Why should parenthood have to be planned?
A new survey suggests that it's a problem that 40 per cent of pregnancies are 'unplanned'.
Once upon a time, the phrase ‘unplanned pregnancy’ had specific connotations. It meant teenagers or single women falling pregnant quite accidentally, often at an inconvenient time in their lives, because they did not use contraception or the contraception did not work.
It was assumed that every other pregnancy was, in a general sense, planned – married adults had children at some point in their lives together, and that was the way things were. ‘Unplanned’ was a euphemism for ‘unwanted’, and it was assumed that, by and large, most people wanted their pregnancy.
Not now. In these times of singleton society, chosen childlessness, fertility treatment, falling fertility rates and lifestyle diversity, the expectation that people will simply fall into family life no longer exists. Pregnancy is expected to be as rigorously planned and carefully executed as the decision when and where to buy a house, what to study at university, exactly which fad diet to follow and exactly how to have this or that conversation with one’s partner. All of which breeds a strange set of assumptions about women, and how they make fertility decisions.
A new survey commissioned by the online contraceptive information service evriwoman this week found that four out of 10 pregnancies in the UK are unplanned (1). This statistic is hardly new – it is the reason why access to abortion has been such a key feature in women’s ability generally to regulate their fertility. But while the 40 per cent statistic in the past has been used to argue the need to expand women’s choices, through abortion rights, reducing the stigma of single motherhood, improving contraceptive science and technology and so on, today the discussion tends in the opposite direction, emphasising women’s irresponsibility.
Take the evriwoman survey. The press release spins the ‘four in 10’ finding around the notion that the government’s current focus on reducing teenage pregnancy ignores the problem of unplanned pregnancy among the rest of the fertile population. It also includes a lengthy quote from Dr Rosemary Leonard GP about the problems women face with contraception (they forget to take it – duh!) and what could be done about this (encourage women to adopt contraceptive methods that are less likely to fall victim to their scatty habits, such as implants, injections or patches).
evriwoman’s PR agency clearly knows what it is doing, for this spin on the survey’s findings struck a chord in the national press. As one news report summed up the survey: ‘It shows that while political debate about teenage pregnancies continues, older women can be just as careless or confused about contraception.’ (2) In fact, insofar as this survey shows anything, the summary ‘older women are just as daft and irresponsible as teenagers’ obscures its more interesting findings – which indicate that, when it comes to having wanted pregnancies, a sizeable proportion of women are reluctant to plan them – or at least, to admit that they did so.
This survey was hosted on the Bounty website, the company that intensively markets baby products to expectant and new mothers (3). It also found that, of those women who had had an unplanned pregnancy, three-quarters decided to keep the baby; and that while one in five wished they could turn back the clock, four out of five had no regrets about their decision. This lack of regret, too, is not an uncommon finding, even among that much-maligned category of teenage mothers – and it is quite a heartening one.
In a time when access to abortion gives women the real choice to end a pregnancy that really is unwanted, the fact a large proportion of women seem to go ahead with the pregnancy regardless, and experience it in a reasonably positive fashion, indicates a certain victory for spontaneity against the uptight doctrines of today’s pregnancy orthodoxy. For in our topsy-turvy culture, defending the right not to plan parenthood down to its minutiae is becoming as important as demanding the ability to do so.
Today’s world seems a million miles away from the time when motherhood was considered an unequivocally positive life-goal, and a somehow natural thing for women to do. Now, we are surrounded by stories about the difficulties of parenthood, the responsibilities of pregnancy, the importance of ensuring that we make the right decision at the right time of our lives, with the right person.
The discussion about whether women should have children, and when, why and how they should have them, has become so fraught that anybody considering embarking upon this course of action is considered irresponsible if they have not drawn up list upon detailed list of pros and cons, budgets, implications and school league tables before they ever let themselves off the contraceptive leash. (Only then, of course, to panic that they might have become infected by the syndrome of Women Who Plan Too Much – who may have left things too late, or worried too much, to become pregnant in the first few weeks.)
But while, thanks to contraception and abortion, it is now possible to plan not to be pregnant, it is not possible to plan to be pregnant – certainly not the way you would plan a holiday or dinner party. The biological element is still significant – however much some people might plan for, try for and hope for children, they are not able to have them. Beyond that, as with all private, emotional decisions, having children is not susceptible to the rational rules of the workplace, or the cold dogma of official policy.
If some women are deciding to opt out of the planning orthodoxy, by ‘forgetting’ the odd contraceptive pill when really, they didn’t forget it at all, or by deciding to keep babies born as a consequence of genuine contraceptive accidents, why on earth should that be a problem? This seems less an example of women being ‘careless and confused’ than an example of women, or couples, for whom life is not a survey, and who tend just to get on with these things rather than making painstakingly conscious decisions every step of the way.
When it comes to reproductive choices, society has progressed a lot: particularly, in the sense that today’s unplanned pregnancies rarely result in unwanted children. Let’s not screw it up, by assuming that women who break the rules somehow know not what they do.
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