Unplanned Pregnancies: The Subtle Assault on Half of Us

I was in the room several years ago when discussions with students of sexual behavior, fertility, and family were solicited from the leadership at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy about expanding their mission to include combatting unplanned pregnancies, following upon the widely-documented success in helping diminish teen pregnancy rates by 30 percent (which most of us recognize as a good thing.) Given that organizations are “conservative” by nature—that is, they seek to survive, even if it means shifting gears or purposes—it was not a surprise that the National Campaign decided to add “and Unplanned Pregnancy” to their title and purpose.

I had intended to blog about unplanned pregnancies for some time, and that time accelerated when last week I noticed a letter to Carolyn Hax—the Ann Landers for educated, white upper-middle-class types—that addressed this very subject. I seldom care what Carolyn actually advises; the important thing in advice columns is what people want advice about. That is a window into the human quest to be and feel normal. Like all of us social creatures, people look around them for what they ought to want and feel and think, and sometimes they simply ask.

Dear Carolyn: Found out a few weeks ago that I am pregnant at 42! Have one kid, almost 8, who is a complete joy. Husband has made quite clear he does not want this baby because it was not planned and he doesn’t want to work forever. I am feeling like it is a miracle after four years of fertility treatments and finally giving up two years ago. I don’t want to be selfish but really want this baby. But then I keep seeing moms with kids and wonder, is it selfish to be so old with a young child and to go against what my husband wants?

A key part of the problem here, she asserts, is that the pregnancy was not planned. Now, this is certainly not a new subject or concern. For some data perspective…in 2001, 49 percent of pregnancies in the United States were unintended, according to data analyses using the National Study of Family Growth, a reputable source of information. I put a research assistant onto the task of updating that statistic, and he informed me that his best estimate using data from 2005-2010 in the same study is 44 percent. Don’t read too much into the minor dip; it could be subjective measurement decisions with the data. (My RA got 43 percent when he calculated the older estimate, down from their 49 percent). Regardless, the point is that almost half of American pregnancies are unintended or unplanned, and that hasn’t changed much. And apparently that’s a shame.

This shift in discourse of late away from reducing teen pregnancies—a fairly intelligent, no-brainer goal—to reducing unplanned pregnancies continues to grate upon me years after The National Campaign added it. (I don’t actually mean to single them out.) It’s not simply a subtle and neutral turn of phrase, but instead indicates a larger push for social change around conception and childbearing, one that reaches well past teen pregnancies to adult ones as well. Although the Campaign is focused on unmarried adults, the discourse can and does spill over into marriage, as the advice column suggests.

As sociologist of culture James Hunter tells it, culture change is a work of legitimation and deligitimation, of naming one thing normal and right and its competition deviant, stupid, inferior, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. At bottom, culture is the power of “legitimate naming.” Indeed, we have named “unintended” pregnancies into a social problem. The term—as Hunter describes the process—has penetrated the structure of our imagination, our frameworks for how we think and converse, and our perceptions of what normal reality should look like (hint: “planned”). The reality remains, however, that “unintended” characterizes 44 percent of pregnancies.

Such naming is a form of power. The advice-seeker quoted above can attest to that. She reports feeling selfish when she should feel supported. (Why would motherhood ever be considered selfish? It is nearest the very definition of selflessness.) Instead, she senses that her husband has claimed the moral high ground by appealing to their lack of planning. To publicly (rather than privately) distinguish between pregnancies by labeling them as “unintended” or “unplanned” lends—if even only tacitly or incidentally—a morally-suboptimal status to them. And from there…

Two of my three children were altogether unintended and unplanned, and frankly genuine surprises. Perhaps we exhibited a “lack of planning and control.” (Isn’t that what the sexual union between husband and wife ought to exhibit with some regularity?) I am reminded of the hilariously sad narrative of relationship life embedded in the short entitled I Guess You’ll Do: “I will take the fun out of sex by incorporating science…” No, there is something still humanly good about mystery and surprise. A walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, an unexpected note, a phone call from an old friend, heck even cancer is better off as a surprise—who would want to see that coming?

Planned (56%) or not (44%), few people regret having children. To be sure, they may prefer a different timetable or more stable circumstances—and that is certainly understandable and worthy of empathy—but most don’t look at their children and wistfully wish that they did not exist.

Teen pregnancy may be a social problem. Poverty is. Increasing inequality is. But unplanned pregnancy is not a social problem per se. At least not until it has become so in the mind of a critical mass. We’re certainly on our way there.

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  • M

    Clearly these policy people want unplanned to mean ‘unwanted’, hence the pro-choice slogan of yore ‘every child a wanted child’. The figure of 44% unplanned strikes a chord from the other side of the atlantic too.
    It confirms my suspicions that western governments are secretly trying to pursue an ‘optimum population’, (sorry, ‘sustainable population’) policy of halving the population this century. In Britain, these types want the population to go down to 30 million by the year 2100. Apparently there aren’t enough green spaces for the rich to build holiday homes in Britain – though if they want to halve the population, they will have to concentrate on England, which has a much bigger population than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. In reality, what would happen would be extending anti-natalist policies everywhere, and thereby attack traditional Celtic communities. Hence, one can predict a Christian backlash in the Celtic countries. The way to do that is to whine about ‘unplanned pregnancies’ all around and bring in a sort of one-child policy by stealth. It’s obvious. Surely there is a similar hidden ethnic conflict within the United States when pro-choice people talk loudly about ‘unplanned pregnancies’. They must be worried about the place of white people in American society, as if nobody else really had title to the land.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I get your point (I think.)

    But part of what concerns me about the fact that still nearly half of a pregnancies are unplanned is that we really do have the technology to solve that problem. So why are nearly half of pregnancies unplanned? Who is having the unplanned pregnancies? How many of the unplanned pregnancies are desired (for instance Catholics that intentionally do not use birth control) vs unwanted (potential abortions).

    It feels like there are far more questions than answers at a time when the costs of unplanned pregnancies are not insignificant.

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      I think part of the point of the article is that many people have an unquestioned assumption that planning is always a good thing for pregnancies. Hence the argument for surprise and spontenaity.

      One problem with “planning” every pregnancy is that children seem more like products and less like gifts; we develop the illusion that we have control over our progeny, and forget that we are participating in a process that is in some ways simply beyond us.

      • Mallory

        I love that.

    • Ted Seeber

      The ugliness of bigotry against the unwanted astounds me. It is easily as bad as the bigotry against blacks.

    • Bruce

      Adam,
      We do NOT really have the technology to solve that problem. Real world failure rates for all contraceptive practices range from 5 to 15%. Failure rates are identical to pregnancies because ‘failure’ is defined as a pregnancy. You might find this first person story interesting. http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2012/09/06/the-failure-rate/

  • http://gruntledcenter.blogspot.com/ Gruntled

    Kristin Luker found some time ago that, to the pro-life way of thinking, marriage is the moment of “planning to have children” – the timing is just a matter of detail.

    How many of the unplanned pregnancies in the study you cite are within marriage?

  • http://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.com/ Mike Crowl

    Adam writes, ‘we have the technology to solve that problem.’ But children/pregnancies aren’t a problem – or weren’t until people starting coming up with ‘solutions’ and mantras like a ‘woman’s right to her own body,’ (whatever that means). Children are a joy – yes, they can arrive at bloody inconvenient times in our lives – but they’re only a problem to people who think the world ought to revolve around their lives, and not their children’s as well. We had five children – were any of them planned? Certainly not in the way people ‘plan’ children now. In fact, once you start planning to have children, you also start to plan NOT to have them, because there’s never a time when it’s ideal to have a child/children.

  • lucidiot

    You say “Planned or not, few people regret having children”. Is that a valid indicator, or is it a form of confirmation bias? (Not sure confirmation bias is the right term – I’m thinking of the one where, after having made the decision, you rationalize it with the pros and ignore most of the cons.)

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    You have picked up on a deliberate trend in public health policy (motivated by Planned Parenthood and supported solely by research from PP’s Guttmacher Institute) to conflate “unplanned” with “unwanted.” The National Institute of Medicine white paper on women’s health published in July 2011—which is the foundation for the HHS mandate requiring employers to offer insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization at no copay—uses the terms interchangeably, and posits the statistics as a national women’s health crisis. Underlying the mandate is the contention that women (especially, as the report notes, young, uneducated, poor, and minority women) are incapable of complying with the least expensive, most widely available methods of family planning, and so must be persuaded—by removing perceived economic obstacles—to place themselves on non-compliance-related forms of contraception such as the IUD and hormonal implants, the serious health consequences of which are dismissed as being less expensive, nationally, than pregnancy and childbirth.

    There are very good studies, however, that indicate lack of access to contraception as being quite low on the list of reasons for “unplanned” pregnancy. (Unplanned being defined by PP as not chosen or prepared for or wanted at the time of conception, whereas we all know, from experience, that an unplanned pregnancy may be as joyful and chosen once the shock has worn off as any best-laid plans.) There is more “choice” in unplanned pregnancies than the PP statistics account for, and often what is unwanted are the circumstances into which the child will be born (poverty, abandonment or abuse by the spouse, worries about child care, etc—all of which are conditions society can and should be doing more to address), and not the pregnancy itself.

    We have not yet arrived at a place where having children—at any age, under any economic circumstances—is viewed as aberrant, unnatural, diseased, and toxic, but we are being nudged awfully hard in that direction.

  • Lala Mooney

    Excellent article. I was a guidance counselor in a public high school for 16 years and saw many unplanned pregnancies and abortions too. The beauty of it was, that often, thos unplanned babies gave the mothers great motivation to get ahead in life. And brought many families closer. And also, surprisingly, many of my students who had abortions, went on to plan and conceive the next baby and make their relationship with the father succeed. It was beautifu to see them being good mothers to the new baby.

  • Ted Seeber

    I hate this bigotry against the unplanned. With 44% of pregnancies being unplanned, you can bet at least a quarter of your adult friends were unplanned pregnancies.

    I’m even against this bigotry against teen pregnancies. The teenage years are the safest time for a woman to get pregnant; but because of economics and inequality, we discriminate against the teen mother in an awful way.

    This bigotry is as ugly as any other form of racism. More so because more than 50 million unplanned children have been killed in the last 40 years. But let’ us at least be honest with ourselves as to WHY- because Americans are so afraid of losing control, that merely being unplanned often becomes a death sentence.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    Bruce, I should clarify to mean that if we want to we have the technology to prevent that.

  • Holly

    As a pastor’s wife, I remember the tearful “confession” of a couple of mothers in our congregation. Both were pregnant with their fifth child, and both children were conceived during times of crisis (another child was sick with a non-terminal disease and in the other family, they were poor.) Both mothers felt so “guilty,” and were extraordinarily apologetic to their families (who scorned them for being poor planners and well, just….poor.) This was in a small town, in a small, conservative church.

    How sad this made me, and how sad this still makes me. My husband and I had 5 children at the time, then went on to have four more (for a total of nine for those who are aghast and can’t believe that some idiotic woman would have that many children.) Ha Ha. That is when I noticed that the culture had changed. Women in good, solid, faith-filled communities were apologizing for having unplanned pregnancies (which went ahead to become much loved and accepted seven year old children today.)

    And you know, my husband and are so lovingly counter-cultural (meaning that we quietly live our lives and don’t make our choices out to be a moral high-ground – we’d rather live by example…) that we just stopped planning. :) We took the children God sent, and didn’t seek to control anything other than trying to be physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually healthy. None of our children are planned (by us….) but all of them are planned by God. I love this way of life; God has matured me (thru reducing my self focus) and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope that by my direct encouragement I made the difference in those families lives – I told them to rejoice, to never apologize for a child.

    My hope is that this will be the next generational back-lash (or over-compensation,) that couples will say, “that’s crazy-thinking….let’s be different from our parents and stop trying to control so much…”

    Thanks Mark – I’ve been watching your trials and your work over the last months. Keep up the good work, my friend. You are appreciated.


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