The Pursuit of the Unwanted, part 3

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

(Part 1, Part 2)

Hype in High Places

Prior to the twentieth century, the phrase “unwanted children” conjured the image of children who were orphaned or whose parents were, for one reason or other, unable to function as parents. Where neighbors and extended family could not care for them, religious, philanthropic, or government-run organizations attempted to fill the gap.

Margaret Sanger, social Darwinism, eugenics, Freudian psychology, and Malthusian concerns about overpopulation changed all that. In the first half of the twentieth century, the notion of “unwantedness” was transformed from a purely descriptive term to a far more prescriptive one: the goal was no longer to provide much-needed social services to children at risk of falling through the cracks, but rather, to apply a pathological label to a wider group of children whose conception and birth didn’t fit a narrative of rigorous planning.

The redefinition of “unwantedness” was based on shaky anecdotal evidence, but it did have powerful proponents. The psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger, founder of the Menninger Clinic and the Menninger School of Psychiatry, published an article in the January, 1943 edition of the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic (later reprinted in the journal Pastoral Psychology), asserting that “nothing is more tragic, more fateful in its ultimate consequences, than the realization by a child that he is unwanted.” Menninger was almost as adept at hyperbole as he was at getting things named things after himself – his article went on to attribute the problems of racism, genocide, and warfare to “unwantedness” – without citing any reliable evidence to support it:

“Where one child reacts to [feeling unwanted] in later life with an acute mental illness, dozens of children (as I have said elsewhere) react to it in more subtle ways by developing self-protective barriers against the inner perception of the feeling of being unwanted. This may show itself in a determined campaign or in a provocative program of attracting attention by offensive behavior and even criminal acts. Still more seriously it may show itself as a constant fear of other people, or as a bitter prejudice against individuals or groups through deep-seated, easily evoked hatred for them. The rage of the southern poor white against the Negro suspected of some dereliction is referable to the hate he feels inwardly at having been himself, like the Negro, unwanted. The same is perhaps true in the case of Germans and Jews and in many other situations which give opportunity for expression of hatred in the denial of the feeling of being rejected. The importance of this factor in the psychology of war is even greater, in my opinion, than the economic factor arising from the increase of population. This is why I say that, from the purely scientific point of view, planned parenthood is an essential element in any program for increased mental health and for human peace and happiness. The unwanted child becomes the undesirable citizen, the willing cannon-fodder for wars of hate and prejudice.”

Clearly, Menninger was referencing the works of Margaret Sanger here with his reference to “planned parenthood”, and she went on to return the favor and quote this same passage in her own work. But even though Menninger was a highly respected figure, he was still speaking purely from his own opinion on the problem of “unwantedness.”

In the March 1965 issue of Eugenics Quarterly – more than twenty years after Menninger first penned his own piece on the subject – psychologist Edward Pohlman wrote:

“There is a widespread conviction that unwanted conceptions have undesirable effects for parents and children. This conviction is based primarily on faith in expert opinion, which in turn is based primarily on case study evidence [here he cites Menninger]. Controlled research on this question seems needed.”

Setting aside the fact that this was printed in a publication by the American Eugenics Society, Inc., which was still a thing in 1965, Pohlman is referring to a “widespread conviction” based on purely anecdotal evidence.

“The general hypothesis that unwanted conceptions have ‘bad’ effects is hardly new; it appears to be one of the beliefs that motivated Margaret Sanger and the Planned Parenthood movement. But a belief supported primarily by faith has little power to convince the skeptic. If research evidence were found to support the belief strongly, this would provide a powerful additional argument for the importance of family planning.”

If only there were some actual data to prove that any of this is real. While Pohlman is correct that skeptics would require more substantial evidence to go on, it’s incredible that by his own estimation, there are a lot of non-skeptics who have already bought this idea on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Pohlman continues:

“Today, with population explosions in the headlines, threats of overpopulation provide a major incentive for interest in family planning. But perhaps the psychological effects of unwanted conceptions deserve more attention as a problem quite distinct from the effects of overpopulation. […] But to a psychologist who believes that unwanted conceptions tend to have devastating effects in many lives the spectacle of millions of unwanted conceptions seems to be a stupendous mental health problem for the nation, calling for drastic action with a voice as loud as that of any population explosion. This passionate heat must be translated into the coldness of systematic research.”

One has to give Pohlman credit for his ability to state a hypothesis with the oratory finesse of a politician – he must have authored some gripping grant proposals.  To his further credit, he then puts his own proposal into action by proposing a series of testable hypotheses regarding the psychological sequelae of “unwantedness” which would stand up to rigorous testing. As a prerequisite, he proposes in a second article that “unwantedness” needs to be more clearly defined, in order that its psychological effects might be more discoverable.

Pohlman also recognizes that, in many contexts, the notion of whether a child is “wanted” or not is beside the point: the child either exists or doesn’t. Similarly, views may change over time – many an unexpected pregnancy results in a celebrated birth and a cherished child, and children who suffer abuse and neglect from their parents may not meet any scientific definition of “unwantedness.”

A few things are important to mention here: first, that the “birth control” movement had already successfully advanced its narrative that “unwantedness” is bad, even though nobody had any clear data on how bad. Given that leading thinkers in the field of mental health were willing to hypothesize that “unwanted” children were the cause of humankind’s greatest atrocities, even as world wars and mass genocides were front page news, they must have thought the data would be a slam dunk. Second, Pohlman’s call for rigorous research was published in 1965, the same year as the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a law prohibiting the use of contraceptives on the grounds of “marital privacy.” There was clearly an ongoing shift in public opinion on contraception and abortion – although Roe v. Wade was still several years off – but there were still a lot of skeptics to be convinced that these things should not only be legal, but promoted and funded by the state. And third, both Menninger and Pohlman refer to the growing clamor to regulate births because of concerns about overpopulation. Although both of them opine that their proposed epidemic of mental disorders is the larger issue, the scholarly field of demography also took a keen interest in the issue of “unwantedness,” and shared the goal of developing a clearer definition of the term.

What followed was multiple decades of scholarly attempts to frame “unwantedness” as a mental health problem in need of a solution, to be explored in further posts. But suffice it to say, the “coldness of systematic research” has proven to be something akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge over the “passionate heat” of Pohlman’s and Menninger’s extravagant claims.

Next: From taking a survey to being a statistic