Mothers and Fathers: When Does Life Begin?
For a couple who desire a child, life begins before conception. A couple trying to become pregnant find that each month, if the woman has her menses, there is a small feeling of loss; the hoped for and already loved child has not appeared. When, finally, the woman determines she is pregnant, often responding to barely conscious and unconscious bodily signals that herald the changes taking place within, the child begins to take on a reality, a life of its own. By the time of "quickening", typically in the fourth month or thereabouts, the child is already a baby in the minds of the parents. There is no question that wanted children are psychologically already babies from very early in the sequence. Furthermore, a wanted child is the repository of all that is best in the couple. They imbue the soon-to-be infant with all sorts of possibilities and qualities. Most first time parents have significant anxiety over their ability to parent and raise a child, but there is no question that from the moment of the positive EPT, reinforced each step of the way (heartbeat, sonograms, movement), the woman is carrying a person, not a fetus, and not a clump of cells.
Contrast this with an unwanted pregnancy. The language and the psychological processes couldn’t be more different. The future abortion is dehumanized from the start. It is a clump of cells or a fetus. It is the repository of all that is rejected and ambivalent in the parents.
Our society’s response to abortion is an almost direct reflection of the psychological process of splitting.
In the earliest stages of our lives, one of our key psychological tasks is to take all of the disparate images of the mother (her "object representations") and unite them under a single, over-arching, structure in the mind referred to as "Mother." In sum, we must incorporate the nurturing, loving, calming Mother with the frustrating, enraging, and hateful mother, in order to develop a healthy sense of the full panoply of characteristics that make a person unique. Early in life the resulting structure is fragile and can be easily disrupted, split back into its component parts. This is a typical problem for abused children (and is part of the pathogenesis of Borderline Personality Disorder.) Because the child needs to feel loved and important, they split the image of the angry, hateful, "bad" parent and as time goes on, force it into the unconscious mind, preserving the image of the loving, "good" parent. One price for this psychological defense is the child’s absorption of the "bad"; after all, if the "good" parent is hurting the child, it must be because the child is really "bad" and has done something wrong to deserve their punishment.
It is very important to recognize that in all splitting, the "bad" is not destroyed, it is repressed, maintained in the unconscious mind and always at risk for reappearance.
This is clearly analogous to our society’s reaction to our children. The "good" children are wanted and valued; "bad" children are dehumanized and their destruction is thus facilitated. When one needs to kill another person, they must first be dehumanized.
Our splitting is played out in the contrasting responses and psychological work involved in a planned, termination, abortion by choice, versus an unwanted termination, ie a miscarriage. When a wanted pregnancy is lost, the intensity of mourning is, to a certain extent, proportional to the reality of the infant. There are women who lose a pregnancy in the first trimester who experience profound mourning, but this is much more typical of later miscarriages and miscarriage on delivery, ie a still-born child. Because the infant has been primary experienced as an idealized and idealizable person, the mourning is painful but necessary to allow for a later healthy pregnancy. Psychologically, all of the unconscious ambivalence toward the pregnancy which caused such pain, can be resolved through the process of mourning, letting go of the lost proto-object.
Abortion by choice is a very different proposition. From an early point the pregnancy is psychologically attacked. By assaulting the humanity of the future child, both the good and bad aspects of the fetus are repressed. The parent disowns and disavows the clump of cells and repudiates it in the strictest terms. In such cases, mourning is either discouraged or overtly denied. Consider the behavior of the radical pro-choice groups who treat abortion as a triumph to be emblazoned on T-shirts. This is a reaction formation of the most obvious kind. Not only do they announce they have had abortions, but it is a "life affirming" action; nowhere is the painful reality of a life terminated allowed to enter awareness.
In the women I have seen, and in many of the men who have lost "children" through a girlfriend's abortion, the disavowed infant lives on in the unconscious. When explored, they often become aware of their repressed feelings of loss and sadness. There is often significant guilt involved in such choices, since they know full well that they chose their own gratification over the chance for life of a new child. The guilt is compounded by the knowledge that they were afforded a chance they have denied to someone else. When, because of complications, or repeated abortions, a woman finds she has diminished her chances of having a child later in life, the guilt and sadness is compounded and often becomes a source of depressive attacks on the self.
Many women, perhaps most, who have had abortions, will at some point go through the difficult and painful mourning required to forgive themselves and release the lost child, but it is rarely easy. Those who refuse to go through such a mourning process are liable to more serious troubles. There is a very good case to be made that radical pro-choice groups which demand that abortion on demand remain legal up until the very moment of birth, are struggling with murderous rage and unmetabolized ambivalence. They invariably direct their rage at those who would "chain" women into servitude by forcing them to carry unwanted fetuses. The level of rage and vitriol directed at Justices Alito and Roberts, not to mention Scalia and Thomas, is illustrative.
There is a reason many of these issues are coming to the fore now. Medical science has been, in effect, interpreting our behavior with increasing clarity over the last 30 years. As I pointed out not too long ago, the usual response to an accurate interpretation is anger. We keep ourselves unaware of objectionable aspects of ourselves and/or reality because they make us feel bad. When someone else makes us feel bad, we get angry at them. When I point out something my patients would rather not know, (with the caveat that many times there has been sufficient preparation to allow them to come upon it themselves) they are not typically happy with me. In the same way, medical science, by offering clearer and clearer pictures of the developing baby, in the womb, have made it increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction that a fetus is merely a clump of cells or something other than a baby. This has made our usual intellectualizations about abortion much less effective. It is not just the "Roe effect" that has led to the younger generation’s growing opposition to abortion on demand.
[Please note that in situations where a wanted infant has severe developmental disturbances, ie birth defects, that are incompatible with a healthy child, the problems for the parents are extremely difficult and often quite intense. There are also significant complications when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. In such cases the ambivalence is heightened in ways which enormously complicate the process of attachment/detachment from the pregnancy. The recognition of such is one reason why there is much less controversy over allowing exceptions for these cases. I have not addressed these limited situations in part because they represent a small fraction of the aboritons which take place each year. I do not know if the statistics that Bruce cited are correct, but they are certainly in the ball park.]
Using abortion as birth control is not a trivial matter. It has long term effects on the lost parent and has long term effects on the society. I have described some of its impact on those who insist upon the complete availability of abortion on demand as birth control. In my next post, I would like to explore some of its effects on the children of the baby boomers, those young people who have come of age in a society which has not only legalized abortion on demand but in many ways has celebrated it.
[My Sanity Squad colleague, SIggy, has, with some courage, described his response to losing a child through an abortion in The Psychological Consequences Of Abortion On Demand. Read it all and especially take note of his last line.]