Henry David dies; psychologist studied abortion's effects

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; B07

Henry P. David, 86, a clinical psychologist whose research on abortion showed that unwanted children were more likely to experience long-term difficulties in school and life than those whose families had planned their births, died Dec. 31 at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville. He had congestive heart failure.

In the late 1960s, Dr. David became one of the first to study the psychological aftermath of abortion. He guided younger psychologists to do similar research, and their combined efforts helped alter the prevailing assumption among clinicians that abortion was a source of mental health problems in women.

Their work influenced the public debate. As opposition to abortion mounted in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan asked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a report on the psychological effects of abortion. Koop, a vocal antiabortionist, was widely expected to denounce abortion as a risk to women's mental health.

After surveying 250 studies, including those by Dr. David and scientists he had mentored, Koop refused to issue the report, citing inconclusive evidence. Koop later called the psychological harm caused by abortion "minuscule from a public health perspective.''

Dr. David was best known for his study on unwanted children, the result of a chance meeting at a late-1960s cocktail party in Prague. Dr. David, who was in Czechoslovakia for research, struck up a conversation with the head of the country's public health service. She asked whether he would be willing to find out what had become of Czech children whose mothers had wanted abortions but could not get permission. Struck by the unusual scientific opportunity presented by the communist government's penchant for detailed recordkeeping, he agreed.

With the help of two Czech colleagues, Dr. David tracked 220 children whose mothers had twice requested and been denied abortions. He compared them with 220 children whose parents had wanted them, matching each against a counterpart with similar socioeconomic background, birth order and parents' marital status.

He reported that by age 35, the unwanted children were less likely to have graduated from high school and have satisfying relationships. And he showed that they were more likely to be jailed and experience addiction.

The study, presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1989, resulted in the Czech government's decision to more freely permit abortion. It also gave ammunition to American abortion rights advocates in their efforts to challenge state laws requiring parental consent for abortions.

Heinz Phillipp David was born in 1923 to a Jewish family in Hagen, Germany. As a boy, when Hitler rose to power, he was sent by his parents to the United States and taken in by a Jewish family in Cincinnati. His parents later made their way there.

Determined to become American, he changed his name to Henry Philip and studied English, losing his accent almost entirely.

He joined the Army Air Forces in 1943 and was assigned to a psychological examination unit in Miami Beach. Two years later, he was transferred to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey to evaluate the physical, psychological and economic effects of the air war in Germany.

Having discovered an interest in the human psyche, Dr. David returned to study psychology at the University of Cincinnati, from which he graduated in 1948. The next year, he received a master's degree there in clinical psychology, and in 1951 he received a doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University.

Early in his career, Dr. David worked in Trenton, N.J., as chief psychologist of the state's Department of Institutions and Agencies. He settled in the Washington area in 1965 and worked for the American Institutes for Research until 1975, when he founded the independent Transnational Family Research Institute in Bethesda.

Research grants supported his work around the globe and allowed the establishment of satellite offices in Palo Alto, Calif., Copenhagen, Prague, Mexico City and Bangkok.

Dr. David, a Bethesda resident, wrote or edited 17 books and received numerous awards, including the American Psychological Association's Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Psychology in the Public Interest.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Tema Seidman of Bethesda; a daughter, Gail David of Chevy Chase; and two grandchildren.

A son, Jonathan, died in 1980.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company