Anti-Abortion and the Lives of Children: A Freudian’s Perspective

Image by Claudio Schwarz.

There are now many crucial political insights and ominous warnings about the anti-abortion crusade in the U.S. and its entanglement with other powerful life-threatening political processes at play. However, there is little about the psychology of anti-abortionists. As a practicing psychoanalyst, inferences about a group’s unconscious motives and assumptions about ‘human nature’ are fraught because of the vast complexity of individuals and because the data itself is unconscious. Yet there are observable and inevitable realities in life that affect people in very individual ways. It is also readily observable that facts can be evaded and distorted. One fact about human life is that people are not alone: it is not a libertarian world, Thatcher is wrong to believe there is no such thing as society, and one common fact in life is having or expecting a sibling. Freud found that children have intense curiosity, fears, and wishes about birth. Seeing children and listening to them shows a very wide range of reactions, circumstances, and influences on their feelings towards siblings and their pregnant mothers. Indeed, curiosity about the birth of the universe is a current adult preoccupation.

The question here is whether there is something unique about anti-abortionists as distinct from people espousing other reactionary causes, expressed in their preoccupation with the life of the unborn and their disconnect or indifference to the death of born children worldwide and to the death of pregnant mothers. This dichotomy about life and death in anti-abortionists’ behavior is extremely stark as there is so much publicized about the needless and preventable cruelty and killing of children in the world today. I would even argue that historically, the present so-called liberal democracies are unprecedented in sanctioning cruelty, killing, and psychological unawareness of children.

Sibling rivalry is expressed in everyday life, in the stories of Cain and Abel and Joseph and his brothers, and in the clinical literature. Freud interpreted Goethe’s one single memory from his ‘earliest years of childhood’ as an expression of sibling rivalry: Goethe remembered that he was ‘overjoyed’ to hurl every little dish, cooking-pot and pan out the window and smash them to bits after the birth of a brother when he was not yet four. Freud had a patient who brought out the proximity in his life of the birth of a brother and the memory of flinging objects out the window, and other analysts relayed to Freud the same sequence, of their patients’ throwing things out the window right after the birth of a sibling. Freud commented that “the new baby must be got rid of – through the window, perhaps because he came in through the window.” In everyday life, it is not uncommon for parents to mitigate or try to eliminate any anger and resentment by the pretense of providing the older child with a gift supposedly from the newborn infant as if to say that the new baby is not taking anything away but giving a present. Parents’ own ambivalent sibling feelings are apparent when they do not see and do not protect the younger sibling from many expressions of hostility. This is painfully represented in contemporary novelist Sally Rooney’s Normal People depicting a brother’s murderous behavior towards his sister with the collusion of their mother.

In 1973 two child psychoanalysts and an expert in family law wrote about the basics of children’s lives and needs in Beyond the Best Interests of the Child in which they pointed out that the US and British nation states ignorantly and prejudicially remove children from their families for supposed neglect, but that the state often do not intervene when there are unambiguous threats to a child’s life. The authors directly confront the fact of hostility and murderousness towards living children. They point to the discrepancy in the law between theory and practice: “the child is singled out by law, as by custom, for special attention. The law distinguishes between adult and child in physical, psychological, and societal terms.” They point out how children generally differ from adults: “they change constantly, from one state of growth to another, with regard to their understanding of events, their tolerance for frustration, and their needs for and demands on motherly and fatherly care for support, stimulation, guidance, and restraint. They experience events happening solely with reference to their own persons … thus they may experience the birth of a sibling as an act of parental hostility. Children have their own built-in time sense – and an intense sensitivity to the length of separations.” Because of children’s needs for continuity, their changing needs, and their different sense of time, they cannot wait for delay and for total system change. Again, this attitude is not ‘human nature’ but it is highly observable now. Factually, there are worldwide responses of horror and compassion towards children such as in the reaction to drowned Syrian child Alan Kurdi, to Phan Thi Kim Phuc who was napalmed, to the children killed in US school massacres. Parents and communities all over the world make sacrifices, even given their lives, to protect their children.

Given the enormity of the problem, what is glaring now is the inattention to children’s lives, abuse, and death by influential people, institutions, political groupings across the spectrum, and by anti-abortionists: “The Screams of Children have been Edited”. Lack of protection, child removal and family separation continue full-steam, with racial and class bias, as documented currently by Dorothy Roberts, as evidenced in ICE detention where children are suddenly separated from their parents and not even allowed to have hugs, soap, and tooth brushes, and with all the evidence of residential school deaths and the silence all these years of teachers, medical professionals, social workers, and religious people. Norman Finkelstein carefully documents the silence and the ambiguity of Amnesty International and the UN in acknowledging and condemning Israel’s killing of children in Gaza in 2009 and 2014, at a time when Amnesty International invited Madeleine Albright to give a keynote address at their Chicago AGM. Albright infamously said that the killing of ½ million Iraqi children was “worth it”. Amnesty International’s extensive report on Israeli apartheid is a critical breakthrough, but the Apartheid convention and the report do not distinguish between child and adult casualties. In its 2022 Children and Armed Conflict report, the UN said Israeli forces killed 78 Palestinian children, maimed another 982 and detained 637 in 2021. Defense for Children International/Palestine section has documented this for decades, and this organization was among the human rights organizations charged with terrorism by the Israeli government. The UN report also documents child deaths in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There have been innumerable warnings of mass child starvation in Yemen and Afghanistan, with unabated weapons shipments to the perpetrators, Biden’s withholding of funds to Afghanistan, and the extreme stinginess to UN agencies providing life-saving supplies: “11.3 million children (Yemen) in need of humanitarian assistance. The protracted situation severely impacted the health and nutrition of children: nearly 400,000 children are severely malnourished, and 2.3 million children are acutely malnourished. UNICEF requires US$484.4 million to respond to the humanitarian crisis.” The 10 richest people in the world added a combined $402 billion to their fortunes in 2021 while populationists blame the state of the world on too many (dark) children.

Sibling rivalry may be one psychological determinant of child neglect and cruelty that now reaches murderous proportion. There are other cultural norms that excuse, exonerate, and even extol this behavior. The unquestioning compliance with rules and orders stands out in Uvalde, in residential schools and in ICE. Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable investigation of Britain’s Poor Laws since the 14th century reveals the greed and hypocritical smugness that justified an extreme individualism and social irresponsibility among the affluent in British society long before capitalism, in which charity and any provisions for impoverished people was seen as increasing their immorality, their laziness and tendencies to alcoholism and sexual promiscuity. Employers received some compensation for each new child recruit, so it was lucrative to work them to death and receive more money for each new recruit. There is a common psychological defense of reversal into the opposite. The ideal of benevolent caring for a child’s life and the reality of killing children is the iconic Victorian child’s Christmas vs the cruel reality of children’s lives depicted by Engels and Dickens, or the smug bigotry of Swift’s Modest Proposal to solve the Irish problem by eating Irish children. The image of the loving and perfect Abrahamic God the father vs the cruelty of this God ordering Abraham to kill his son reverses love and murder, with God disavowing his own death wishes. English literature is replete with tales of cruel parents incapable of taking care of children. The mental health hegemony of American psychiatric diagnosis is dismissive of children’s actual experience and is based on checklist traits that classify children with lifelong diagnoses and formulaic treatments

What is expectable is raging against this killing and cruelty and prioritizing its immediate end. There are certainly historical instances of dramatic and rapid righting of wrongs.

In closing, I quote a poem recently sent by Vijay Prashad.

In 1955, ten years after the US dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima (Japan), the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet wrote a poem in the voice of a seven-year-old girl who died in that terrible act.

I need no sweets, nor even bread.
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead, for I am dead.

All that I ask is that for peace
You fight today, you fight today
So that the children of the world
May live and grow and laugh and play.

Norman Finkelstein, Gaza: an inquest into its martyrdom, Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Sigmund Freud, A Childhood Memory of Goethe’s, Standard Edition XVII, London: Hogarth Press, 1917. P. 147-256.

Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, New York: The Free Press, 1979.

Marilynne Robinson, Mother Country: Britain, the welfare state and nuclear pollution, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1989.

Sally Rooney, Normal People [a novel], Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2020.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at