Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 14 February 2014

Imagine a world without unwanted children

Having been approached to give a talk on the topic Imagine a World Without [X], I stumbled at first. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine a world without an X of your choice without becoming either extremely sentimental or extremely abstract. But salvation came in the form of something more personal: a topic I had good reason to feel strongly about.

From this background, the thought I want to share with you is the idea of a world without unwanted children. I want to share this idea with you not only because I feel so strongly about it, but because I feel so strongly that it should and can be attainable. Even if we do not succeed in achieving birth control, even if we do not succeed in keeping young girls in school and stopping 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. We can do this thing.

I should also make explicit that when I say ‘unwanted children’, I am not just talking about unplanned pregnancies. That forms a large 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 fact is that everything of human origin hinges on how we treat our children. If every child that walked this earth were loved, nurtured and raised by the book, I can guarantee you that we would be much closer to a problem-free world – and those problems we did have would not be insurmountable. The sum is not difficult: Poverty, violent societies and unstable homes make for troubled children, who grow into unstable, volatile adults. If we make a mess of our children, we make a mess of our future. I say this not to be sentimental or to sound like a Stevie Wonder song. 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 legalising abortion even had a positive impact on the rate of violent crime, which experienced a drop 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 disorders as well as a number of chronic physical illnesses. There are more citations than we can count telling us this. Yet amazingly, we collectively continue to make a royal pig’s ear of raising our children.

Pro-choice activists are fond of citing the wretched lives of unwanted children as an argument for nipping these lives in the bud, and pro-lifers are fond of using the same arguments to preach abstinence. To me, this is neither here nor there. I have no interest in starting an argument about abortion or birth control. Whether you believe in it or not, the fact remains that some people use it and some don’t, and there are children who fall through the cracks, and end up living lives of horror for all the years in between.

A longitudinal Scandanavian 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 showed increased delinquency, a higher number of welfare recipients, a more poorly educated citizenry, and a greater number of psychiatric problems.

If you want even greater horrors, there are, of course, also a number of hideous studies on filicide, or the murder of children, 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 particular and rather gruesome study by Dr. 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.

The facts here are, firstly, that the consequences of having so many unwanted and throwaway children are severe, both for the children themselves and for the rest of us living around them. And secondly, that the droves of neglected and broken children walking the earth are the result of so many factors, and they exist in many spheres of society. They are in the upper classes, where perhaps their wealthy parents are too busy socialising and leave them to be raised by their Playstations. 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 poverty-stricken communities, where young girls may have a higher risk of exposure to violence, less access to protection at judicial or political levels, and be left with babies they don’t know what to do with. 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 born to university students who had too much to drink at a party, teenagers who are sexually experimenting in the lifts at malls, and who knows what other mothers who throw their babies in dumpsters or tie them to train tracks or try to flush them down toilets because God knows what is going on in their brains or lives or circumstances. The point is that billions of children are unwanted, unloved or discarded to varying degrees every day, and the consequences for the world we live in are far-reaching. 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 UN’s theme for the International Day of the Girl was 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, as pointed out by Desmond Tutu and Ela Blatt, worldwide, statistics show that child mothers are vulnerable to ill health, violence, inadequate education, HIV/AIDS and poverty – as are their children.

Outside of child marriage, some other consequences to think about – a couple of fast facts:

  • Unwanted children at two years old had 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, and do not receive the benefits of breast milk – which can have lifelong health consequences including poor cognitive development and higher risk of 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, essentially, when we’re looking at a world full of disposable children, is a world that is angrier, less healthy, less intelligent, more afraid, less confident, less ambitious and a whole lot more broken.

Repair those children and you’re repairing the world.

That’s what I want to focus on: repairing those children. Because as much as I cherish an ideal where every child is a planned and nurtured child, ideals are for sissies. They will never happen. What we have here in front of us is the reality, but it’s one we can work with. However, I suspect this is the part where you’re all going to start zoning out, because you all think you’re too smart to go around dropping unplanned babies and you think you don’t have to listen.

Well, you can sit up now, because you’re wrong. I’m not here to tell you to plan your babies, and I’m not here – as I said before – to pin the problem on any one sector of society, which unfortunately does occur and is frequently rooted in ignorance or prejudice. 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 often well-off, highly educated people do not want to hear. Privileged people often prefer to hear that the problem of unwanted children is not theirs. 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. They want to click their tongues when they see an unemployed shack-dweller with five kids, but they want to applaud and say ‘God bless’ when they see the same size family in Bishopscourt. They themselves want to continue having bonny blue-eyed babies to their hearts’ content, because they’re at the top of the food chain and it’s their right to make more People Like Us.

I think it should be clear by now that this problem of unwanted children – in its many guises – occurs everywhere and belongs to all of us.

Perhaps if we were into simplistic Utopian ideals, then, we might argue that conversely, the rich should not have babies at all, and should just adopt ten kids each, and it would be a very neat solution to the problem. But choosing this kind of neat mathematical solution is firstly insensitive, secondly unethical, and thirdly scientifically completely unsound. Moreover, I don’t know about you, but I always find genocide a problematic starting point. It seems rather harsh to deny people the joy of having their own children just because they happen to have a degree and some money.

So no, I won’t say that. But I will say this: if you are wealthy, educated or otherwise privileged, 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? What if 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 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 if you were just a little bit kinder to that neighbour’s child whose parents scream through the wall?

What if, like Princess Anne, you really don’t like kids, and you don’t bother to have any yourself, but you donate the price of a night out to the Peninsula School Feeding Scheme? Although this last is, to me, the least desirable, because 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.

The thought that I want to leave you with today, then, is that unwanted children are not the problem of somebody else. 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 that. 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 small part of the world differently. 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. DM

This column is an edited version of a TEDx talk delivered in Cape Town last year.


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