Regardless of whether you view abortion as a crime or a right, nobody loves abortion. Few people would argue that abortion is an ideal form of birth control or the preferred opportunity for a woman to exercise her decision not to become a mother. The experience is physically and emotionally painful and comes with a slew of social repercussions. However, abortion is just one symptom of, or just one part of the solution to a more fundamental problem that has been around as long as humanity: unwanted pregnancy.
Let’s take abortion out of the picture for a moment and explore the root problem of unwanted pregnancies. A number of factors can lead to a pregnancy being unwanted, but one of the most common is a lack of financial security. The diagram below shows that when there is less financial security in a group of people, then more pregnancies will be viewed as unwanted. Following the natural course of things, these unwanted pregnancies will lead to more unwanted births (not to negate the value of every child that is brought into this world, but for lack of a better term, we use the word “unwanted” to indicate that these are births associated with “unwanted” pregnancies, which is a contrast to desired or planned pregnancies). A child is an enormous financial burden, and therefore raising children leads to even less financial security. This is our first reinforcing feedback loop where less financial security leads to less financial security, shown in the systems model below.
Additionally, unwanted births resulting from financial insecurity lead to more children in poor families (see model below), who will be more likely to become poor adults due to barriers to accessing resources and opportunities while growing up. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty and leads to even less financial security in the future. Because these less financially secure adults are more likely to view pregnancies as unwanted, then we can say that this system creates even more unwanted pregnancies in the future. This second reinforcing feedback loop happens on a much longer timescale, with a delay of somewhere around 20 years before we see the effect of an unwanted birth leading to more unwanted pregnancy.
Left to its own devices this is how the system would work. Unwanted pregnancies would build momentum and get worse and worse, so our society has designed a number of interventions to try to control these reinforcing loops (marked by gold arrows in the model below). We offer adoption services to free mothers from the enormous burden of parenthood. A portion of government spending is devoted to social services like education and healthcare to break the cycle of poverty. The stigmatization of premarital sex can also be viewed as a socio-cultural innovation to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. We also came up with the much-debated and morally challenged medical operation that is a hot topic in the political climate today: Abortions. Each of these new variables introduces a balancing feedback loop, where an abortion or adoption today prevents the need for an abortion or more social services in the future.
A more productive conversation
The point here is not to argue the virtue of abortion, but to call attention to the deeply rooted, age-old problem that abortion was designed to address. Even if we believe that abortion is on par with murder, we know that simply outlawing murder with strict punishments like the death penalty has not successfully eliminated the instances of murder. This is because there are deep social and economic factors that affect peoples’ desire to commit crimes. We can go on punishing offenders, but if we don’t solve the other root causes of crime, we aren’t going to see significant changes in behavior.
If we frame our conversations about abortion only as an ethical issue about the definition of life and the morality of abortion, we risk missing the larger picture, which is about unwanted pregnancies. If we ban abortions, we have done nothing to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and we will only increase the number of unwanted births.
So let’s reframe the problem: why do we have so many unwanted pregnancies in the first place, and how do we prevent unwanted births from following a trajectory toward greater poverty? If we believe that abortions should be outlawed, then we should also support social services that provide more opportunities for those children born to poorer families to succeed. Or we should encourage adoption and admire those parents who have sons and daughters who are not biologically their own. These are just some solutions to solve a problem that the political left and right can both agree on: the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies. What are other ways we can limit unwanted pregnancies and support the children that come from unintended births? We explore these in this next post.
By Andrew Frangos and Jenny Zhou