Study on Negative Effects of Unwanted Children

A NYT article covers a study of women who want abortions but are denied them, and the particular case of one such woman, called S.  The author of the article thinks public debate focuses disproportionately on the effects of abortion on women, as compared to the effects on women of being denied abortion.  The idea that abortion negatively affects women, he believes, implies that women don’t know what they’re doing when they get an abortion.  So what does the author himself believe about women’s agency?

S. was looking for answers after Planned Parenthood said she was too far along for them.  Her sister recommended abortion counseling provider First Resort.  “S. didn’t know that First Resort’s president once said that ‘abortion is never the right answer.’”  He makes that sound kind of sinister.  Does choice have to mean the choice of abortion, or is there a place for organizations that try to help women in S.’s dire situation without resorting to abortion?  If she doesn’t find them helpful, she’s an autonomous agent and can make her own decision, right? 

Or can she?  “The nurse (at First Resort) asked S. if she wanted to see the baby and turned the monitor toward her: ‘Look!  Your baby is smiling at you.’  S. was shaken, convinced she also saw the baby smiling.”  (Emphasis mine)

The study covered in the article compares outcomes for women who seek an abortion too late in pregnancy with those who get abortions just in time.  It finds that women who get abortions are less likely to be poor two years later and have better health, apparently because of the effects of childbirth on health. 

According to the researcher, “society has the absolute least sympathy” for women seeking late-term abortions, as reflected by the fact that most people favor banning such abortions, and that the law to some extent reflects this view.  This is a warped perspective.  Obviously, people see late-term abortions differently because they are more convinced a child has a moral status closer to its birth.  It isn’t that they for some reason view the woman differently; it’s her baby that they view differently.  Similarly, after a baby is born, people are even more convinced of its moral status, and are generally strongly opposed to infanticide.  This doesn’t mean that they have less sympathy for women themselves after they give birth than beforehand, or something.

Buried about forty-five paragraphs deep in the article is the finding that 5% of women denied late-term abortions regret having their babies.  S. herself, after the tremendous difficulties so movingly depicted- her anxiety over inability to get an abortion, her guilt as she sought an abortion, her “shaking” experience of having the pro-life group show her her ultrasound, her dire poverty, her worries early in motherhood- considers her baby the best thing that ever happened to her, the love of her life, and her whole world. 

Naturally, this requires explanation.  For that, the author turns to expert Katie Watson, who says “[i]t’s psychologically in our interest to tell a positive story and move forward…It’s wonderfully functional for women who have children to be glad they have them and for women who did not have children to enjoy the opportunities that afforded them.”

So women must be telling themselves a positive story, which differs from the truth about their lives, which is that they are miserable.  But wait.  Earlier, this same article had endorsed a utility maximizer view in which women rationally make decisions in their self-interest.  Now he’s saying that psychological factors lead them to tell themselves stories.

The author of the article is engaged in an absurd effort.  He wants to defend abortion as good on grounds of measurable, quantifiable results (health, wealth, etc.), but how can you possibly quantify the value of a child- even just from the woman’s subjective experience?  And how can you make the woman’s experience everything (so the child’s life doesn’t matter, except insofar as it effects her), then turn around and say her subjective experience doesn’t count after all? 

All experience is subjective, including the objectively measurable bits that the author of the piece cares so much about.  The original decision to try to have an abortion was certainly a subjective judgment.  But the author and the person who did the study appear to me to be arguing, “women in certain circumstances should get an abortion,” with “women who want an abortion” as a proxy for “women in certain circumstances.”  Otherwise, what’s the point in making objective measurements- why not just say “choice is good” and be done with it?

This brings us to the people we haven’t really considered- the children themselves.  Oh, sure, the article says the researcher plans to compare outcomes of children born to mothers turned away from abortion compare with children of mothers who aborted a child and then had one when they were ready.  But what question is this supposed to answer?  For the children, the relevant question is not “are they better off than some other children,” but “are they better off being born than not being born.” 

The article notes a similar study of Czech women denied abortions by a government commission versus those born to mothers who did not seek abortion.  Children of unwanted pregnancies had “negative qualities,” and were unpopular with peers and teachers, and so apparently should have been left to die.  For whose benefit?  Their own?  Or society’s?

An uncomfortable question, perhaps.  The author implies the answer you were probably beginning to suspect, in raising an “uncomfortable question” of his own (but I like mine better).  “Given the negative outcomes for turnaways, Foster’s study raises an uncomfortable question: Is abortion a social good?  [Freakonomics author] Steven D. Levitt…argued that…Roe v. Wade led directly to a sharp drop in crime during the early ‘90s: women who were able to plan their families gave birth to better-adjusted children…’It’s offensive,’ Foster [author of the study featured in this article] said of the Levitt study.  ‘Let people have abortions or they will breed criminals?’”  

But of course Levitt claimed to be doing value-neutral science, not advocacy, (just as Foster claims to be doing.)  The finding “abortion reduces crime by preventing criminals from being born” need not be offensive, but the conclusion “abortion is justified to prevent the breeding of criminals” is morally wrong, as Foster says.  But what is her alternative?  “If there is a social good to abortion, Foster prefers to frame that good in terms of positive alternatives.  ‘Maybe women know what is in their own and their family’s best interest…They may be making a decision that they believe is better for their kids – they kids they already have and/or the kids they would like to have when the time is right.’” 

But what difference does it make what kind of social good argument we’re talking about?  At the end of the day, the argument is that parents will have BETTER kids if they wait until they’re ready.  Better for what?  The uncomfortable question again.

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