The Pursuit of the Unwanted, part 6

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | October 18, 2015

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

A Solution in Search of a Problem

By 1970, overpopulation alarmists were congratulating themselves for having fabricated an argument that a fifth of future births could be eliminated without having to resort to heavy coercion. But their mission was far from accomplished: abortion was still highly restricted in most countries and stigmatized nearly everywhere, and in the absence of a “perfect contraceptive,” it was an essential component to their strategy. Also, the surveys they had used to construct the evidence for a huge unmet demand for contraception in the developing world were coming under strong criticism from the scientific community – even those who were sympathetic to the cause of fertility reduction.

But perhaps most importantly, fertility as a population-level phenomenon is ultimately the sum total of many highly personal decisions, and while the threat of an overpopulation-induced apocalypse might be scary in theory, it can hardly be anything but a distant consideration to a couple just discovering they have a baby on the way.

To such a couple, the most pressing matters are far more personal: how will they afford the care of a(nother) child? What name should they give him or her? And how can they ensure that this new life has every possible advantage to be healthy, happy, and successful in the long run?

To a couple experiencing an unexpected­—or highly inconvenient—pregnancy, the practical considerations are weighty enough without having to factor in the additional fear that any ambivalence or negative feelings toward the pregnancy on the part of the parents might result in a child entering the world already irreparably damaged. Such a fear would be far more immediate and personal than global overpopulation, and could have far more significance in the mind of a mother considering abortion.

As discussed in Part 3, prominent proponents of abortion and contraception were more than happy to play upon people’s fears that “unwantedness” engendered enormous psychological harms in children, even in the utter absence of any scientific data supporting that assertion. But they were also willing to go to great lengths to prove their case.

Among the most dedicated to the cause was psychologist Edward Pohlman, whose fervent belief that “unwantedness” had devastating effects was matched only by his belief in the necessity of proving it. In 1969, Pohlman published “The Psychology of Birth Planning,” funded by grants from Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and featuring a foreword from that organization’s then-president, Alan Guttmacher, who declared that Planned Parenthood was “proud to have initially supported a research project which has produced such a tangible and significant accomplishment” and urged that the book “should find a place in the permanent literature of this field.”

Other reviewers were not so pleased with the product. Professor Thomas K. Burch, a demography researcher from the University of Victoria, wrote a frankly hilarious critique of Pohlman’s book, which included the following:

“The first criticism is that in paragraph after paragraph, the book does not really say anything.”

“It all has the flavor of the TV comedy college professor.”

“Much of the material should have been left out altogether as being of no value.”

“Pohlman’s handling of evidence is (to use that most damning of words-but I know of none more appropriate) curious.”

“I was particularly intrigued to learn that playing Rock-a-bye Baby with a small child is a sign of disguised parental hostility.”

But the most damning critique comes from Pohlman himself, within the pages of his book:

“When we began work on this volume we were in high hopes that research could be compiled that would convince even the skeptic that unwanted conceptions tend to have bad effects. We felt this would have the important practical objective of giving impetus to the argument that birth planning is of great importance. We no longer feel optimistic that this relationship can be demonstrated easily…”

In fact, Pohlman does a complete about-face from his earlier clarion call for research to back up the claim that “unwantedness” causes psychological harm:

“Also, although from a purely academic viewpoint all research has value, we now have doubts about whether research on the effects of unwanted conceptions has great practical value in advancing the ‘cause’ of birth planning, the threat of overpopulation seems to be an extremely powerful incentive to influence people to promote birth planning. On a more personal level, many people seem to be convinced that unwanted births have undesirable effects, and the lack of research does not diminish the strength of their feelings. Nor would the strength of their feelings be increased much by clear research support.”

In other words, he admits that his hypothesis was wrong, but goes on to say it doesn’t really matter because that hypothesis is already so widely accepted that it doesn’t actually require evidence to back it up. So much for intellectual honesty.

In his own review of the book, Professor David M. Potts from the London office of the International Planned Parenthood Federation acknowledged the underwhelming findings of the research it contained:

“Much of the Psychology of Birth Planning is frankly based on the hypothesis that ‘unwanted conceptions tend to have undeniable effects for parents and children’, and Pohlman expressed his own surprise that the available evidence is weaker than he expected.”

However, Potts noted the omission of one particular study from Pohlman’s work:

“It is unfortunate that the Scandinavian work on the progress of children born to women who had requested, but were refused legal abortions is not mentioned anywhere. A critical analysis of this pioneer study would have been appropriate and would have added weight to certain key arguments. Perhaps Pohlman is unduly pessimistic in his own verdict on the work done so far but he is right to pin-point the improvement that is needed if research is to advance.”

More about the Scandinavian study shortly…but first, a word from Alan Guttmacher, ever the true believer, who continued to assert what science had not proven. In a 1970 interview published in Family Planning Perspectives, he said:

“I am sure that [the notion that women denied abortion suffer psychological harm] is true. A study is being conducted now by the National Institute of Mental Health to determine the psychological sequelae to unwanted children and their mothers. The mothers are women who sought abortions and who were refused. I think it will be shown that, in some cases at least, these children grow up to become battered children, the victims of parental abuse. Some women are emotionally and psychologically resistant to the creation of a new life. They actually reject it. Pregnancy will create great mental trauma to such a woman and very likely she will create a traumatic and difficult environment for a child, even before it is born.”

The study from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), as well as the Scandinavian study mentioned by Potts, involved comparing the outcomes of children whose mothers had sought legal abortions, and were denied in accordance with the law, with other children whose mothers had not sought abortions and whose situations bore more or less resemblance to the “unwanted” group depending on the framing of the study. The findings of both studies will be discussed in greater detail in a forthcoming installment, but a couple preliminary points are in order. Note the willingness of Alan Guttmacher to predict the findings of an as-yet-unpublished study by predicting that some of the children deemed “unwanted” would end up being abused. Even if this were true, it is by no means exclusive to the “unwanted” category; as Pohlman himself writes in his Guttmacher-endorsed volume:

“Even if parents had only those conceptions which they wanted, this would not guarantee that all conceptions that a psychologist might think should be avoided would be avoided. A number of definitely planned and wanted children have ended up with serious emotional problems.”

Even if Guttmacher were right that some of the “unwanted” children were abused, it is quite likely that some of the “wanted” children would be abused as well. And, of course, a lot depends on how “unwantedness” is defined. This becomes critically important when conducting comparative studies. Both the Scandinavian and NIMH studies use the criterion of a woman actively seeking an abortion and being denied on legal grounds to classify the mothers of “unwanted” children. But this is a highly specific definition that a) bears no resemblance to the demographers’ definition of “unwantedness” that included a fifth of all births, b) will vary greatly from one setting to another due to the uneven patchwork of laws governing legal grounds for abortion between countries, and c) will have very limited policy applicability for the same reason.

For all his zeal for fertility reduction, Edward Pohlman did at least exhibit one hallmark of a good scientist: he was willing to acknowledge the fact that his initial assertions were not borne out by the available empirical research, and much was made of the fact that he included nearly 700 references in his bibliography. As with any area of science, it is essential that the evidence be considered in the aggregate; no one “definitive” study can be the last word on any subject, particularly one with critical and controversial policy implications.

Definitions are crucial, and the definition of “unwantedness” is particularly important when we consider that a broad definition of “unwanted” is useful when discussing the demographic implications of a family planning initiative. On the other hand, an extremely narrow and experiential definition of “unwanted” is more likely to paint a picture of a child whose life is not worth living: the unwitting poster child for legal and accessible abortion on demand.

Next: A setback and a redirection for “unwantedness”