Tracking what it means to be born from unwanted pregnancy

One of my strongest memories from medical school was a delivery I assisted with. This was the mother’s fifth child and a quick birth. I proudly held up the newborn boy to show him to his mother. She turned her head away and cried.

I don’t remember the names of the mother or baby, who would be about 44 years old now. How his life has gone is only conjecture, but the likelihood is that his path has not been an easy one.

We generally assume that all adults are cut out to be parents, but that is not true. Forced parenthood can have unhappy consequences for the adults, and especially for the children. This column examines the outcomes of children of unwilling parents. Next month’s column will include the words written by a person who, herself, was born unwanted.

The biggest and best analysis of children born unwanted was done in Czechoslovakia at a time when women had limited access to legal abortion. An American psychologist, Henry David, collaborated with Czech counterparts. Czech women had two chances to request an abortion in the 1960s. The first chance was at a local clinic. If the woman was turned down, she could apply again at a regional level, the last resort for a legal abortion. Unfortunately, the many advantages of adoption were not considered in this study.

One of the Czech psychologists had a list of women who had been twice denied for the same pregnancy. Because of the excellent record keeping of that country, the children born to these women with unwanted pregnancies could be followed for many years. They were carefully matched to children who were desired – same age, same socioeconomic class, same school, etc. All the families lived in Prague, the country’s capital.

These people, both those who were unwanted before birth and the “normal” controls, were examined and tested at age 9, in adolescence and again in their early 20s. The investigators also looked at records, interviewed parents and spoke with teachers.

The two groups of people ended up significantly different despite growing up in similar circumstances. Compared to the people who resulted from pregnancies that were planned (or at least accepted), those born unwanted did not fare so well in life.

Specifically, the babies who had been unwanted were not breast-fed as long, and did not achieve as well in school even though their intelligence tests were as good as the more desired children. They were more likely to be less social and more disruptive and hyperactive and were more likely to have criminal records. When asked as adolescents, the children who had been unwanted believed their mothers showed less maternal interest than did the control group.

The young adults in their 20s were asked how they felt about their lives. Again, there was a significant difference, with the people who were unplanned being less satisfied with their lives, with their love relationships, with their own mental health and with their jobs. It is interesting that their sexual debut was at an earlier age and they had more sexual partners than control people. Thus, these people were more likely to beget another generation of unwanted pregnancies.

There are exceptions to the general rule, fortunately. David’s research found three groups of women who requested abortions but were denied. Some had temporary motivation for wanting to abort, such as financial reasons. These women usually accepted the pregnancy and both mother and child did well. For other women, the pregnancy resulted from a poor relationship, and they did not do so well with child rearing. The third group of women apparently realized from the beginning that they would not be good parents, and the study, unfortunately, bore this out. Both the women and their children did not fare well.

The Czech study was of women who were denied legal abortions. Those who were allowed to have an abortion must have had even more compelling reasons not to parent. If they had been forced to bear their unwanted kids, presumably these children would have had even more severe problems.

What does this mean? A person resulting from an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy starts off life with a handicap, like the baby I delivered in medical school. This can have consequences for society, too. There is a controversial theory, popularized in the book Freakonomics, that the downturn in serious crime in the U.S. noted in the early 1990s was a result of the decrease in unwanted pregnancies after the legalization of abortion in 1973.

An unwanted pregnancy can be devastating. Sometimes things work out well, but delivering and raising an unwanted baby may be traumatic for the parent(s), and scar the child.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2012

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