Born Unwanted: Developmental Effects of Denied Abortion

Reviewed Publisher: 
Avicenum: Prague, 1988.
Reviewed Title: 
A Tenth Anniversary Review Born Unwanted: Developmental Effects of Denied Abortion

On the tenth anniversary of this extraordinary publication about unwanted pregnancies, many people are still not familiar with the definitive scientific information it contains. Surely the most comprehensive longitudinal study ever made of the effects of being born unwanted, the findings by collaborators in three countries may be unique. Research on such an ambitious scale is unlikely to be repeated anywhere, making it all the more urgent to acquire in depth understanding the evidence. As few other works can do, this study goes beyond opinion and speculation to illuminate the formative realities of the prenatal period.

Psychologists thoroughly analyzed cohorts in Goteborg, Sweden for 25 years in Prague (now the capital of The Czech Republic) from birth to early adulthood, and in Northern Finland to the age of sixteen. Then* findings reveal the pervasive consequences of rejection starting long before birth. The children, conceived and born under this cloud, found themselves on a Trail of Sorrows.

In Goteborg, 120 unwanted children were matched with 120 controls of the same sex. Individuals unwanted at conception, unwanted during gestation, and delivered after refusal of applications for abortion were at greater risk than control subjects for psychosocial problems. The unwanted children received more psychiatric attention, were more often delinquent, and did more poorly in school.

In northern Finland (Oulu and Lapland), where 12% of almost 12,000 women said the pregnancy "should not have occurred at all," many comparisons were made over time with the children of mothers who had accepted the pregnancy. At 28 days after birth, measurements revealed that unwanted babies were smaller in weight and length, and a greater proportion of them had been born prematurely. These children had a significantly higher infant mortality rate (24 deaths per 1000 births) and had higher incidences of all types of handicaps including cerebral palsy and mental retardation. At age eight, the researchers initiated a matched-pair study to compare the wanted and unwanted babies after the first year of school, and again at age 14 and 16, the last year of compulsory education in Finland. From the start, unwanted babies had a harder time in school, needed more help from teachers, and were rated poorer in verbal performance.

Follow-up at age fourteen showed the unwanted children had more than double the number of low IQ scores (under 86) as their matched pairs. Physical growth was poorer and school performance significantly lower. Finally, at sixteen years of age, unwanted children were more often reluctant to go to school, wanted to leave at the earliest possible age, and found little purpose in continuing their education. Relationships with teachers and fellow classmates were more troubled. At home, the unwanted girls felt their fathers had been less interested in them, behaved more inconsistently, and had been less involved in their upbringing, compared to their matched pairs.

In Prague, studies used a double-blind method, matched-pair controls, periodic psychological assessments, and public records. By age nine, the children born to mothers twice refused for abortion ended up requiring more medical care for acute and long-term illnesses. Mothers rated them as more stubborn, naughty, and bad-tempered. Teachers rated them lower in academic achievement. Schoolmates rejected them as friends more often than their peers. Born to ambivalent mothers, these children were more deviant, received less empathy and attention to their communications, had less warm interchanges with each other, and suffered psychological deprivation.

At age 14, school performance was worse, many opting not to continue to secondary school. Teachers rated them more hyperactive and less sociable. They felt more rejected by their mothers than did the matched-pairs; and relationships with parents deteriorated over time.

By age 23 these unwanted children showed a greater proneness to social problems, criminal activity, and had triple the amount of serious repeated offenses requiring custodial prison sentences. When questioned about their happiness and life-style they reported far more dissatisfaction, unhappiness, problems, and worries than the control children. They mentioned having poor relationships with their parents and knew that their parents were dissatisfied with them. Unwanted children reported repeated disappointments with love relationships and agreed with the statement: "love brings more trouble than pleasure."

The unwanted children of Prague, themselves breastfed for a significantly shorter time, gave the opinion that a child should be breastfed for no longer than a month at most. Unwanted children drank more black coffee, smoked more heavily, and drank larger quantities of beer than their matched pairs born at the same hospital to parents who wanted them. More of the rejected children were in psychiatric treatment. They coped less well with even minor stress than their counterparts.

The circular effect of early trauma was illuminated as the unwanted entered marriage and parenthood. Those who had married reported their marriages less satisfying, their pregnancies less often welcome, and required more time to develop a close relationship with the developing fetus they were carrying in their wombs. When asked how long they planned to stay at home with their child, most of these mothers said until the end of paid maternity leave (2 years) while their matched-pair mothers said they expected to stay home until the child went to school.

The significance of this three-country longitudinal study and the importance of its findings for public policy everywhere earned the support of the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and the Ford Foundation. The findings form a key chapter in the unfolding drama of prenatal psychology, proving how very early rejection became a template for life.

(This book was later published by Springer in New York and by EDAMEX in Mexico City.) A summary by Henry P. David, first author, can be found in the Journal of Social Issues, 48, 163-181, 1992.

Publication Date: 
12/1998