America has become a more violent place for born children since abortion was legalized.
The available data shows that legal abortion has not reduced child abuse in America, as theorized by some, but rather may have contributed to its increase.
One argument used in favor of abortion is that its legalization actually helps to reduce child abuse. It is argued that “unwanted” children are more likely to be the objects of abuse. If these children are aborted now, abuse and neglect will be reduced later. Looking at the available data since abortion was legalized in the U.S., child abuse has not decreased but substantially increased. Fufthermore, there may also be evidence that abortion on demand actually contributes to the increase of child abuse.
Child Abuse Defined
Before talking about the relationship between abortion and child abuse, we have to define what constitutes child abuse. Federal legislation provides a foundation for States by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A. §5106g), as amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:
(1) Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation;
or (2) An act, or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
This definition of child abuse and neglect refers specifically to parents and other caregivers. A "child" under this definition means a person who is under the age of 18 or who is not an emancipated minor. While Federal legislation sets minimum standards, each State is responsible for providing its own definition of maltreatment within civil and criminal contexts.
Child Abuse Statistics
Reliable yearly national statistics before 1990 are difficult to find, but according to the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS) child maltreatment has risen dramatically since the 70s (when abortion became legal). The NIS is a congressionally mandated effort to provide estimates for child abuse and neglect in the United States. NIS-1 was conducted in 1979-80 and published in 1981. NIS-2 was conducted in 1986-7 and published in 1988. NIS-3 was conducted in 1993-4 and published in 1996. NIS-4 is projected to be complete in 2009. The NIS-3 data measured changes in incidences from early studies. The following represents estimates of the number of children maltreated:
NIS-1 (1980): 625,100
NIS-2 (1986): 931,000
NIS-3 (1993): 1,553,800
The NIS-3 statistics represent a 67% increase from 1986 and 149% increase from 1981. The report also indicated significant increases from 1986 to 1993 in physical abuse (97%), sexual abuse (125%), emotional abuse (183%), physical neglect (163%), and emotional neglect (188%). These initial numbers strongly indicate that legal abortion has not reduced child abuse in America. Since 1993, however, child maltreatment has decreased slightly and since 1999 has leveled off.
According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, these were the following rates of child victims per 1,000 children under 18 from 1995-2006:
1995: 15.0 (1,000,000+ estimated victims)
1996: 15.0 (970,000 estimated victims)
From 1990-1996 victimization increased more than 17%.
1997: 13.7 (984,000 estimated victims)
1998: 12.9 (903,000 estimated victims)
1999: 11.8 (826,000 estimated victims)
2000: 12.2 (879,000 estimated victims)
2001: 12.4 (903,000 estimated victims)
2002: 12.2 (896,000 estimated victims)
From 1990-2002 victimization decreased by 7.5%
2003: 12.4 (906,000 estimated victims)
2004: 11.9 (872,000 estimated victims)
From 1990-2004 victimization decreased by 11.2%
2005: 12.1 (899,000 estimated victims)
2006: 12.1 (905,000 estimated victims)
In all of the above yearly reports, in around 80% of the cases, a birth parent (usually the mother) is the perpetrator and the victim is under the age of 5. (Go here for a data table on child maltreatment related to gender, race, and age). Interestingly, while the abortion rate has decreased so has the child abuse rate. One would expect the opposite, if legal abortion helped to reduce child abuse.
The Relationship Between Legalized Abortion and Child Abuse
While the statistical data indicates that child abuse has risen dramatically over the past three decades and continues to be a serious problem, it is difficult to say what impact legalized abortion actually has had. Researchers disagree on how to understand the data, as there are many variables that can affect it. Finkelhor and Jones (2006) think that legalized abortion is insufficient to explain why child maltreatment has declined since the mid-90s, arguing that the decline should have happened much earlier if Roe had had any impact. Bitler and Zavondy (2004) argue that access to abortion, combined with improved economic conditions, has lead to fewer unwanted births and less financial stress and therefore less child abuse – they clarify that this was only true of “less extreme” maltreatment and not “severe” maltreatment. Seiglie (2004) thinks that abortion availability does indeed reduce child maltreatment, especially neglect, by making families smaller and easier to support.
On the other side, some researchers think that legalized abortion has in fact been part of the cause of increased child abuse. In the late 70s, Dr. Philip Ney listed eight possible psychological mechanisms whereby an increase in the rate of abortion could lead to an increase in child abuse. In his article “Relationship Between Abortion and Child Abuse,” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 24:610-20 (1979), they are listed as follows:
1) Having an abortion may decrease an individual’s instinctual restraint against the occasional rage felt those dependent on her care.
2) Allowing infants to die by permissive abortion might diminish the social taboo against aggressing the defenseless.
3) By lessening children’s confidence in their parents’ care, abortion may increase the hostility between the generations which may become violent.
4) By discarding nondefective unborn children wholesale, abortion may devalue children, thus diminishing the importance of caring for children.
5) When abortion increases guilt and self-hatred, the parent may displace it onto a child.
6) A woman’s choice for abortion increases the hostile frustration of some men, intensifying the battle of the sexes, for which children are scapegoated.
7) Abortion of the first pregnancy may truncate the initial developing mother-infant bond, thereby diminishing future mothering capability.
8) A previous abortion may result in the depression which interferes with the mother’s capacity to bond to her new-born.
Dr. Ney also gave supporting data (from the 60s-70s), summarized as follows:
1) In Canada, deaths from social causes increased after abortion became available.
2) Canadian provinces with higher abortion rates also had higher child abuse rates.
3) Child abuse rates increased in the U.S. after abortion became available.
4) Over 90% of battered children are wanted pregnancies.
5) Abuse is not more common among defective or retarded children.
6) Adopted children are frequently more abused.
He concluded with this remark: “When we are so careful not to tamper with the delicate balances of plant and animal ecology, one wonders why we do not at least study the far-reaching effects that killing unborn infants may have on the human species…Is it possible that by disrupting a primary species-preserving mechanism, medicine [i.e., abortion] is endangering humanity?”
14 years later, in a 1993 article, Dr. Ney and others still found that there was no evidence that available abortion had reduced child abuse. Unwanted children were not more abused, but woman who had previous pregnancy losses were more likely to abuse or neglect children. The data suggested that subsequent pregnancy losses interfered with parent-child bonding (See Ney, P. Fung, T., Wickett, A.R., "Relationship Between Induced Abortion and Child Abuse and Neglect: Four Studies," Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal 8(1):43-63 Fall 1993.)
In a 2005 study (see also here and here), researchers and professors from Bowling Green State University found that woman who had a previous abortion were 144% more likely to physically abuse their children.
In conclusion, the actual reasons for increases (and/or decreases) in child abuse and neglect are multifaceted and complex. Legalized abortion is one of many possible factors. But, at very least, however we analyze the data, it is clear that the legalization of abortion has not reduced the rate of child maltreatment in the United States. And while we cannot be definitive, we should at least be aware of the psychological damages abortion can potentially have on future parent-child relations. Put in other words, it is possible (even likely) that if parents do not value children before birth it may lead parents to devalue children who are born. Finally, if children in the womb are considered “children,” then abortion itself is a form of child abuse.
This page was last updated on May 26, 2009. To cite this page in a research paper, visit: "Citing Abort73 as a Source."