The Impact of Abortion on Child Abuse
by Rachel MacNair
Here’s the reasoning for an assertion that abortion availability helps reduce child abuse:
- Abuse can be caused when children were born unwanted and are therefore resented.
- There may be fewer births in those groups most likely to engage in child maltreatment.
And here’s the reasoning to think abortion availability helps increase child abuse:
- It removes a taboo on hurting children.
- It leads to children being treated as consumer product, rather than human beings, adding a requirement of “wantedness” that children shouldn’t have to meet.
And of course abortion may have no impact at all. But let’s look at the evidence to see which reasoning works best with the facts.
Types of Abuse
That the children were never wanted – yet not placed for adoption – is one explanation for why they’re neglected.
Other possible explanations: parents are ignorant of what children need; are too self-absorbed to notice their children’s needs; were raised this way themselves; have an idealized view of having children without knowing what kind of work is involved; intended to have a baby but aren’t interested in the child that the baby turned into; substance abuse; or mental illness. These reasons call for interventions that have nothing to do with the availability of abortion.
- Physical abuse and emotional abuse.
This could happen when the child was never wanted – but not placed for adoption – and therefore her or his presence is resented.
It could also happen for the opposite reason: the child is super-wanted, but with unrealistic expectations. The child is supposed to follow the father into the family business, but shows no interest. Or is expected to be brilliant in math but is mathematically inept. The child is a real person who refuses to be perfect.
Also: the child is a scapegoat for other frustrations; the parents were raised this way and understand this is how it’s done; substance abuse; or mental illness.
Nevertheless, if unwantedness is one of the reasons, then abortion availability should reduce abuse in at least those cases involving undesired children.
- Sexual abuse.
In this case, it’s quite clear that unwantedness isn’t the problem – the children are “wanted” for the wrong reason.
The Rise and Fall of Child Abuse Rates
Focusing on the U.S.: Child abuse rates skyrocketed after the 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalizing abortion in all 50 states.
However, correlation isn’t causation. An alternative explanation is that it wasn’t that more child abuse was actually happening, but that people were more sensitive and reporting it more. Also, different criteria have been used to determine and measure abuse. Therefore, figures and rates aren’t always comparable.
The connection between the two may be coincidence, of course. The theory that abortion and child abuse are connected as two similar forms of violence would predict that lowering abortion would be associated with lower child abuse. But human behavior isn’t that simple.
When looking at outcomes for an entire society, there are all kinds of explanations. We can never know whether child abuse rates wouldn’t have been higher yet without abortion.
Still, evidence that abortion availability might have any kind of impact on child abuse rates requires more detailed study than merely the change in rates.
Studies: The Case that Abortion Helps Prevent Abuse
In a sample of unmarried mothers receiving welfare assistance, child abuse and neglect were associated with unplanned childbearing.
Two researchers used the varying times at which abortion became legalized in different U.S. states before 1973’s nation-wide legalization. Then they considered reports of child abuse, taking the children’s age into account to see whether abortion would have been available when they were conceived. Results suggest legalization lowered reported cases. Legal restrictions on abortion (as opposed to a ban), however, showed unclear results.
In a more targeted approach, there was a long-term analysis of fatal injury to children in states that have passed regulations such as parental consent, informed consent, and waiting periods. This found an association between such regulations and increased injury.
Studies: The Case that Abortion Helps Promote Abuse
But if abortion is violence, this suggests an even more targeted approach: are mothers who have abortions more likely to be abusive to their children? Several studies say yes; none that looks at this directly says no.
For example, one looked at women identified by Baltimore Child Protective Services. Researchers compared women with no pregnancy loss, those whose loss was involuntary (miscarriage or stillbirth) and those with induced abortion. The women with abortions were 114% more likely to be identified as having abused their children compared to either those women with no loss or those with miscarriages.
Then there is this question: what of children who rather than being unwanted are super-wanted?
In 1980 Edward Lenoski published a study of 674 children in an emergency room who were battered by a parent and compared them to 500 other children from the same emergency room. This showed:
- 91% of the parents of abused children said they had wanted the pregnancy; 63% of the non-abused said so;
- 93% of the parents were married at the time of the birth of the abused child; 60% of the non-abused were;
- the mother of the abused children began wearing maternity clothes at an average of 114 days into the pregnancy, as compared to an average of 171 days for the mothers of the non-abused children;
- The child was named after a parent (usually, the father’s name with “Jr.”) in 24% of the abused cases, but only 4% of the non-abused cases.
Since these are children for whom abortion was never contemplated, the role of abortion isn’t covered in this study. But the role of “wantedness” may, in some cases, increase rather than reduce the risk of child abuse
In those cases where the child is super-wanted, the ready availability of abortion could make things worse. It emphasizes the importance of the wantedness of children. Less abuse may accompany accepting children for who they are rather than for who their parents want them to be.
Sexual abuse is a different category. The problem isn’t that the child’s unwanted, but is wanted for the wrong reason. See here for a study that reported a positive association of abortion access with sexual abuse.
There are many anecdotal cases of men who used the abortion clinic for the purpose of removing the evidence of their abuse. See, for example, this case from Feminists for Life.
The law requires reporting signs of possible sexual abuse in children to authorities. Pregnancy in a child qualifies as such a sign. If medical personnel follow the legal requirement of reporting suspected abuse, then abortion providers are in a unique position to prevent child sexual abuse and allow for its prosecution. If perpetrators knew this would occur, then it could have a powerful deterrent effect on sexual abuse.
Conversely, if medical personnel don’t report, then they facilitate the abuse. Adult men who expect non-reporting may be more likely to engage in such abuse. Abortion clinics tend to have a bad track record on this.
Any discussion of abortion’s impact on child abuse must specify which kind of abuse.
Sexual Abuse: There are solid grounds to think the ready availability of abortion is exceedingly harmful to efforts to prevent sexual abuse.
Physical abuse: studies that show abortion restrictions making the problem worse often rely on considering the population as a whole and focus on “wantedness.” Studies that show abortion availability makes the problem worse tend to focus on the parents of abused children.
Neglect: there’s a logic to the idea that a child who was never wanted isn’t paid much attention to, but then we have to ask – why abortion? Wouldn’t placing the child for adoption be every bit as much a solution? There are far more families wishing to adopt than there are babies available, so it’s an easily-available option.
Both physical abuse and neglect: those who assert abortion helps reduce such abuse have to note that the rise of abuse and abortion together and decline of both together, while it may still be explainable in ways that keep their assertion intact, at least show that massive abortion availability didn’t make a noticeable dent in reducing abuse. It’s just not as simple as: no child, no abuse. It’s complicated problem.
But the final point to note is really the most important of all: abortion is itself child abuse. A child is killed.
Editors Note: This is adapted from Chapter 13 of Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion. Please see that chapter for more references and a more thorough academic discussion.
For more of our blog posts on the dynamics of violence, see: