if you and your wife become ill or unable to care for a child? Could you have a trust set up, or find additional co-parents who could assist your daughter, if need be? I know time is of the essence, but there are multiple conversations you need to have before you can move ahead either with securing an abortion or with preparing your family for another child. You sound like a deeply caring parent, and I wish you all the best in navigating this incredibly complex situation.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband “John” and I are expecting our first child. John’s parents are devout Christians whose lives revolve around their church. They have no idea their son is an atheist, although they know I am. They are assuming that John and I will take our children to church. My husband is extremely nonconfrontational when it comes to his parents. I want him to tell his parents we have no plans to raise our children in a religious tradition, but he won’t do it. Whenever his parents are alone with me, they sneak in questions about my family’s religion and tell me they look forward to John going back to church once he has a family of his own. I don’t want to cause tension with my in-laws, but I don’t want to lie for my husband either. I’d rather have it all out before the baby is born.

—Confirmed Non-Churchgoer

I can understand your husband’s reluctance to make waves. He’s got a great setup going: You take all the heat as the identified atheist and he doesn’t have to go to church. But this situation is not tenable. Unless he’s planning on taking your children to church to please his parents and faking religious fervor for the rest of his life, sooner or later he’s going to have to do the unthinkable: be honest with them. You can’t force him into it, but you can tell him that you’re no longer going to lie on his behalf, and that the next time his parents ask you a direct question about their son’s beliefs or church attendance, you’re going to tell them the truth.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
An old high school acquaintance recently reached out to me after a volatile breakup with his girlfriend. I have been a sympathetic outlet for him, mostly through text messages. He has started to make unreasonable demands (call me right this minute, you need to move closer, etc.). I don’t respond and eventually he apologizes. After the fifth episode I told him not to contact me anymore. I feel very bad about this. No doubt he needs help (he says he’s in therapy), but I don’t want to put up with his verbal abuse. To be honest, I am worried that he might snap in a violent way. What is the best way to help someone like this? I don’t know anyone else in his life, and live several states away. It seems sad to write him off, but I’m not sure what else to do.

—Afraid to Help

You don’t live near him, and you didn’t have a pre-existing friendship with him. You are not in a position to help this troubled man. The best thing you can do for him (and yourself) is to lose his number. He needs professional help, and it sounds like he’s getting it. If he’s made a specific threat against himself or another person, report it to the local authorities; otherwise, resist the urge to get involved.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My brother-in-law divorced his wife a few years ago. They have three children. After his marriage ended, he started seeing a much younger woman. They have been living together for a long time, and everyone in our family treats them as a married couple. Meanwhile, he has another girlfriend he’s been seeing for over a year now. The whole family knows about this other woman, but no one says anything. I expect you to tell me that it’s not my place to meddle, but I’m having a hard time pretending in front of the live-in girlfriend since I view the whole relationship as a joke on her.

—Can’t Hold My Tongue

I think you can meddle. Meddle cautiously, and with the knowledge that this might very well backfire, but meddle nonetheless. Your brother-in-law has already forced you to be involved in his deception by not even bothering to hide his mistress and then expecting you to lie for him. He’s the one who involved you in his business; you haven’t been following him around, trying to catch him cheating on his girlfriend. In the eternal rule of the playground, he started it.

Odds are decent that your brother-in-law’s girlfriend will resent you for being the bearer of bad news. (They may also be in an open relationship, and she might already know about girlfriend No. 2.) It’s also likely that your partner’s family will blame you for bringing his cheating to light. But if you feel prepared for the potential backlash, go ahead. Break it to her as gently as possible. It sounds like if circumstances were reversed and you were the one being cheated on, you would want to know, but knowing you acted out of principle can be cold comfort when everyone is angry with you for stirring the pot.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I live overseas with a fellow ex-pat I recently married, and I’d like to host his daughter for her gap year. She is sweet, engaging, and wants to learn a third language. Her mother is quite lovely and reasonable. My sister—who wants me to host her daughter as well—is not. My sister makes horrid remarks about other races and expects me to pay for her daughter to come stay with us. She says it will be good for her, but my niece behaves rudely and ignorantly. How do I gracefully tell my sister there’s no way in hell?

—Not in My House

I don’t think it’s particularly important to be graceful in this situation. Your sister sounds like the type of person who thrives on making unreasonable demands of others, then blowing up at them when they “disappoint” her. Deny her that satisfaction. Tell her you’re already hosting your husband’s daughter and won’t be able to host hers, then stop talking. She will likely demand further explanation. Don’t give her any. Luckily for you, you live a continent away and can hang up on her with little fear of an angry knock on your door the next day.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’m a 31-year-old man who recently came out to his very traditional family after a long bout with depression. I’d been seriously contemplating suicide. The news went even worse than I had feared. My father took his own life out of the deep shame of having such an “irreparable stain upon the family name.” My siblings won’t talk to me. My mother can no longer look me in the face. Horrified and numb don’t even begin to describe what I’m feeling.

I have since opened up to friends about what happened, and even though I’ve been embraced with love, I still feel immense guilt and shame at what my loud mouth has caused. I really need some outside perspective, understanding, and comfort. Please help.


I have started and erased so many responses to your heartbreaking letter. I am so sorry you are in the middle of so much pain and bewilderment and isolation. You must understand that your father’s suicide, as painful and tragic as it is, is not your fault. I’m glad your friends are there to support you. But please also get counseling immediately. You need a mental health professional to guide you through this and to help remind you that you are not, and never could be, the “cause” of someone else’s response to your sexual orientation.

If you find yourself dealing with suicidal thoughts, the Trevor Project (888-488-7386) is a 24-hour national hotline for LGBT people that offers crisis intervention and suicide-prevention assistance. You are carrying an enormous burden right now. Please don’t carry it alone.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Back in September, I had an informational interview over the phone with a well-known professional in my intended field (I’m a college student). It was a big deal that he took time to talk to me at all, and it quickly led to better things. I sent a thank you email immediately and promised to send him a handwritten note “soon,” but because of a variety of factors I still have not sent him the note. I am not generally a forgetful person. Since it’s the New Year, I figure now is the perfect time to get this done. I was planning to write him a letter thanking him for the conversation, then explaining how his advice led to my professional advancement, and perhaps include a small gift as well. Is it too late?


I’m of the “better late than never” school. You already thanked him once over email, so it’s not as if you completely ignored him after your conversation. Let this be a reminder to you of the dangers of overpromising and underdelivering. I myself have often fallen prey to its temptations. It feels so good to tell someone “I’m going to do X” before actually having to, you know, do X. Write the note—no gift necessary—and be sure to pay the favor forward when you’re a big shot someday.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
So my husband has a best friend from the time they were in diapers. “Steve” was in the Army and served in Iraq but has serious issues that prevent him from holding a regular job. However, he is a delight with my toddler and his service dog. He lives in our guest room and takes care of my toddler while I am at class and my husband works. The house is clean, my son is happy, and we save so much money in child care. My mother says this situation is unnatural but I am happy. I have no problem with living like this for the next decade. Steve makes my husband happy and has nothing else but bad breaks in life (the VA is a joke). Is my mother right?

—Love My Second Husband

A lot of great things are unnatural. Wild bananas are chock full of seeds and taste terrible. People used to throw their waste out of bedroom windows into the street. Natural is overrated, and it sounds like the three of you have a wonderful arrangement. My only question is whether you and your husband are paying Steve for his child care and house-cleaning services. It doesn’t sound like you’re taking advantage of Steve, and all three of you seem happy with your situation, but I’d advise you to look into your state’s laws, especially if Steve is on some form of disability. Your relationship with Steve could be categorized as employment and might require a more official arrangement.

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