The Pursuit of the Unwanted, part 7

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | May 21, 2016

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

A setback and a redirection for “unwantedness”

When Edward Pohlman published his nearly-500-word opus The Psychology of Birth Planning (1969), he was forced to conclude that his predictions that “unwantedness” had bad effects on children was not supported by the evidence.

Discussing his work at a research strategy meeting in Bethesda, Maryland in December 1969, Pohlman acknowledged:

No air-tight scientific evidence exists that unwanted conceptions, per se, have less desirable effects for mother or child than wanted conceptions.”

In fact, he went so far as to suggest that abortion might be a more likely cause of mental health problems:

However, if it is true, as British data suggest, that abortion was much more frequent among women with unwanted conceptions than among other pregnant women, and if induced abortions have some undesirable consequences for some parents, then this is the clearest piece of evidence we have that unwanted conceptions have adverse effects.”

That’s quite an admission, and one that probably got him uninvited from future pro-abortion strategy meetings.

From the outset, Pohlman had sought to prove that “unwantedness” produced disadvantaged children in the hopes that such a finding would be useful in promoting fertility reduction policies. But when the evidence didn’t support that approach, he seemed inclined to pivot: after all, “wanted” fertility was part of the problem too:

Every child, whether wanted or unwanted, adds to population and to population problems.

One month earlier, in November 1969, the U.S. Congress held hearings to establish a commission on population growth in the U.S., with the support of President Nixon. According to New Jersey Republican Representative Florence Dwyer, population was definitely growing, but by design:

It is almost certain that the United States will add 100 million citizens by the year 2000. Virtually all of them will be planned and wanted children, born to families that can care for them and love them. This in short, an unprecedented population growth that may not be affected to any significant extent by family planning measures.

Democratic Arizona Representative Morris Udall testified next, responding to her point:

“But the fact as Mrs. Dwyer so accurately pointed out, most of the new population consists of wanted babies. It isn’t the unwanted baby that causes the population increase, the wanted baby, sometimes the very badly wanted child, that adds to the population.

And in the first section of my bill, do something that sounds very dull, guess, and doesn’t sound very important. The Congress would make the finding —and would hope the President would make a finding—that going to be the policy of this Nation, by humane and voluntary methods, to stabilize the population.”

Udall included in the record his forthcoming article in Reader’s Digest titled “Our Spaceship Earth – Standing Room Only.” In it, he echoed Dwyer’s sentiment that the issue of “unwantedness” had been debunked:

Indeed, one of the myths recently exposed is that of the “unwanted child.” Planned parenthood movements worked for years on the premise that a solution would occur if we could just insure that every child born was a wanted child. We now know that even if that goal were achieved, the population explosion would not be checked. It is the wanted, sometimes badly wanted, fourth, fifth, or eighth child that makes up the bulk of our annual population increase.

It may be worth noting that the gentleman from Arizona was a father of six.

It’s important to mention that the argument in favor of eliminating the “unwanted” was actually the less controversial position under consideration.  The more radical proposal was to enact policies to discourage all childbearing, wanted or otherwise.

Dr. Alan Guttmacher, head of Planned Parenthood­—World Population was unable to attend the hearing, but he sent Jeannie Rosoff from their Washington office to testify in his place. Not unsurprisingly, Guttmacher and Rosoff were not ready to abandon the “unwantedness” argument—despite admitting that it was hard to make the label stick:

“We know that close to half of the natural population increase, for example between the years 1960 and 1965, was due to unwanted fertility. I don’t mean only unwanted fertility among the poor, though it is relatively much larger, but also among the middle class. Seventeen percent of all births in the middle class were reported by parents as unwanted. I am sure the subcommittee understands it is very difficult for a parent who has a child now running around the house to answer the question, “When you had Johnny, did you want to have him?” Most parents, I think retroactively, say, “Of course, I wanted Johnny.” Therefore, we think this estimate of close to 45 percent of natural increase being due to unwanted fertility is probably low.

The Commission would not produce its final report until 1972. But in the meantime, something of a split had emerged in the study of “unwantedness.” Fertility surveys, depending on the wording of questions, were still producing high figures for “unwanted” births, as demonstrated by Guttmacher and Rosoff’s testimony to Congress. Meanwhile, evidence showing that these children were in any meaningful way different from “wanted” children was sorely lacking. For those concerned about overpopulation, such as Pohlman and Congressman Udall, the clear path forward was to attempt to convince people to want, and therefore have, fewer children, and worry less about “unwantedness” as a topic. But debates over abortion at both the state and national level were heating up, and the “unwanted child” was a critical part of the argument in favor of legal abortion.

By the mid-twentieth century, a handful of European countries had legalized abortion under limited circumstances. As a result, women had to apply for permission to have an abortion, and could be turned down if their case was judged to fall outside the legal criteria. This situation gave rise to a new form of study in which women who requested an abortion and were denied could be tracked, along with their children, and compared with the mothers and babies selected as controls.

These were longitudinal studies, meaning that the same people were followed over years, and even decades, after being selected as subjects. Unlike the children labeled as “unwanted” through fertility surveys, the children of mothers who sought but were denied abortions fall under a much narrower, operational definition of “unwantedness.” This distinction is important, because the findings of these longitudinal studies achieved great notoriety—and were even credited as being instrumental in changing laws about abortion—but cannot be meaningfully compared with studies that define “unwantedness” much more broadly.

To a large extent, the point of these studies was to urge the expansion of the grounds for legal abortion, ideally to the point of abortion on demand. In many European countries, even today, abortion is not broadly legal, per se, but there are exceptions to its illegality: a justification is needed, as a matter of form. Of course, the “mental health” exception is widely used as a way to rubber stamp applications, as current data from the UK makes clear, but in the 1960s, it was still possible to be denied an abortion even in the countries that were seen as the most liberal in that respect.

But if it could be demonstrated that the children who were born to women denied abortions were more likely to be disadvantaged throughout life, or to exhibit antisocial tendencies, an argument could be made that abortion should be more broadly available. In short, the mere fact that a woman is seeking an abortion means that her child, if born, would be doomed to experience a lesser quality of life and possibly pose a threat to broader society.

A major difficulty in setting up a longitudinal study of this type is in choosing appropriate controls. In any scientific study, the ideal control is one that shares every characteristic with the test subject apart from the thing being studied. If the “unwantedness” of a child is defined for the purposes of a study as the mother having been denied a requested abortion, then who should the control mothers and children be? As we will explore in a future installment, the problem of selection bias becomes important. For example, women who seek abortions may be more likely to be poor or unmarried than the average pregnant woman, and those factors may also negatively impact the lives of their children. Furthermore, a child born into poverty, or into an unstable parental situation, may suffer disadvantages quite separate from whether the mother “wanted” the pregnancy or not.

In order for a study of “unwantedness” to be useful in advocating for broader availability of abortion, it needs to demonstrate that the fact of being “unwanted,” as defined somehow, creates an indelible mark on a child that is established before birth, independent of socioeconomic status or family structure, which is associated with negative outcomes in the life of that child, possibly into adulthood. Pohlman set out to test the theory that such a phenomenon exists, but deemed himself unsuccessful. The scholars who would have the most success in proving the existence of the harms of “unwantedness” did so by using longitudinal studies that had two important advantages: first, by moving the goalpost by using a definition of “unwantedness” that was operationally specific but demographically irrelevant, and second, the ability to select a control population for comparison.

Whether the findings of these studies is scientifically useful is open to debate, but in the political sphere, their impact has been undeniable.