Imagine a world without unwanted children

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Marelise van der Merwe

The thought I want to share with you is the idea of a world without unwanted children.

Even if we cannot keep young girls in school or stop childhood marriages, even if we do not manage to create a culture of planned parenthood across the planet, there are enough human beings walking this earth to make sure that no child should live this life as a throwaway person.

Society’s throwaways

I should also make explicit that when I say ‘unwanted children’, I am not just talking about unplanned pregnancies. That forms part of it, but I am also talking about some of the world’s other throwaway children – its orphans, its abused and abandoned children, and those born to child mothers.

Interestingly, Joleigh Little of National Right to Life pointed out earlier this year that worldwide, there are many more parents waiting to adopt children than you would imagine. It’s most often the system that is failing to unite children with potential caregivers. There are currently approximately 147 million orphans in the world. About 250 000 are adopted annually, but each year 14.5 million orphans age out of the system. Almost a fifth of these commit suicide before they turn 18, or end up in other unfavourable circumstances.

The way we treat our children

If every child were loved and nurtured, I can guarantee you that we would have something very close to a problem-free world. The sum is not difficult: poverty, violent societies and unstable homes make for troubled children, who grow into unstable, volatile adults. It’s a simple equation and there is more than enough empirical evidence to back it up.

Rejected, unstable and unloved children suffer significant emotional and developmental problems and often develop behavioural problems as well, which so often manifest in our juvenile offenders – who later turn into mature offenders. It would be remiss at this point not to cite the famous study cited in Freakonomics, which found that even legalising abortion had a positive impact on the rate of violent crime, the rate of which dropped at the precise point where those unwanted children would have matured into first-time offenders. Childhood trauma is identified as a factor in a significant percentage of mental illnesses as well as a number of chronic physical illnesses. There are more citations than we can count telling us this. Yet collectively, we continue to make a royal pig’s ear of raising our children.

A recurring tale of woe

I have no interest in an argument about abortion or birth control. The fact remains that there are children who fall through the cracks.

A longitudinal Scandinavian study looked at a control group of children versus a group of children whose mothers had wanted abortions but not been able to have them. The results were unsurprising: right into adulthood, the unwanted were more than twice as likely to suffer social, emotional and educational disadvantages as wanted children, on a variety of measures. Unwanted children exhibited increased delinquency, were more likely to be welfare recipients and poorly educated, and experienced a greater number of psychiatric problems.

There are also, of course, on record, a number of hideous studies on filicide, which qualifies as the ultimate conclusion of not wanting a child. But it is not my intention to catalogue atrocities here; suffice to say that in one rather gruesome study by Phillip J. Resnick, it was found that 83% of horrific child murders were attributed to the child being unwanted, with a further chunk being unintentional killings during abuse – while a small percentage could be attributed to parental psychosis and another pinch could be attributed to altruistic reasons, such as sparing an ill child suffering. But the overwhelming majority was simply getting rid of an unwanted child.

They are everywhere

The facts here are, firstly, that the consequences of having so many unwanted and throwaway children are severe. And secondly, that the droves of neglected and broken children are the result of so many factors, and they exist in many spheres of society. They are in the upper and middle classes, where perhaps their wealthy parents are too busy socialising and leave them to be raised by their PlayStation. They are in the middle classes, where perhaps they are put through school, but suffer abuse and sadism of another ilk behind closed doors. They are in conservative societies, where overwhelmed child brides who barely know how to bath and dress a doll are suddenly expected to raise families. They are in the poor communities, where girls who have not finished school are coerced into taking on a ‘boyfriend’ in a prominent local gang and suddenly have a baby they don’t know what to do with. They are born to university students who had too much to drink at a party, schoolgirls who are experimenting sexually and other mothers who throw their babies in dumpsters or tie them to train tracks or try to flush them down toilets.

A profusion of unplanned offspring

In sub-Saharan Africa, a particularly large number of unplanned children are born, and statistically the awareness of family planning is not improving significantly.Use and knowledge of birth control improved from 5% in 1991 to 30% in 2006, but that’s still not saying much.

I’ll give you some further examples. This year, the United Nations’ theme for the International Day of the Girl is child marriage. Ten million girls under the age of 18 are married off, every year, with little or no say in the matter. That’s 100 million girls in the next decade. It goes without saying that these child brides have little control over how much breeding they do, too. In India, for example, nearly 80% of married women have little or no access to birth control. And worldwide, statistics show that child mothers are vulnerable to ill health, violence, inadequate education, HIV/Aids and poverty – as are their children.

Countless consequences

Outside of child marriage, there are other consequences to think about:

  • Unwanted children at two years old show significantly lower cognitive test scores when compared to children born as the result of an intended pregnancy.
  • Women who have unwanted children tend to have greater instability in their relationships, further creating an unstable environment for the child and for themselves.
  • Unwanted babies are less likely to be breastfed, which can have lifelong health consequences including poor cognitive development and higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and certain cancers.
  • Unwanted children exhibit higher levels of fearfulness and lower levels of verbal development, lower vocabulary skills and poorer physical and mental health.
  • Unwanted children are more likely to be poor, drop out of high school, have lower grade-point averages, lower college aspirations and poorer school attendance records. So what we’re looking at is a world that is angrier, less healthy, less intelligent, more afraid, less ambitious and a whole lot more broken.

Spread the love around

Repair the unwanted children and you’re repairing the world.

The first change I want us to make is that I want everybody to be part of the solution. This part of the strategy, especially, is the part that well-off, educated people do not want to hear. They want to hear that people in townships and gang-ridden urban flats or poverty-stricken rural areas are the ones who must have their tubes tied and stop breeding. Not so?

Perhaps if I were into Utopian ideals, I’d argue that perhaps the rich should not have babies at all, and should just adopt 10 kids each, and it would be a very neat solution to the problem. But choosing this is firstly insensitive, secondly unethical and thirdly scientifically unsound.

But I will say this: if you are wealthy, and educated, and you’re planning your family, you have a moral obligation to plan as part of that family for some of the children in your extended human family. If you have time and means, you should take some of those resources you would be spending on breeding and invest into some of the unwanted children that do already exist, too.

What if, instead of having three biological children, you had two, and adopted one? Or, instead of adopting one, you took the price of one of your dinners out each month for an education policy for someone who needed it? What if you were uncomfortable with adoption, but tried your hand at fostering? What if you were squeamish at the idea of fostering and didn’t have the financial means to adopt or educate, but you were a weekend caregiver to children at a nearby orphanage?

What I am really advocating here is a hands-on approach, where we all get our hands dirty and make a real, personal difference to at least one child, by getting to know them and teaching them that they are important. There are enough of us to go around.

Each life matters

Unwanted children are not the problem of the poor. They are the single factor that can make the biggest difference to the functioning of our world, and we should all be investing real and tangible resources into them. If you have not experienced it first hand, you probably do not realise it. But I can try to tell you the difference each life can make – and how the lightest touch can change everything.

So I’m asking you to go with the idea that you can imagine one day differently for one child. Go forward, and each day, do one thing to make a thrown away child feel important. Do one such thing every day. You may never know the difference it makes. But believe me – and I know this from experience – it does.

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2014

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