The Human Cost of Restricting Abortion

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As lawmakers consider enacting restrictions on abortion, they should be mindful of the consequences. Unwanted pregnancies become unwanted children, and unwanted children are prone to depression, anxiety, addiction and other social and emotional disorders. That’s especially true when their mothers are young and immature, unable to handle the responsibilities of parenthood.

I’ve seen it in my practice, and research confirms it: The scars from growing up unwanted can become evident during childhood and last into adulthood. According to three studies published between 2011 and 2013, children born from unintended pregnancies showed a cognitive delay at age 3, a propensity for behavioral problems at 5 and 7, and a heightened likelihood of substance abuse and other difficulties at 14.

If a mother feels forced to bring a child into the world, the child will bear the brunt of her resentment. Children who are neglected and unloved often grow up with a sense of emptiness, disconnection and low self-esteem. Beginning in the 1960s, the Prague Study followed the children of 220 mothers who were denied abortions, typically because they were past the 12-week limit. These children were compared with both their “wanted” siblings and children whose mothers did not seek an abortion. Children whose mothers had been denied abortion were more likely to have behavioral and maladjustment issues while growing up, and more prone as they reached adulthood to unwanted pregnancies and the need for psychiatric care. They have a lower quality of life because their mothers were unable to provide for them emotionally.

Unwanted pregnancy can also be bad for the mother’s mental health, especially for girls and young women. The social-emotional part of the brain doesn’t finish developing until age 25. In El Salvador, where abortion is banned without exception, suicides of pregnant girls under 19 accounted for 38% of maternal deaths in 2013. Some of these girls are victims of forcible or statutory rape or incest.

Another issue to consider is the generational expression of trauma. Mothers who didn’t want their children, who might have suffered from postpartum depression, and who neglected or abused their unwanted children will often pass that trauma on to their offspring. The next generation is then forced to grapple with their parents’ post-traumatic stress and may in turn become emotionally distant and raise their own children with a lack of emotional presence and empathy, perpetuating the cycle. In this way, depression, anxiety and impaired child-rearing practices can persist for many generations.

None of this is to suggest that abortion should be taken lightly. It can pose its own emotional burden on women, and I recommend that women considering it take the time to process their feelings and conflicts before making a decision. But if it doesn’t remain an option for women and girls in distress, that will cast a long shadow on the lives of mothers, their children and generations to come.

Ms. Komisar is a New York psychoanalyst and author of “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.”

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Appeared in the July 29, 2022, print edition.

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