A Question of Scale, and a Question of Proportion

So Dan Rather has a report today -- I had thought he was retired -- on the horror of how our grandparents used to deal with unwanted pregnancy.
In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, being an unwed mother carried a significant stigma in America. It’s now called the “baby scoop” era and during this time young women -- usually in their teens -- were either hidden at home, sent to live with distant relatives or quietly dispatched to maternity homes to give birth. 
Estimates are as many as 1.5 million young mothers who say they were forced -- some just minutes after delivery -- to hand over their babies for adoption during this period.  It was a decision that they seldom made on their own.
It's easy to sympathize with the mothers here, for whom this must have been a traumatic and upsetting experience.  However, note the scale:  1.5 million over a period of thirty years.

The CDC estimates that the number of abortions in America since 1973 is about 50 million.

Even allowing for the existence of a certain number of illegal abortions in the 50s-1973, it's clear that the loss of the social stigma has vastly increased the scale of the problem.  Unintended pregnancies are now much more common than they were.

That's the question of scale; but there's also a question of proportion.  Is it proportionate to traumatize a young woman with social stigma when she has done something so reckless as to create a life she cannot support?  Possibly; it's harsh, but it need not be cruel.  Sometimes a harsh solution is necessary, though cruelty never is.

Is it proportionate to kill a child for the crime of being unwanted?  Of course it is not.

Likewise, there's a question of proportion in terms of addressing the injustice that results.  Insofar as it was wrong to force these young women to give up their children, many of these children can now be located in time for them to share a part of their lives with the mothers who now wish to contact them.  Some will have lived and died, but most should be able to connect even now.  A child killed in the womb, by contrast, can never be recovered:  the injustice to the child cannot even be ameliorated, let alone put right.  Should the mother change her mind, years later, she will find no recourse in the courts.

It appears, then, that our new solution has (a) made the problem far more common and also (b) morally worse.  Our grandparents, so often mocked as oppressive haters of women, may have had the better solution.

Yet if our way is practically worse, and also morally worse, it is superior in one respect:  it takes better care of the feelings of the adults involved.  The women who make the choice feel that at least society respects them enough not to interfere, however much they may still regret the choice they make; and the rest of us are never forced to deal with anyone who is aggrieved, as these mothers were by the forced adoptions, because the aggrieved party is helpfully dead.  If the standard for judging the policy is how careful it is of the feelings of everyone within our social circle, then this policy is a far better.


karrde said...

I believe that a number of such unplanned pregnancies resulted in marriages, also.

There's a saying that floats around certain parts of my family. Roughly, "Back then, everyone knew that the first baby could come anytime after the wedding. But all the rest the babies took nine months."

Grim said...

That's true: I don't know what the statistics are on "unwanted marriages," although I've read that arranged marriages work better on average, with the partners coming to love each other more on average than do "love marriages."

Of course, in this case, the two parties would have had some choice! I don't know if that makes it better or worse than pure arranged marriages; probably closer to love marriages, I would think.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It's a significant amount of genetic selection, isn't it? Who knows what we are selecting for?

Texan99 said...

There was something very creepy about that business of sending pregnant girls off to the provinces somewhere to have the baby incognito, so no one would be able to prove that she wasn't a virgin any more. I don't think it can be entirely attributed to a desire to shame her socially for the crime of irresponsibly creating a baby she wasn't taking care of, because no such penalty was ever visited on the fathers. It had much more of a flavor of "damaged goods."

So I was glad to see that go out of favor. I was sorry to see it replaced with the assumption that a young woman with no means of support should be pregnant and proud at 15, and should keep the baby and start right away working on the next one. I don't doubt that it is indescribably heart-breaking to be forced to give up your baby at birth, and there ought to be a better reason for it than that Daddy and Mommy don't want to face jeers at the Country Club, but I'm also more concerned about finding a good home for the baby than for the tender, understandable, but juvenile and destructive wishes of an unprepared mother.

bthun said...

"Texan99 said... @ 9:59 AM"

Agreed, but this,

"I'm also more concerned about finding a good home for the baby"

should be the prime directive.

Eric Blair said...

T99 has an interesting point about 'damaged' goods, but I'm not sure about Grim's point that the 'arranged' or 'forced' marriages were actually better for anybody involved.

They were just more miserable, I'll bet.

Now, there does seem to be something to the idea that the scale of the thing was a lot smaller than today, but there are more people today too.

Quantity has a quality all its own and all that.

I am also not so sure it is practically worse, given the alternative--and the guy who wrote the book "Freakanomics" had an interesting theory about the advent of legal abortion nationally and the decline of crime rates nationally.

Grim said...

The point about arranged marriages isn't mine, just something I've seen in several studies over the years. It's counterintuitive, but I think the evidence seems to support it; although, just why it should be true isn't clear.

Now, the crime rate argument is one I've heard before. But let's look at that one on the proportion scale, too. Would we support a policy that decreased the crime rate by half, at the small cost of carrying out 50 million more executions of prisoners?

I'm pretty sure that would cut the crime rate! And it'd be more proportionate, since you'd be targeting people who actually were criminals, tried and convicted. Save a bunch of money, too.

karrde said...

I suppose the main point of my comment was that Dan Rather hadn't covered all the possibilities. He mentioned two potential outcomes to unexpected pregnancy of an unmarried woman, but didn't mention another common outcome from the past (or single-motherhood, the other common outcome of the present).

I agree with Grim that the scale of abortion is much larger than the scale of forced adoption. I also agree that abortion doesn't appear to be better than adoption (or rapid marriage).

However, we simply don't know if forced-adoption-plus-shotgun-weddings occurred at roughly the level that abortions-plus-single-motherhood do now.

A related thought: a rapid wedding after an unexpected pregnancy is not the same as an arranged marriage. The couple involved likely had some feelings for each other already. They may not have planned on marriage, or on marrying so soon. But a relationship of some kind was happening already.

Of course, an arranged marriage comes with the expectation that the culture will encourage the couple to stay together. I think such a rapid wedding (in the cultural matrix of the 1930s to 1950s) carried a similar connotation.