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October, 1993
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Not all pregnancies are wanted, and not all babies are welcomed into the world. Unwanted pregnancies and abortion are facts of life in our culture and elsewhere in the world. In the United States alone, one in five women has undergone at least one abortion. Evidence is strong that a child who is born into a hostile environment will likely face problems in adapting psychologically to the world (Dagg 1991). Moreover, women who undergo abortions may also face psychological trauma as a consequence. As the pace-setting research by Henry David (David et al. 1988) has shown, even denied abortion may result in psychological difficulties for mothers and children. As Dagg (1991) notes, there seem to be psychological sequelae no matter which course the mother takes in coping with an unwanted pregnancy.

There is an unfortunate tendency to think about traditional peoples as "noble savages" who never abort, abuse, or kill their babies, and who are always welcoming, loving and nurturing toward newborns and infants. It is true that there is a cross-cultural trend in favor of warm, loving and nurturing parentage (Rohner 1975, 1980, and Rohner and Rohner 1981). But as I have discussed elsewhere (Laughlin 1992), not all children are born wanted or nurtured. In fact, birth control, abortion, infanticide and child abuse have existed on this planet for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years. These negative phenomena were not created by, nor are they limited to, modern technological society. There is, for example, a reluctance on the part of many traditional peoples to acknowledge a newborn as a human being or group member until the child has demonstrated that it can survive (see Oakley 1982:309).

As hard as it is for most of us to comprehend, a common method of population control in a number of areas on the planet is or has been infanticide-the wilful killing of babies (Dickeman 1975:107). Indeed, some European societies have practised infanticide at various points in their histories (Piers 1978). We will never know exactly how many societies have practiced infanticide in the past, but there are a number of fairly good surveys and studies of the cross-cultural literature (Williamson 1978, Dickeman 1975).

In any event, unwanted pregnancies and abortions produce psychological karma, as they would say in the East. This special issue of PPPJ takes a look at the consequences of unwanted pregnancies and abortions from a clinical point of view. Anne Speckhard and Vincent Rue describe post-abortion syndrome (PAS), a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, and explore the consequences for the woman of repressing grief. Robert Erikson also looks at abortion as a stressor, and relates cases to a model of post-traumatic stress disorder based upon conflict between basic drives. Philip Ney, Tak Fung and Adele Rose Wickett present the results of four studies relating induced abortion and child abuse. Finally, Barbara Findeisen looks at the traumatic effects of a broader spectrum of loss: the resultant psychological costs of failed nurture.


David, H.P. et al. (1988). Born unwanted: Developmental effects of denied abortion. New York: Springer.

Dagg, P.K.B. (1991). The Psychological sequelae of therapeutic abortion-Denied and completed. American Journal of Psychiatry 148(5):578-585

Dickeman, M. (1975). Demographic consequences of infanticide in man. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 6:107-137.

Laughlin, C.D. (1992) Pre- and perinatal anthropology II: The puerperium in cross-cultural perspective. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal 7(1):23-60.

Oakley, A. (1982) Obstetric practice: cross-cultural comparisons. In P. Stratton (Ed.) Psychobiology of the Human Newborn. New York: Wiley.

Piers, M. (1978). Infanticide. New York: Norton.

Rohner, R.P. (1975). They love me, they love me not: A worldwide study of the effects of parental acceptance and rejection. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press.

_____(1980). Worldwide tests of parental acceptance-rejection theory. Behavioral Science Research 15:1-21.

Rohner, R.P. and Rohner, E.G. (1981). Parental acceptance-rejection and parental control: Cross-cultural codes. Ethnology 20(3):245-260.

Williamson, L. (1978). Infanticide: An anthropological analysis. In M. Kohl (Ed.) Infanticide and the value of life. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, p. 61-75.

Charles Laughlin


Carleton University

Ottawa, Canada