The Pursuit of the Unwanted, part 2

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | August 25, 2015

(Part 1)

Why a series on “unwantedness?”

In my previous post, I discussed two recent papers that dealt with the concept of the “unwanted” pregnancy and/or child, for the purpose of illustrating a several important realities:

  • There is an entire body of academic literature that exists to assess the personal and societal ills associated with “unwantedness”;
  • It is designed and intended to promote abortion and contraception, and makes little effort to disguise its biases in that regard;
  • The people applying the label of “unwanted” are researchers, not parents;
  • Even though these activist researchers set the rules and defined the terms, their results are not terribly convincing on their own merits; BUT
  • With an enabling media and supportive policymakers, they have succeeded wildly at creating a narrative that has been used to influence societal opinion and change laws and policies.

Delving into the scholarly history of “unwantedness” reveals a lot of ugly things, most of all the blatant attempt to characterize a section of the human population as not only expendable but tragic by virtue of their very existence. But there’s a surprising amount of good news buried within the literature, even though it rarely makes it into the main findings, has to be read between the lines, or is regarded by the authors as negative.

What could rightly be described as a story of perniciously manipulative pessimism is also – subversively – a story of human resilience and the ability to overcome and adapt when things don’t go as planned. It’s a story of humble people, many of them poor, who loved their children enough to confound the statistical models contrived by academic elites for the purpose of reducing their numbers.

Commenting on an article published in the UK-based Journal of Medical Ethics, Associate Editor Bennett Foddy, Ph.D., wrote:

“Women sometimes express regret over a successful abortion, but only very rarely express regret over bearing a child to term […] a parent might even fail to regret the birth of a child who was wrongfully conceived and wrongly brought to term…”

This quote encapsulates exactly what’s wrong with the “unwantedness” concept as a scholarly concept, which is that researchers are far more trigger-happy with the initial application of terms like “unwanted,” “wrongfully conceived,” and “wrongly brought to term” than parents are. They also prefer that the labels, once applied, should remain in place, even though the parental tendency to accept one’s child remains stubbornly prevalent.

Over the past half-century or so, scholars in the demographic field have worked in parallel with scholars in the physical and mental health fields to harness “unwantedness” to achieve pro-abortion and pro-contraception policies. Demographers sought to define the “unwanted” in order to propose their elimination from future generations, as a step toward lowering global fertility. Psychologists and medical doctors attempted to demonstrate that “unwanted” children suffered from a lower quality of life than their “wanted” counterparts across a variety of indicators.

The definition of an “unwanted” pregnancy or child was of central importance, and posed an obvious difficulty. Defining the term broadly meant including more people in the “unwanted” pool, which meant a larger-scale policy response would be needed and a greater demographic impact might be anticipated. On the other hand, the larger the sample becomes relative to the general population, the more it will be indistinguishable from the general population, and the more difficult it becomes to identify subtle differences with regard to health metrics, such as birth weight or child survival, especially when you control for the many other variables that can affect those things.

The studies that are most frequently cited as proving the harms of “unwantedness” employ operational definitions for “unwanted” that are far more rigorous and situation-specific than those used by demographers. Yet even in these studies, which will be discussed further later, the reported effects were far more subtle and anticlimactic than what the early champions of the “unwantedness” concept had predicted.

Considering the volume of positive news to be found buried within the “unwantedness” literature, it bears wondering how much more could have been discovered if the researchers were curious about different things, or willing to take their inquiries in other directions. For instance, while it is generally accepted that “unwanted” pregnancies can – and often do – become “wanted” children, very little work has been done to identify the characteristics of the mothers for whom this happens most naturally, or those for whom it fails to happen or happens later or with more difficulty. Surprisingly little has been done to identify or test interventions with a goal of helping mothers to “want” their pregnancies – even though it’s clear that this happens naturally in a great many cases, without any intervention specifically targeted toward that end.

The goal of this series is to examine the history of “unwantedness” as a policy target and as a subject of demographic, medical, and psychological research, with particular focus on both its underlying biases and the subtly positive messages that can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Next: Hype in High Places