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Mail-Order Bundles of Joy

[World, August 12-19, 1995] 

The residents of a doll catalog that arrived in yesterday’s mail are still, perfect, and beautiful, carefully arrayed in fetching poses. Most of these pricey, un-playable dolls are babies and children. Porcelain is ideal for such dolls: it has a smooth, matte finish reminiscent of tender skin, takes color well, and can be exquisitely detailed down to the chubby wrinkles around a knee. What these idealized babies don’t do is cry or breathe or eat, or grow any bigger. They are perfect for a culture that doesn’t care for children.

A doll catalog like this, full of miniature idols suitable for enshrining, could suggest instead that we love children extravagantly. But our love is not for children in their own right, with their own needs. We love them in the manner of Shel Silverstein’s rhyme: "Do I like children? Yes I do! Boiled, baked, or in a stew!"

We love children as consumer items: pets, toys, providers of entertainment and prestige to their owners. Their existence is permitted if they fit adults’ plans—if adults want them. If they fail to please, the results are not pretty.

The change in the rate of child abuse over the last twenty years tells the story. In 1974, 60,000 cases were reported: over a thousand children were being battered each week.

But hope was on the horizon: Roe vs Wade was only one year old. As availablity of abortion spread, women could weed out the children they didn’t want before birth. Soon, only wanted children would get born. A world of wanted children, as the slogan goes, would make a world of difference.

Two decades later, the world is very different. Every person in America under the age of 22 could have been aborted; every child living, and every teenager, escaped that fate by being sufficiently "wanted." And the reported cases of child abuse inflicted on all these chosen children? Last year it was still 60,000—except, now, that’s the figure for a single week. In 1994, the total number of reported child abuse cases was 3.1 million.

How can this be? Perhaps it’s due to better reporting; perhaps people are under more stress. Perhaps the disintegration of the family means that parents pushed to the limit no longer have an aunt or grandma—or husband—to take the baby for awhile. (Though single-mom households make up only 17% of the population, they account for 40% of reported child abuse.)

But a simple, seismic shift was contained in the very notion that children had to be "wanted" before they earned the right to live. Parents’ pleasure superceded their offsprings’ right to breathe, and there was no reason this right would cease after birth. In fact, numerous studies confirm that the most "wanted" children are the most likely to be abused; as measured by parental eagerness for the child during pregnancy, the child’s being named after a parent, the mother going early into maternity clothes, the percentage of "wantedness" among abused children is between 91% and 96%. Perhaps the higher the (unrealistic) expectation, the deeper the disappointment. A cuddly bundle of joy in the delivery room may not be so wanted at the age of Terrible Two, or five, or fifteen, and the parent’s right to reject feels just as valid.

The parent’s right to reclaim is honored as well; abusive parents can block termination of parental rights for years, with the assistance of social workers who see reconstituting the biological family as the highest good. There are no unwanted children; adoptive parents are waiting for kids with Down Syndrome, spina bifida, even AIDS. But there are, sadly, unadoptable children, because years of fickle foster care can turn a trusting young heart to stone. Nevertheless, biological parents’ ownership rights can transcend the child’s right to have a permanent home.

The teens and twentys who escaped abortion are haunted by all those empty seats in the classroom. A recent CBS poll found that the age group most likely to call abortion "murder" was those between 18 and 29; fifty-six percent agreed with the term. In 1990, researchers for the Center for Population Options found that most teens in their focus groups strenuously objected to abortion, and insisted on the priority of the innocence of the unborn child. These teens may have identified less with the thrilling autonomy of choice, and more with siblings not lucky enough to get chosen.

America loves children: perfect, porcelain children. In a twist that seems particularly perverse, the doll catalog even offers, for collectors’ pleasure, dolls that are sad. Some are crying, in a fetching way, glistening tears rolling down a cheek. These beautiful children are probably immune to abuse, because they cannot fail to please. All they have to do is sit on the mantelpiece, perfectly adorable, day after day gathering a little more dust.

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