Children of Choice
In Part I of this series, I described some of the historical developments that made the legalization of abortion on demand compelling. The advent of a large cohort of baby boomers, raised with heightened narcissism, along with the widespread use of birth control and anti-biotics which made "free love" a seemingly risk free development, combined to create a Zeitgeist in which the needs of the individual were thought to trump the unvoiced needs of the unborn.
In Part II I described the insidious effect that abortion has on the women and men who took part in elective abortions. Psychologically, a pregnancy is a baby; a great deal of psychological work has been required to defend against this awareness. Splitting and intellectualization were prominent parts of this process and have an impact on the individual long after the aborted child has been destroyed.
Today I would like to tackle the most problematic aspect of abortion on demand, its effect on the generations of children who have grown up in its shadow.
First, a disclaimer: In this and previous posts, my interest has been on the psychic reality of abortion. I am not interested in disguising what abortion means or disguising the fact that a pregnancy involves a new life. Arguments that a first or second trimester fetus is incompatible with life outside the womb are irrelevant to the fact that such a pregnancy is already a partial person who in the course of nine months becomes a new individual. Discussions about the morality of abortion or weighing the rights of the woman against the rights of the unborn child are also irrelevant to this discussion, though clearly relevant to the legal questions involved in abortion. The circle that must be squared by those who are pro-choice is to come to grips with the myriad conflicts inherent in supporting an act which ends a life.
Abortion was heralded as a crucial part of women’s liberation. No longer would women be treated as brood mares, forced by nature and law to carry an unwanted fetus to term. Rationalizing abortion as a societal "good" required a two part process. First, the woman had to be depicted as a victim of her pregnancy. Her responsibility had to be minimized. No longer was pregnancy to be considered a natural part of the life cycle for in order to free women from their gender bondage, pregnancy needed to be devalued and turned into a choice. An inextricable part of this process required diminishing the moral claim of the future infant. This involved the dehumanization of the developing life; the human baby had to be turned into an object, a commodity, in order to avoid overt recognition of the murderous rage involved in "pre-natal infanticide." This worked so well that until fairly recently it was possible for the pro-choice movement to argue that any restrictions on partial-birth abortion would represent unacceptable barriers to a woman’s choice. The absurdity of arguing that a third trimester baby is a non-person who could be legally killed up until the moment of birth is a breath taking contention that has been increasingly losing support.
The difficulty for our post-Roe children is that a child growing up in a culture that supports abortion on demand is a child growing up in a culture where even a wanted child is treated (by the larger society, certainly not by all parents) as a commodity. This, of course, fits right into the unconscious agenda of the narcissist, who views the importance of every relationship as hinging on how the other person affects him. Even children who grow up in families which for religious or other reasons are pro-life, recognizes that the surrounding society, for all the lip service that is offered to the notion that our children are our most precious possessors of the future, does not value children in the most basic way possible. For children whose parents are pro-choice, the problem is more difficult. For those children whose mothers have had abortions, the problem becomes acute. The idea that your parents have chosen to have a particular number of children is not at issue; the idea that your parents have parents decided to abort a potential sibling is a significant issue, made more so when done in a perfunctory manner as a matter of course. Such a "choice" unavoidably conveys the message that a child’s life is hostage to the parent’s desires.
Consider the impact of a child growing up in a society which believes that a child is a gift from the Deity. A child in such a culture knows that their surround considers them precious above and beyond the love they may receive from their all too human and fallible parent. While such an "archaic" notion opens one up to ridicule in the precincts of sophisticated thought where the liberal pro-choice views hold sway, it was the prevailing wisdom not that long ago. In contrast, a child who is growing up in a culture which idealizes the freedom of women to abort for no more reason than her comfort or convenience, is a culture that fundamentally does not value children. Children who experience themselves as commodities whose existence serves the needs of others, have a natural tendency to treat themselves and others as mere "need satisfying objects."
In The Academy Awards, Pan-Sexuality, Narcissism, & Loneliness I wrote about the painful loneliness of the "sophisticated" adolescents who know very little about emotional intimacy and treasuring another person, but a great deal about gratifying momentary pleasures and maintaining an "open mind":
These are the kinds of children I often treat as adolescents and young adults. The confusion on how to approach each other, the way early sexual involvements turn potential relationships into impersonal "hook-ups" and the poignant despair at ever finding a true love are almost invariably part of their sadness and anxiety. Many have only seen failed relations among their peers. They know that all possibilities are open to them yet cannot tolerate that adulthood requires voluntarily relinquishing the fantasy that they can do whatever they want without penalty or responsibility. It is not only their personal future ability to function as adults in the world, but a prerequisite for our civilization to function, that requires adolescents to make the painful choice of giving up the free expression of all their instinctual desires.
In their pursuit of sensation and an illusory freedom from responsibility, these very damaged young people have lost the ability to fully connect with another human being.
I am not attributing the psychological damage that so many of our young people struggle with solely to abortion on demand; however, the use of abortion primarily for birth control and its idealization as the greatest "right" for a woman (as opposed to its unhappy default use as a singular tragedy for a woman and her potential child) remains a fundamental part of the cultural ethos within which these children are developing. Along with other aspects of the hyper-individualization of our culture (celebrating various types of once considered deviant behaviors, decreasing the stigma of what was once considered shameful and irresponsible behavior, making marriage and divorce easy options in the service of personal gratification, among many other societal changes) we have embraced the narcissistic over-valuation of the pursuit of gratification as the greatest "good."
In order for a child to grow up with healthy narcissism, they must feel that they are loved unconditionally; they must be loved for who they are, not for what they do.
[One misunderstanding of this is the belief that this means children cannot tolerate being criticized or ever failing at an endeavor. This is not the time or place to discuss this beyond commenting that the misunderstanding of self-esteem regulation by our educational and political establishments continues to exert a baleful influence on pedagogy and victim/identity politics.]
Children who do not feel valued, who do not see themselves and their lives as precious gifts, have less ability to withstand the urges to seek pleasure and instant gratification rather than sacrificing for the future.
Having children is a resource intensive behavior. It is the quintessential "sacrifice for the future". If their parents cannot do it, how can children be expected to do it?
Tomorrow I would like to describe a small part of my Psychoanalytic work with a young woman who had to find her own way to come to terms with some of the issues raised here. I will also try to use her experience to suggest a way forward.