Vision Statement: Reducing Unwanted Pregnancies & Abortion Through Prevention in Early Childhood. A Proposal for Research and Policy Change © 2005
By A Donlan, Ph.D.
Few national policy issues have so polarized citizens as has abortion. Citizens concerned with the issue say its rate in the US is higher than many other nations. Yet political officials and partisans remain extremely divided over what to do. One side highlights the need for prohibitions and punitive measures, while the other side just points to the need to sustain personal freedom. On the whole, there might seem little hope of resolution.
An essential issue is that many portray abortion as only a matter of personal character, one entirely separate from various realities of life. But few aspects of life are entirely separable from social and economic conditions around us. If abortion is seen only as a matter of moral character, then the question allegedly becomes only one of legal restrictions and punishments; opponents of abortion will advocate circumstances in which a doctor and/or woman undertaking the procedure will be imprisoned or otherwise sanctioned. But abortion rates are influenced by the world around the woman, and this raises the question of how positive supports, not just reactive punishments, could affect unwanted pregnancy.
The “punishment only” approach fails to appreciate decades of findings in child development and sociology on the remarkable influence of early family life on countless later outcomes. Vast research famously indicates that early childhood is a period in human development critical to later social and economic outcomes. A child subject to various difficult conditions in early years is more likely to re-experience those conditions in adulthood.
Consider the research. Early childhood factors found to affect adulthood are diverse and include various aspects of parent-child interactions and socioeconomic status. These can in turn affect later academic success, interpersonal bonding, prosocial behavior and economic status. Even from studies of neglected orphans we know that the seeds of instability in adulthood are often sewn in childhood. In short, poverty, violence and related factors in youth are important determinants of later life circumstances.
This has important implications for unwanted pregnancy abortion.
The decision to have a child is affected by whether the woman feels supported (by the father and others) and by whether she believes she can support the child materially. Since early childhood experiences affect whether a person later forms strong social bonds and is economically stable, those early experiences have implications for unwanted pregnancy. This is the model that needs to be understood and communicated as clearly as possible.
In this way, prevention can be part of a comprehensive approach. It differs from many policies that wait too long - until after a person’s risk profile for later life unwanted pregnancy is already established. Proactive prevention has advantages over policies that are reactive, ones that would only punish the woman for electing abortion or the doctor for implementing it.
Policy initiatives related to early childhood that have a track record of positively affecting later outcomes are not hard to find. Research has even identified programs that yield benefits greater than program costs. Such initiatives are not commonly highlighted in national media, but they are a remarkable achievement of modern man. When benefits exceed costs, society overall can come out ahead. Examples of initiatives identified as effective include domestic violence prevention, high quality early education, parenting classes, family support through home visitation, and WIC.
Development of the vision of prevention here will show that it draws on empirical research to a greater degree than many policy proposals in Washington. The case for early prevention is very strong in that hundreds of studies form an interlocking web of support. This research is found in multiple academic fields, suggesting the need to bring the strands together into a coherent whole. Support for new research is essential in order to explain the matter simply.
It is no surprise that there are those who seek from policy a way to mobilize voters for various political aims and to express moral censure of abortion, forgetting that abortion is often a reflection of a difficult situation of unwanted pregnancy. Such opponents of abortion may say that, if a policy does not express their visceral moral censure, it is not worth consideration. The necessary response is that punitive and coercive public policy has inevitable limits. Furthermore, public policy has multiple functions other than moral censure. If citizens concerned with abortion really have its reduction as their priority, they will be interested in how this can be achieved through initiatives that are proactive and supportive, rather than merely reactive and punitive.
To put the issue in context, it may be useful to remember how pervasive is violence in modern society and to ask what might be the root causes. The US has had among the highest rates of violent crime in the developed world and among the highest rates of prison incarceration. The number of murders in other developed countries is often less than the number of murders in medium sized US cities. Whatever the benefits of incarceration, the high rates of violence persist. And despite the visceral appeal of incarceration, we know that early life is the seed of a later life outcomes and circumstances. How long shall we persist in our disinterest in the fact that so many children in the US face severe hardship in early life, and at far greater rates than most other developed nations? Does that disinterest support the sanctity of life?
For many decades political officials have pushed easy answers instead of addressing the most important factor in human development, the experiences in early childhood. When we realize the importance of those experiences, we can recognize their importance to abortion too. Unlike policies that are reactive and rely on punishment only, policies of prevention hold the promise of helping make society more humane in many ways. I invite interested citizens and researchers to join in advancing this vision to advance the common good.