Post-Abortion Syndrome

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy article on “post-abortion syndrome,” a psychological condition invented by anti-choice choice groups (it isn’t backed by any credible research, and none of the major psychological associations recognize it) that’s now being used to argue for the illegalization of abortion.

The argument goes like this: Abortion is inherently traumatic; all women are traumatized by their abortions, even if they don’t know it; because women are traumatized, they do a variety of anti-social things, making abortion the root cause of many of our social problems; therefore, abortion should be illegal.

It’s a truly strange argument. I haven’t ever heard of attempts to outlaw any other incredibly common medical procedure because of that procedure’s supposed negative psychological effects, none of which were scientifically proven. Pregnancy and childbirth, for example, have been shown to cause or aggravate depression — these findings are backed up by volumes of research. Should we outlaw that?

I feel truly sorry for the women who say they are experiencing post-abortion syndrome. And so perhaps this will sound cold, but I can’t but think that maybe they aren’t using their abortion as a catch-all for long histories of depression, anxiety, and often abuse and other problems. It makes sense, psychologically — abortion is something you can control, and if the rest of your life has been fully out of control, you can channel that pain inwards and deal with the one thing that you did. Further, many women who are going in to get abortions are in troubled situations anyway — at the very least, they’re pregnant when they don’t want to be pregnant. If that pregnancy was caused by abuse, or happened to a girl or woman from a strict anti-choice family, or happened to a woman who already suffered from depression, it logically follows that there will be some ongoing issues, and the abortion will be grouped in with that. One of the women that the author of this article interviewed is an illustrative example:

When Arias talks about the effects of abortion, she’s so fervent that it’s hard to maintain her gaze. But the idea that abortion is at the root of women’s psychological ills is not supported by the bulk of the research. Instead, the scientific evidence strongly shows that abortion does not increase the risk of depression, drug abuse or any other psychological problem any more than having an unwanted pregnancy or giving birth. For Arias, however, abortion is an act she can atone for. And this makes it different from the many other sources of anguish in her past. As a child, she was sexually abused by her stepbrother, she told me. An older boy forced her to have sex when she was 14; seven months later, she says, she woke in the middle of the night to wrenching cramps and gave birth to a baby girl who was placed for adoption. A year later, Arias’s father, a bricklayer to whom she was close, plummeted from several stories of scaffolding to his death. She left home and fell out of touch with her mother and two brothers.

By concentrating on the babies she feels she has lost (she has named the first two Adam and Jason), Arias has drained other aching memories of some of their power. “I think about the baby girl I gave up for adoption, and I think I made a good parenting choice. I know she had a good life,” she said. “I think about my sons, Adam and Jason, my sons who I never held in my arms, and I know I’m forgiven. But” — her voice cracked. “I didn’t give them life. And I am so very sorry.”

She has gone through heartbreaking ordeals — abuse, rape, drug addiction, multiple unwanted pregnancies — and those experiences, and her views of them, should not be discounted. The women who say that they were scarred by their abortions are making valid statements. I don’t doubt that they do feel very sad or regretful about their choices. I am truly sorry that they feel that way. What I can’t support, though, is the argument that because a very small percentage of women who terminate their pregnancies feel badly afterward, that the right to terminate a pregnancy should be taken away from all women. Especially when the argument itself is not only unsupported by research, but completely out of touch with reality:

Because of this knowledge, she is now equally certain, she slipped into years of depression, drinking and freebasing cocaine. One night when she was in her early 30s, she got as high as she could, lay down in the dark in a bathtub filled with water and slit her wrists. In her mind, all of her troubles — the drugs, the suicide attempt, the third and fourth abortions she went on to have, the wrestling match of a marriage she eventually entered — are the aftermath of her own original sin, the 1973 abortion. It’s a pattern she sees reflected everywhere: “In America we have a big drug problem, and we don’t realize it’s because of abortion.”

The big drug problem in America is because of… abortion?

The complete divorce from reality aside, this argument is also deeply paternalistic. It comes down to the idea that a handful of people know what’s medically best for all women, moreso than the women themselves. These people argue that women don’t know what’s in their best interests, and so we must protect them from themselves:

Thirty-four years ago this week, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, and since then the American abortion wars have pitted the rights of “unborn babies” against those of living women. Rhonda Arias and a growing number of abortion-recovery activists want to dismantle that framework and replace it with this: Abortion doesn’t help women. It hurts them. With that conviction, these activists hope to accomplish what the anti-abortion movement has failed to do for more than three decades: persuade the “mushy middle” of the American electorate — the perhaps 40 to 50 percent who are uncomfortable with abortion but unwilling to ban it — to see that, for women’s sake, abortion should not be legal. Spread across the country are anti-abortion groups that offer post-abortion counseling. The Catholic Church runs abortion-recovery ministries in at least 165 dioceses in the United States. The federal government finances at least 50 nonsectarian “crisis pregnancy centers,” like the one where Arias worked in Houston. Many of the centers affiliate with two national groups, Heartbeat International and Care Net, which train abortion-recovery counselors. Then there are small, private counseling and Bible-study groups, both Catholic and evangelical, which raise their own money. Some abortion-recovery counselors just minister to other women. But many also feel called to join the fight to end abortion.

Yes, you read that right — these people receive federal funding.

For all their supposed interest in women, they could genuinely care less. The focus on the actual living, born people in the abortion debate is a crass political move, utilized only because focusing on the ever-important fetus — and the ever-important goal of controlling women’s bodies — wasn’t playing well with many Americans.

If the activists have a Moses, it is David Reardon, whose 1996 book, “Making Abortion Rare,” laid out the argument that abortion harms women and that this should be a weapon in the anti-abortion arsenal. “We must change the abortion debate so that we are arguing with our opponents on their own turf, on the issue of defending the interests of women,” he wrote. The anti-abortion movement will never win over a majority, he argued, by asserting the sanctity of fetal life. Those in the ambivalent middle “have hardened their hearts to the unborn ‘fetus’ ” and are “focused totally on the woman.” And so the anti-abortion movement must do the same.

Grudgingly, strategically.

The fact is that these women are an incredibly significant minority. According to the article:

Reardon’s book, published during this time of dimmed hopes for the anti-abortion movement, imagined a future in which millions of women and men with experience of abortion would express outrage, demand reform and file lawsuits that would bankrupt abortion clinics.

These millions have not materialized. The number of women who seek out groups like Rachel’s Vineyard is a small fraction of the number of American women who have abortions. Almost 3 million of the 6 million pregnancies that occur each year in the United States are unplanned; about 1.3 million end in abortion. At the current rate, about one-third of women nationally will undergo the procedure by age 45. The number of women who go to abortion-recovery counseling is probably in the tens of thousands, and the number who become dedicated activists is at most a few hundred. And yet they and their cause are emerging as a political force. “These women were minority voices for a long time, and now they are gaining traction within the anti-abortion movement,” says Reva Siegel, a Yale law professor who favors abortion rights and has been tracing this grass-roots movement from its origins.

This movement, is must be emphasized, is not in any way about making women’s lives better. They’re trying to take an option away from women, rather than trying to give women more options, or even make it easier for them to give birth.

Abortion-recovery counselors like Arias could focus on why women don’t have the material or social support they need to continue pregnancies they might not want to end. They could call for improving the circumstances of women’s lives in order to reduce the number of abortions. Instead they are working to change laws to restrict and ban abortion.

These groups have been actively soliciting affidavits from women who say that their abortions were psychologically painful. They’ve thrown a ton of money and advocacy behind this, including dozens of abortion recovery centers, a legal organization, and even a television show that reaches 10 million homes. The result: 1,940 affidavits. Total. Out of the 1.3 million women who terminate pregnancies every year in the United States alone.

Their evidence is also, to be generous, iffy:

In 1985, Reardon started a social-science fight over the effects of abortion. He surveyed members of a group called Women Exploited by Abortion (since disbanded), which defined itself as a “refuge” for “post-abortive women.” Reardon distributed a survey to about 250 WEBA members and found high rates of nervous breakdowns, substance abuse and suicide attempts. He presented this as proof of a national link between abortion and these conditions.

Where to start?

You know, dentists have a higher rate of suicide than, I believe, any other profession. Attorneys have a high rate of substance abuse. If I were to go to a professional-class-orientated therapy group, and found that the people in that group experienced high levels of depression, nervous breakdowns, substance abuse and suicide attempts, would that be evidence of a “national link” between a professional career and these conditions? If I were to go to a therapy group targeted at women experiencing postpartum depression, would it be rational to come away with the conclusion that there is a national link between childbirth and depression, and therefore childbirth should be illegal?

But, hey, don’t take my word for it:

Soon after Koop’s refusal in 1987 to report on the health effects of abortion, the American Psychological Association appointed a panel to review the relevant medical literature. It dismissed research like Reardon’s, instead concluding that “well-designed studies” showed 76 percent of women reporting feelings of relief after abortion and 17 percent reporting guilt. “The weight of the evidence,” the panel wrote in a 1990 article in Science, indicates that a first-trimester abortion of an unwanted pregnancy “does not pose a psychological hazard for most women.” Two years later, Nada Stotland, a psychiatry professor at Rush Medical College in Chicago and now vice-president of the American Psychiatric Association, was even more emphatic. “There is no evidence of an abortion-trauma syndrome,” she concluded in an article for The Journal of the American Medical Association.

And there’s more:

Academic experts continue to stress that the psychological risks posed by abortion are no greater than the risks of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. A study of 13,000 women, conducted in Britain over 11 years, compared those who chose to end an unwanted pregnancy with those who chose to give birth, controlling for psychological history, age, marital status and education level. In 1995, the researchers reported their results: equivalent rates of psychological disorders among the two groups.

Brenda Major, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, followed 440 women for two years in the 1990s from the day each had her abortion. One percent of them met the criteria for post-traumatic stress and attributed that stress to their abortions. The rate of clinical depression among post-abortive women was 20 percent, the same as the national rate for all women ages 15 to 35, Major says. Another researcher, Nancy Adler, found that up to 10 percent of women have symptoms of depression or other psychological distress after an abortion — the same rates experienced by women after childbirth.

Researchers say that when women who have abortions experience lasting grief, or more rarely, depression, it is often because they were emotionally fragile beforehand, or were responding to the circumstances surrounding the abortion — a disappointing relationship, precarious finances, the stress of an unwanted pregnancy.

But who needs “experts” and “science” when we have misogyny, paternalism and ideology?

But David Reardon continues to research the psychological effects of abortion, and he no longer makes beginner’s mistakes. He is said to have a doctorate in biomedical ethics from Pacific Western University, an unaccredited correspondence school, according to Chris Mooney, the author of “The Republican War on Science.” (Reardon did not respond to several requests to be interviewed.) According to his Web site, in 1988, Reardon founded the Elliot Institute, a research center in Springfield, Ill., which in 2005 had a $120,000 budget. He has recently teamed up with Priscilla Coleman, a professor of family and consumer studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and published more than a dozen papers in peer-reviewed journals. Reardon and Coleman cull data from national surveys and state records in which unplanned pregnancy is not the focus of the data collection. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Reardon found a higher risk of clinical depression in a group of married women who had abortions, and published the results in a 2002 article in The British Medical Journal; using California Medicaid records, he and Coleman found a higher risk of psychiatric hospital and clinic admissions among poor post-abortive women, which they reported in 2003 in The Canadian Medical Association Journal; two years later, using the National Survey of Family Growth, they found a higher risk of generalized anxiety disorder post-abortion and published their results in The Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Make note of The Elliot Institute. Without fail, any time you’re debating an anti-choicer online who argues that post-abortion syndrome exists, they’ll point to Elliot. But the Institute’s website is fairly telling. Not only does it feature pictures of sad-looking women on the front page, but it describes itself as:

This is the web’s most complete source of information on the aftereffects of abortion and post-abortion healing. We have over 500 hundred links to thousands of printed pages of original research, testimonies, articles, and resources. Most of these are drawn from articles and books published by the Elliot Institute, one of the nation’s leading authorities on post-abortion issues.

The web’s most complete source of information on the aftereffects of abortion — which pretty much only links to its own sources. Because there isn’t anything else out there that supports its obviously flawed conclusions and selective research. Back to the Times article:

Nancy Russo, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and a veteran abortion researcher, spends much of her professional time refuting Reardon and Coleman’s results by retracing their steps through the vast data sets. Russo examined the analysis in the 2002 and 2005 articles and turned up methodological flaws in both. When she corrected for the errors, the higher rates of mental illness among women who had abortions disappeared.

Well whaddaya know.

As usual, this fight isn’t just about abortion — it’s about contraception and basic sex education, too. Right down to what you teach your own kids:

Last March, Arias took Jessica on a monthlong ministry to Israel. They are both interested in Messianic Judaism — a mezuza is nailed to the doorpost of the family’s home. For Arias, the trip was glorious. She ministered on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. (On a previous trip she threw her wedding ring into a valley, pledging to live as a new virgin.) She returned home to the news that Jacqui [her teenage daughter] was pregnant. “I was the last person they told,” she said of Jacqui and her boyfriend, whom Jacqui met in church. Arias taught her daughters about saving themselves for marriage but not about contraception. “Abstinence works better than birth control, really,” she said. “It’s just that people don’t do it.”

Well, if people don’t do it, then that doesn’t really make it work better than birth control, does it? Interesting, too, that the pro-life lover-of-babies-and-pregnant-women was the last person told.

The Times article also delves into the pro-choice response to this phenomenon. The conclusion: Pro-choicers, at least, aren’t liars; but they also aren’t giving enough validity to the complexity of emotions that come along with terminating a pregnancy.

While it seems that some anti-abortion advocates exaggerate the mental-health risks of abortion, some abortion advocates play down the emotional aftereffects. Materials distributed at abortion clinics and on abortion-rights Web sites stress that most women feel relief after an abortion, and that the minority who don’t tend to have pre-existing problems. Both claims are supported by research. But the idea that “abortion is a distraction from underlying dynamics,” as Nancy Russo put it to me, can discourage the airing of sadness and grief. “The last thing pro-choice people, myself included, want to do is to give people who want to make abortions harder to get or illegal one iota of help,” says Ava Torre-Bueno, a social worker who was the head of counseling for 10 years at Planned Parenthood in San Diego. “But then what you hear in the movement is ‘Let’s not make noise about this’ and ‘Most women are fine, I’m sure you will be too.’ And that is unfair.”

I agree. Women must have space to grieve if they feel a need to grieve, to be joyful if they feel joyful, to be relieved if they feel relieved, or to not feel one way or the other, any more than they’d feel about any other medical procedure. The reality is that many women do feel conflicted about their abortions — how could they not? The dominant narrative is that abortion is always a tragic choice, that it is inherently devastating, that any decent person would feel immensely guilty for the choice she made. So women are stuck: Either you feel guilty, or you feel guilty for not feeling guilty. It’s hard to tell when the guilt is inherent, and when it’s put upon you. Even pro-choice women and feminist women may feel guilty about being so “stupid” to get pregnant in the first place when they should “know better;” the deeply ingrained idea that abortion is a tragedy can touch even the most pro-choice of people, who realize that abortion is the best choice for them given their circumstances.

There isn’t a lot of room for those voices. So either you’re ok, or you’re part of a religious anti-choice group that uses you as a pawn to outlaw abortion. For the women in the middle — who may feel conflicted, who may have internalized the anti-choice message that guilt and remorse are the only valid post-abortion feelings, who may not even know how to sort through the whole experience — there is Exhale, an inclusive organization which offers after-abortion counseling, but which recognizes the wide range of experiences that women come in with, and doesn’t attempt to give a one-size-fits-all solution. So there are pro-choice options. Unfortunately, though, these options are severely under-funded:

There is considerably more money for post-abortion counseling on the anti-abortion side. In addition to the diocese-based services paid for by the Catholic Church, the Bush administration, in its first four years, spent more than $30 million on the 50-some crisis pregnancy centers, according to a report by Representative Henry A. Waxman, a Democrat from California.

Last summer, Waxman’s office investigated some of the crisis pregnancy centers and found that when women there asked about abortion’s health effects, 20 of 23 centers gave out false information. At 13 centers, this included characterizing the psychological effects of abortion as “severe, long-lasting and common.” “One center said that the suicide rate in the year after an abortion ‘goes up by seven times,’ ” Waxman’s report states.

Religious abortion-recovery programs don’t qualify for government money. Rachel’s Vineyard relies on financing from Priests for Life, a $7 million anti-abortion group that is independent of the Catholic Church. Oil of Joy’s finances are tighter. Last year, Arias raised $34,000. She is straining to pay her mortgage; meanwhile, as the Texas leader of Operation Outcry, she is expected to make donations to the Justice Foundation, which has a $1 million annual budget and paid its lead lawyer, Allan Parker, $123,000 in 2005.

Even so, some of the more traditional and moneyed anti-choice groups don’t take the “woman-centered” approach not only because they’re so full of lies, but because, well, who cares about women?

Francis Beckwith, a professor of church-state studies at Baylor University who is anti-abortion, has criticized abortion-recovery activists for their “questionable interpretation of social-science data” and for potentially undermining the absolutist moral argument against abortion. “For every woman who has suffered trauma as a result of an abortion, I bet you could find half a dozen who would say it was the best decision they ever made,” he told me. “And in any case, suffering isn’t the same as immorality.” Beckwith speaks at churches and colleges, and he says that most anti-abortion leaders don’t want the woman-protective argument to supersede the traditional fetus-centered focus, “because that’s where the real moral force is.”

These tensions surfaced in the campaign to retain South Dakota’s abortion ban. The state leader for the anti-abortion side, Leslee Unruh, who had an abortion in her 20s, called on post-abortive women to campaign and started a state tour for them called Fleet for Little Feet. Unruh says, “My strategy was to put the women on TV and have them tell their stories.” But the national pro-life groups refused to send her money to run those TV ads early in the election cycle, she says. “They won’t acknowledge women as the first victim. We’re always second to the baby.”

Given that a cornerstone of the anti-choice movement is the idea that women are simply not worth as much as the fetus inside of them, should this come as any surprise?

The argument that “abortion hurts women,” though, isn’t just happening in the abstract or in small activist groups — it’s penetrated state law through so-called “informed consent” requirements, which force doctors to lie to their patients:

Cassidy is also involved in defending a 2005 South Dakota informed-consent law, which Planned Parenthood has challenged. In its 1992 ruling in Casey, which affirmed (with some caveats) the right to legal abortion enshrined in Roe, the Supreme Court said that states can require doctors to give patients “truthful and not misleading” information about abortion. Eighteen states include in their materials a description of abortion’s psychological effects. According to a 2006 analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, seven of these states describe only harmful effects. South Dakota’s informed-consent law requires physicians to give patients written state-approved information that supplies a link between abortion and an increased risk of suicide, though no causal connection has been found. Both the patient and the doctor must certify that the patient has read and understood the materials; failure to do so is a misdemeanor offense.

Does such a law violate a doctor’s constitutional right to free speech? Robert Post, a Yale law professor, argues that the state should not be able to force doctors to convey inaccurate or misleading information. South Dakota’s law “endangers the integrity of physician-patient communications, because it threatens to transform physicians into mouthpieces for political majorities,” he writes in a coming law-review article.

South Dakota’s law also requires abortion providers to tell their patients what Cassidy argues Acuna’s doctor should have told her in the New Jersey case — “that the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.” A federal district judge agreed with Planned Parenthood that the law would force doctors to articulate the state’s viewpoint on “an unsettled medical, philosophical, theological and scientific issue, that is, whether a fetus is a human being.” The judge granted a preliminary injunction that prevented the informed-consent provisions from taking effect. In October, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed that ruling. But the panel’s decision was vacated this month when the Eighth Circuit as a whole voted to rehear the case in April. The question of whether the state can require doctors to say that a fetus is a full human being and that abortion increases the risk of suicide is in legal limbo.

Truly disturbing.

The end of the article, though, is great. It offers insightful and historically-informed evaluation of this particular strain of anti-choice belief. And I think it’s spot on:

At the prison the day before, I watched the inmates drink in Arias’s preaching, too. Abortion-rights leaders would accuse her of manipulation, of instilling guilt in women to serve the anti-abortion movement’s political ends. But Rhonda Arias ministers from the heart; the lack of scientific support for her ideas merely underscores that she is a true believer.

Her ardor and influence is better explained, perhaps, by the theory of social contagion, which psychologists use to explain phenomena like the Salem witch trials or the wave of unfounded reports of repressed memories of sexual abuse. Reva Siegel of Yale compares South Dakota’s use of criminal law to enforce a vision of pregnant women as weak and confused to the 19th-century diagnosis of female hysteria. These ideas can make and change laws. The claim that women lacked reliable judgment was used to deny women the vote and the right to own property. Repressed-memory stories led states to extend their statutes of limitations. Women who devote themselves to abortion recovery make up for the wrong they feel they’ve done by trying to stop other women from doing it too — by preventing them from having the same choices.

And then there is the relief in seizing on a single clear explanation for a host of unwanted and overwhelming feelings, a cause for everything gone wrong. When Arias surveyed 104 of the prisoners she had counseled in 2004, two-thirds reported depression related to abortion, 32 percent reported suicide attempts related to abortion and 84 percent linked substance abuse to their abortions. They had a new key for unlocking themselves. And a way to make things right. “You have well-meaning therapists or political crusaders, paired with women who are troubled and experiencing a variety of vague symptoms,” Brenda Major, the U.C. Santa Barbara psychology professor, explained to me. “The therapists and crusaders offer a diagnosis that gives meaning to the symptoms, and that gives the women a way to repent. You can’t repent depressive symptoms. But you can repent an action.” You can repent an abortion. You can reach for a narrative of sin and atonement, of perfect imagined babies waiting in heaven.

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40 comments for “Post-Abortion Syndrome

  1. Ms. Clear
    January 21, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    I read this article this morning and was particularly impressed by the conclusion and the “repentance” aspect of this strain of anti-choice activism.

    Really, these women have a “Dawn Eden” issue. Their choices left them with grief and they want everyone to, regardless of their particular mindset, to have those painful (for them) options taken away.

    It’s all about projection. Add in some charismatic, fundamentalist Christianity and of course you’re going to have some really hardcore, dedicated women who want to take our reproductive rights away.

  2. Frumious B
    January 21, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    her boyfriend, whom Jacqui met in church.


    (at the irony, not at the pregnant kid)

  3. twf
    January 21, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    In the years since my abortion, I have become much less depressed, got a bachelor’s and master’s degree, started a PhD program, and met and married a fabulous man.

    Using the Eden-Arias extrapolation technique, I suggest abortion for everyone! Abortions all around! Maybe Dawn Eden should have one, it might help her “catch” a husband.

  4. January 21, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I also read this today and it pissed me off to no end. Poor Rhonda Arias had a terribly traumatic life and she blames the abortions rather than the men who abused her and pushed her into drug addiction? Was anyone else dismayed that she asked her 6 and 9 yr old girls for absolution for having legal medical procedures to terminate pregnancy? Compulsory pregnancy is going to devastate more women and children than abortion ever could. But women get applause from the big boys for being so eager to surrender physical and psychological autonomy.

  5. n3rdchik
    January 21, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    twf –

    I second the abortion-to-happiness path. 12 years later, I am happily married (for almost a decade) with 2 great kiddos, great job and in a much healthier mental state.

  6. wolfa
    January 21, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    You know, sometimes you make the right choice, and you regret it anyhow. I don’t doubt that certain choices I made were the right ones — but I do wish they hadn’t been, that the situation had been otherwise. (Not to say that every woman who has an abortion is in this situation, but everyone’s had this situation come up somewhere in their life.)

    She glides over all the subtleties — which makes life easier, I understand, and if it works in her life, then good for her, but you can’t extrapolate black and white to the rest of the world. And she doesn’t seem to accept that yes, the right choice can be a sad choice.

  7. Karen
    January 21, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    I have two friends who had abortions — one in college and one because she got a Downs amnio — and both of them were pretty miserable afterward. Both of them, however, attributed their misery to the actual causes, not their abortions. In the first case, it was the ending of a promising relationship and in the second case it was the loss of a wanted pregnancy. (Second woman already had a daughter and later had a healthy son.) Nothing was going to make those facts go away, but forcing them to continue their pregnancies really wouldn’t help. Sometimes, you have to make the best of a bad set of choices and deal with it. I’m terribly sorry Ms. Arias had such a terrible life, but making other people’s lives terrible isn’t going to fix her problems. Oh, and did anyone else think that maybe being in prison was a bigger factor in the prisoners’ depression than their abortions were?

  8. Sniper
    January 21, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Oh, for dog’s sake. I’ve had long-lasting effects, including depression, every single time I’ve had surgery. If only some well meaning person had come along and stopped me from having my wisdom teeth aborted, um, removed.

  9. Julie
    January 21, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    I don’t doubt for a second that some women can and do feel an immense amount of regret because of an abortion. I have a family member, in fact, who had one and still 25 years later regrets her decision and wishes she could go back. I know that she struggles with a great deal of guilt and had some bouts of depression and I feel horrible for her. That being said, her experience is not what I would consider the norm. Of everyone I know who’s had an abortion, I know several people who don’t regret it at all, a few women who regret it very much and a friend who regrets it only because she didn’t realize how far along she was before the procedure and now that she’s a mom says she couldn’t have another one that far along (I think she was like 14 weeks?). I definately think it’s important to acknowledge any feeling a woman has after an abortion, it’s when you extrapolate that to everyone that the trouble starts. An abortion can be (not always of course) a major life decision, so it only makes sense that some people are going to second guess their decision, just like adoption or giving birth. It doesn’t mean we need to start outlawing all major decisions. You can do the right thing and still have it hurt. When we induced labor early with my son, it was a really tough decision and it hurt to have to do it. It hurt a lot, in fact., it was the worst decision I’ve ever had to make, I wish I’d never had to make it. That being said, I did and I know I made the right choice for me, my son and my family.

  10. Ursula
    January 21, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Gee, I didn’t go through any major psychological trauma after choosing to have an abortion. If I had carried the unwanted pregnancy to term, I would have been depressed for many reasons. I am a compassionate human being and having an abortion in the past doesn’t mean I am not normal today. What is wrong with fundie whack jobs that they can’t keep their damn noses out of other people’s lives, business and underwear?

  11. ako
    January 21, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    Oh, and did anyone else think that maybe being in prison was a bigger factor in the prisoners’ depression than their abortions were?

    Or the fact that they’re women who sought out post-abortion counseling, yeah. Similar faulty logic is used by the ex-gay movement.

    Apparently people who seek out therapy to change their sexual orientation tend to have emotional problems which they attribute to their sexuality. Similarly, women who go to post-abortion counselors are likely to have problems which they attribute to their abortion. If you set up counseling for people who’d been raised in the house with pets, and went out of your way to claim that all childhood unhappiness could be blamed on the family dog, you’d get a high percentage of participants having identifiable emotional problems, and attributing it to their pets. Not that tricky, really.

  12. j0lt
    January 21, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    I read Arias’ approach like all conservative evangelical approaches (especially of the “don’t make the same mistake I did” kind). They didn’t like making the choice and/or didn’t like the choice they made so they want to eliminate the hard decisions for everyone so there is no choice.

    One thing that bugged me about the Bazelon article is that it mentions early on that this is a tiny minority in the anti-abortionrights movement, but that it has been gaining a lot of political power and attention. My reaction was – great and here we are giving it even more power and attention by putting it in the NYT magazine & making it the cover story. Ugh.

  13. January 21, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    Checking the patients at post-abortion counseling to determine the percentage of women who regret their abortions is like examining the bottom of Lake Ontario to determine what percentage of the population wears cement shoes.

  14. Peter
    January 21, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    This is like so many other things, including the whole ex-gay drama.

    Even if it is absolutely real in some cases, that doesn’t mean it extends to everyone in similar circumstances. If – if! – there is a real risk, the appropriate thing to do is identify the risk so people can make an informed decision, not outlaw the decision itself.

    “If you choose this, these are some possible consequences some people report experiencing. If they happen, seek support.”

    The real problem isn’t that there might be some women who get an abortion and experience trauma. The real problem is the people who then say to them, “well, what do you expect, you whore?”

  15. Bitter Scribe
    January 21, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    This “post-abortion syndrome” sounds like a lot of wishful thinking by abortion opponents.

    Oh, well, at least they’re no longer claiming that abortion causes breast cancer. (Or are they?)

  16. January 21, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    I just realized that I used to have a drug problem because, as a man, I couldn’t handle the trauma of the existence of abortion. Right? Maybe I should start an outreach program here in Houston, too.

  17. January 21, 2007 at 11:43 pm

    Insane. You know what causes post-abortion depression? Underfunded reproductive health clinics and protesters who scream obscenities at women as they slip through the doors.

  18. PG
    January 22, 2007 at 1:25 am

    If doing something causes relatively few people who do it to become depressed, and that minority justifies banning that thing, does that mean we’re going to ban combat because soldiers come home with PTSD? I bet we’ll find a larger proportion of soldiers have committed suicide due to their experience of war than proportion of women have committed suicide due to their experience of abortion. Yet elective wars get the vote of most of Congress, while elective abortion is always subject to being prohibited if the Supreme Court reverses Roe/ Casey. I guess this goes back to the old protectionism: we can’t let women decide for themselves whether to have a potentially traumatic experience, but we can force (mostly) men into a traumatic experience.

  19. Kim
    January 22, 2007 at 1:49 am

    I felt kinda depressed after my abortion.. because that $500 could’ve funded a small shopping spree (or a largish one, if I went to Target).

    Oh, well, at least they’re no longer claiming that abortion causes breast cancer. (Or are they?)

    Some people still are.

  20. Bolo
    January 22, 2007 at 3:13 am

    Oh, well, at least they’re no longer claiming that abortion causes breast cancer. (Or are they?)

    I definitely saw that on anti-abortion displays at my college campus just a few years ago. So, yeah… they still do.

  21. January 22, 2007 at 5:50 am

    I read the original piece and I must say your narrative improved it significantly. Thank you, Jill, for an excellent and insightful bit of morning reading.

  22. Katie
    January 22, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Jenny Dreadful Says: Insane. You know what causes post-abortion depression? Underfunded reproductive health clinics and protesters who scream obscenities at women as they slip through the doors.

    I couldn’t agree more. The most distressing part of the day I had my abortion was getting out of the car and walking thought the throng of protesters who get right in one’s face and one’s personal space (I found this particularly distressing as I am slightly agoraphobic) to scream lies and half truths at one.

    While I was undergoing the procedure my partner and best friend who had accompanied me to the clinic went for a walk, they had to restrain each other as the hoard of protesters verbally assalted them and violated their personal space.

    I was relieved after the procedure to be told by the security staff that the protesters had packed up for the day and we would not be hassled on the way out as I was generally frightened for my safety.

  23. Ledasmom
    January 22, 2007 at 7:38 am

    Checking the patients at post-abortion counseling to determine the percentage of women who regret their abortions is like examining the bottom of Lake Ontario to determine what percentage of the population wears cement shoes

    I just snorted salsa up my nose while reading this. Let’s outlaw salsa!

  24. January 22, 2007 at 9:11 am

    During the 70s and early 80s, the idea that abortion was traumatic was unheard of. The interesting thing is that more women seemed more willing to be open about it outside their close circles of relationships, I think because the morality police hadn’t yet taken control of the “conversation” as they have now. The risk of being accused of murder wasn’t so prevalent. Yes, there were demonstrators outside of clinics sometimes, but “mainstream” society regarded them more as fringe nutcases than they do now.

    However, it was known that some women were “sad” after an abortion, very often because of forces outside the woman’s control (economics, relationships gone bad, conflicts with career or educational aspirations, etc) were not “good”.

    But over the years, the anti-abortion crowd has been extremely successful in convincing women that a) abortion is akin to murder and b) that women who become pregnant in an unplanned way are “slutty” or stupid. So in addition to the pain of abortion (which has gotten better over the years), women have had to deal with societal shame. I think that an awful lot of women who choose to have an abortion do so even though they have bought into the fundamentalist argument that abortion is a sin (I read an interesting stat re the number of young christian girls who have abortions which is not insignificant), but they choose the sin rather than bring a child into the world in a less than ideal situation, and then go into a shame-based posture. And I would argue that the shame is the source of the trauma that many women now experience.

  25. January 22, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Yes, you read that right — these people receive federal funding.

    I’m nostalgic for that episode of the West Wing where Josh takes a federally-funded study on remote prayer to the President so he can get the casting vote he needs on the foreign aid bill, and then is appalled when he realises he just tried to buy a vote for “$115,000 and the Bill of Rights”.

    It does make me nervous when the forced-birthers try to reframe the debate again – they’ll try any kind of sophistry to get their way, and I’m just worried some day one of these approaches will stick. And where the US fundies lead, our British ones are sure to try and follow.

    Keep up the good work, Jill, pulling these webs of deceit apart. And Tapetum – I had to disguise my snorts of laughter as a coughing fit…

  26. January 22, 2007 at 10:03 am

    sidenote, really, but grey’s anatomy last week had an Abortion Episode, and they did a pretty good job of showing that the woman who had the abortion (Addison) did not suffer any real negative effects from it, was not being punished in any way for it, and the only source of her discomfort on the day that the baby would have been born was because the asshole dude who impregnated her and didn’t want the baby either was guilt-tripping her about it … and in the end, he admitted that he wouldn’t have been a good father and she made the right decision …

    it’s always slightly shocking to see a tv show not portray someone who’s had an abortion not depressed/guilty/punished…

  27. Jewel
    January 22, 2007 at 10:53 am

    Wolfa – agreed that sometimes the right choice can still be sad and difficult. My friend felt (emotionally) that she was killing her baby when she had an abortion, even though she knew it was the right choice for her. Almost three years later she doesn’t regret it a bit, and her life is so much better than it would be if she had a kid to deal with, but that doesn’t make it any less of a difficult, sad choice. The point is that it is a CHOICE and the choice must be available. No one but my friend could make that choice for her.

  28. Tom
    January 22, 2007 at 11:25 am

    By coincidence, I read this morning at the “News of the Weird” website about numerous cases of men who have had trauma as a result of attempted penis-enlargement operations (why didn’t they just buy a Hummer like the other guys?). So if we’re going to talk about outlawing any kind of medical procedure because of the trauma it may or may not cause, it seems like THAT would be much better place to start! Or, what if the anti-circumcision people jump on the bandwagon of outlawing medical procedures based on possible trauma?

  29. jm
    January 22, 2007 at 11:40 am

    I’m glad that someone already pointed out how sad it is that Arias blames abortion for her problems, rather than the men who actually abused her. Because she could have controlled herself, but they couldn’t control their own actions.

    And I love the quote by Koop:

    Nor did Koop believe that the anti-abortion cause would be served by shifting its focus to the suffering of women. “As soon as you contaminate the morality of your stand by getting worried about the health effects of abortion on women, you have weakened the whole thing,” he said at the time in an interview with the Rutherford Institute, a conservative law center.

    Koop believes we must concentrate all moral arguments on feti- the suffering of women does not deserve moral or ethical consideration. This seems like the essence of the anti-abortion movement.

  30. lizzie bee
    January 22, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Gaaahh… the use of “contaminate” in that quote…like women are literally a disease that must be isolated from Teh Preshus Feti.

    I just ran the gauntlet at a Planned Parenthood, and this makes me even sicker.

  31. Ledasmom
    January 22, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    I love this quote:

    “Abstinence works better than birth control, really,” she said. “It’s just that people don’t do it.”

    Well, yes, that is a problem, isn’t it.

  32. maatnofret
    January 22, 2007 at 1:45 pm


    Another TV abortion moment that I appreciated was in the now-defunct show “Six Feet Under.” Claire, the youngest daughter, finds out that she is pregnant after an ugly breakup. (Her reaction to the positive pregnancy test was also accurate: she looks at it as says, “Shit.”)

    Claire didn’t torture herself over her decision. She was pretty businesslike about the whole thingm, scheduling the abortinon as soon as she knew. Her biggest problem was finding a ride to the clinic.

  33. FashionablyEvil
    January 22, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Bazelon doesn’t add it up in the article, but the woman she’s profiling has had eight pregnancies (3 children living with her, 4 abortions, and a child given up for adoption). Maybe she would have been better served by programs that support pregnant women who are in abusive relationships, struggle with addiction, etc., rather than by programs that make women feel guilty for having abortions.

  34. Pesh
    January 22, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    I consider my abortion one of the BEST DECISIONS I have ever made – and that’s with 25+ years hindsight… I have never had a moment of regret, to the contrary I’m glad I made that choice, and didn’t buy into the societal messages about how ALL women want to be mothers (not true) or the sanctity of life (as far as I’m concerned it is a biological process) or that women don’t have a right to make decisions about their own life and bodies because some stranger “believes differently.”

    Yes, yes, and yes again to the comments that a big part of the trauma is because of this silly societal message that abortion is wrong that is rammed down women’s throats. And to not connect the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy (and the life circumstances that may have led up to that) with (if there are) feelings of regret, to me is distinctly lacking in self-awareness.

    Listen in (and help if you can) on some of the web forums set up to help women make the decision to abort or not to abort — I noted a distinct difference between those who said they had regret (they weren’t able to articulate the reasons for their decision and were looking to blame others for their choice) and those that did not feel regret (they may not have liked their choice, but they knew that it was their choice, and that they had control over their own lives.) Now that is generalizing, but the difference in response struck me significantly.

    What is wrong is the arrogance of women who think that everyone MUST think and feel and experience the way that they do because that is “their” belief system or experience.

    I wish for all women belief in themselves and their abilities…

  35. Pesh
    January 22, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    I should add, that one of the things I also noted (on those abortion discussion forums) was that quite a few women felt that in order to be a good person, they had to feel regret and sadness about their abortion…

  36. Lazer
    January 22, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    This is like walking under a ladder, having a heart-attack and then blaming the heart-attack on walking under the ladder.

    “In America we have a big drug problem, and we don’t realize it’s because of abortion.”

    Wow. So all the drug-addicts are addicted because they have all had abortions! Yes, even the men!!! *smashes head on keyboard*
    I don’t think they know, but there’s also this little thing called post-partum depression. I’ve heard so many stories of women unwillingly murdering their (already-born) babies by dashing them against walls and such. And apparently these were all extreme cases of post-partum depression. So yeah, you’d think then that these “abortion-recovery” people would want to ban childbirth as a whole because post-partum depression makes women feel terrible AND kills babies (in extreme cases only, but never mind that!!!) And as it said somewhere in there, it turns out that the incidence rates for post-partum and post-abortion depression are equal.
    *sigh* this is but one of the many ridiculous “arguments” that these people never tire of throwing at our faces hoping we’ll buy into them. I can’t stand it when these women are being prodded by these reactionnaries into using abortion as a catch-all for their lives’ problems, in order for them to be used as pawns, or as proof that “see?! even the WOMEN support us, take that feminists!!!” Disgusting.

  37. Ashlee
    January 22, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    Oh, and did anyone else think that maybe being in prison was a bigger factor in the prisoners’ depression than their abortions were?

    But don’t you see — being in prison was CAUSED by their abortion! /snark

  38. Ashlee
    January 22, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    ADD…on a sadder note…eventually the fundies want this to literally be true……

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