The Family Decision on Abortion
The abortion debate is nearly always centered on a religious question: at what point does a fetus become a human being? The consideration of this question leads to the debate about whether an abortion is morally acceptable during any of the trimesters of the fetal development. Is this the correct question for the basis of this abortion debate? The debate centered on the end of the pregnancy completely ignores the start of the pregnancy. Should the consequences for society be part of this discussion? What are the social costs?
There will always be unwanted pregnancies simply because sexual activity is important among adults. It is necessary for the survival of the species through reproduction. It is also a significant part of the bond between the parents of those children, helping to strengthen the emotional bond with the mutual satisfaction of the pleasure of sexual contact. The latter trait is shared with our close genetic relative, the bonobo.
Abortion as a social issue surfaced only in the last 200 years but has become so divisive only in the past few decades. Since American culture has also changed significantly over this span, I suggest there is probably at least some connection.
The life expectancy for someone born 200 years ago was much less than now. For example one child in 5 born in 1850 did not survive a year. The critical problem for society was just keeping children alive to attain adulthood, not whether someone wished to terminate a pregnancy.
The matters of courtship have changed. The convention of long ago involved the time for a couple to get to know each other to the extent they are comfortable with the commitment to marriage, and often parents were able to monitor this relationship rather than it being more private (like today). Premarital sex was tolerated only if the couple got married.
The populations in the world's countries are many times larger than 200 years ago, with most people now in an urban environment making the search for a mate different than in a rural environment. For example, since 1790 the American census reveals a population increase by 100 times (3 million to 300 million), and nearly a reversal in urban/rural residence (5%/95% to 81%/19%).
The availability of birth control has changed the rules where consensual sex can satisfy the partners but without risking an unwanted pregnancy. However unwanted pregnancies still occur, leading to the decision whether to carry to term (and deliver a baby) or terminate the pregnancy (by removing the fetus). Are their important reasons why a decision would be made to terminate a pregnancy?
Here is a list of various reasons given for an abortion, not in an order implying significance.
Survival of the mother. Sometimes a pregnancy can have a complication that endangers the life of the mother. Since the mother's death typically results in the death of the fetus as well there are fewer moral implications with this decision. Perhaps 3% of abortions are performed for this reason.
Fetal problems. Sometimes the fetus itself is not considered viable in the womb and so the pregnancy is terminated. Perhaps 3% of abortions are performed for this reason.
Rape. Unfortunately some men take after our other close genetic relative, the chimpanzee. The social rules of chimpanzees are different than the bonobos. Aggression, intimidation and violence are more prevalent with chimpanzees, even in mating. The commonly accepted behavior in our American culture (I honestly do not know how prevalent this rule is among others in the world) is sex should always be consensual. Rape (sex with an unwilling partner) is a deviation from the cultural norm. The extent of this aberrant behavior means there will be some number of unwanted pregnancies from these assaults. Apparently only about 1% of abortions are performed for this reason, although I doubt an assault by a husband on an unwilling wife that resulted in a pregnancy being terminated would have been classified this way.
Adolescent female. The time a child matures into an adult spans a number of years while each person changes both physically and emotionally with varying rates for different individuals. During this time, all adolescents are not totally aware of the consequences of their actions. Therefore an adolescent female can be susceptible to advances by sexually active males (including both minors and adults). The pregnancy might result from a consensual coupling but when one or both of the partners were ignoring the possible consequence. Perhaps 12% of abortions are performed for this reason (too young). (20% of abortions involve a mother under the age of 20.) Unfortunately even if adolescents received sex education at an earlier age that effort does not also instill the necessary mature behavior at the same time, so this scenario is difficult to address especially when the education itself is controversial to start with and so unpopular among some parents (who naively hope uneducated children will somehow behave responsibly).
Consensual adults. The availability of a number of birth control methods should enable adults to participate in sexual activities without causing a pregnancy. Of course the failure of the birth control method means an accidental pregnancy could occur. There are various reasons given but this group covers the rest of the abortions (beyond the reasons above).
Men and women will have intercourse because the act is important to the human experience and is part of a successful marriage, although it is not the most important part given the complexity of any social union.
What is the consequence of restrictions on abortions? The inevitable result is obviously more unwanted children (in a world where many are concerned of a growing population soon becoming starved by insufficient natural resources).
What is the social cost to the prohibition on abortion?
The parents will start their relationship with the newborn having a bad attitude - on possibly multiple levels (emotional or financial problems or time constraints). While it is possible that the parents will grow to love and accept their newborn, just like it is possible parents can turn on their newborn after having been excited previously, the unwanted child will start life with a significant disadvantage in this less than fertile environment, leading to possible emotional or developmental problems which need to be addressed by the community (educational system, youth groups, etc.) which might not be up to the task.
If the parents really could not afford the newborn (the reason given for more than 21% of abortions) or the family is not ready for the newborn (due to education, job, or the relationship: about 25% of abortions; due to the child being earlier than planned: 25% of abortions) then the family unit as a whole suffers (which could include other siblings).
Fortunately the cases are rare but a child whose father is also his/her grandfather would probably be told a lie rather than having the abominable relationship publicly acknowledged. I cannot imagine the psychological trauma in the mother of being forced to carry to term a child from a rape.
Although there are no doubt some success stories where the extended family was actively involved, it must be difficult for a mother in her middle teens to successfully achieve her career aspirations while caring for a child due to the emotional demands at such a young age while managing the important educational activities (high school and college). If society was less preoccupied with stopping abortion and more concerned with early childhood health and effective adolescent education (not NCLB!), our communities would be happier and more productive.
I cannot know whether a significant number believe this (though I come across it sometimes online): is access to abortion prevented by those who wish to see the mother (or parents) punished for having the unwanted pregnancy? That is absolutely an attitude that does not belong in a caring, compassionate culture. We should all seek families that are ready for and happy to receive their newborn children. Successfully achieving that goal should contribute to the well being of the entire community.
200 years ago, when medical knowledge was negligible, a mother could lose a baby during pregnancy (miscarriage) or as an infant, and so there was little to say other than it must have been 'God's will' that it happened. Now when it is possible for those that can afford quality health care to monitor the health of a fetus and an infant to reduce such early childhood deaths. It is ironic that some still believe a pregnancy must be God's will so nothing should be done to interfere until after birth.
With effective education of adolescents and convenient access to birth control methods, the number of cases when abortion would be considered should be reduced but they cannot be eliminated. Our culture has advanced where public affection between a couple is acceptable and where men and women have a social standing approaching equality, or least closer than that observed 200 years ago (when the wife was almost treated as property of the husband).
Premarital sex cannot be banished since that monitoring and prosecution would require such a restrictive environment we would either have a rebellion if not thorough enough or an emotionally stunted society if successful.
Efforts to bring religion into the abortion debate, by defining life at conception not when the fetus is viable outside of the womb, is condescending rather than compassionate. That forces the expectant mother (or the parents of the possible child) to make yet another unwanted choice, when their religion's emphasis is in clear conflict with their real life problems. Efforts to address premarital sex through preaching abstinence only rather than education tend to be counterproductive, since studies have shown that those in the abstinence only education programs tend to be less frequent users of birth control. That is learning the wrong lesson.
I have no doubt for some expectant mothers the decision to terminate a pregnancy is traumatic. Just like with the eventual delivery of a baby, there is no 'do over' in real life. Our culture should be helpful and considerate for those having to make that important decision, rather than contemptuous.
The decision whether to carry a fetus to term or not must always involve the mother. Human society has the family unit as the foundation and it is a significant contradiction for an entity outside of the family to force a mother to deliver an unwanted baby.
There is widespread concern among religious groups whether statistics like higher divorce rates imply unidentified cultural changes are weakening the family unit. The abortion debate, when denying the critical decision to be made within that family unit, could certainly be a negative influence. I consider the position of a group like the misnamed Focus on the Family as a good example of such hypocrisy, where the needs of the family are ignored to make sure a baby is born.
Allowing families to have the necessary control over when a baby is added to the family will strengthen not weaken our society because then each family unit has the authority to match its responsibility. Denying a family the authority for this decision conflicts with its capacity to fulfill its responsibility.
Our culture relies on the family unit to make the decisions involving its children. For example, there are studies that breast feeding is the best practice for long term health and initial development of the infant but there are no laws to force that practice. The circumstances for the mother, such as her career demands, might prevent it and the alternative methods can still result in healthy children. There might be a very popular local religion but there are no laws to force any type of indoctrination on the children. Our culture has typically not infringed on a family to the extent of this abortion situation.
Legislation preventing access to abortion is nothing but an attempt by those in power to inflict their inconsiderate demands on the expectant mother. The responsibility on child bearing must remain with the mother and the family unit, not in a some monitoring/prosecuting legal entity that is in no critical way involved in the family decision making process. Otherwise expectant mothers are just baby factories for those in power even though these mothers are ultimately responsible for the care of those babies.
created - Feb. 2011
last change - 02/10/2011
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