While abortion is perceived by our society as being an acceptable option to giving birth, most women, at some deep level of their being, realize that abortion is an act against nature, and must "shut down" any maternal instincts they may have in order to carry through with an abortion. After the abortion is over, many women are unable to reconcile the fact that they were responsible for the death of their child, and struggle for years with unresolved feelings of guilt and grief.
A woman struggling with negative feelings after an abortion will find that her feelings will not disappear no matter how hard she tries to forget them. Rather, they often lead to a dysfunctional life style. The woman will simply go on with her life never knowing how to overcome the negative, self-destructive behaviors that become a way of life . . .
-- from the website of Silent Voices, a California-based anti-abortion center
According to Silent Voices, the laundry list of post-abortion syndrome (PAS) symptoms is overwhelming: "Depression, sexual dysfunction, guilt and/or shame, drug and/or alcohol abuse, anorexia/bulimia, suicidal thought." But while PAS advocates argue that a majority of the women who have abortions will suffer these psychological after-effects, reproductive rights activists say PAS is a "nonexistent phenomenon" conjured up by the religious anti-abortion movement. And publicity around the so-called syndrome is the latest weapon conjured by the anti-abortion movement to chip away at reproductive rights.
Studies that prove the existence of the syndrome are hopelessly flawed, according to abortion rights advocates; they often rely on data from self-selected subjects who have reported depressive symptoms after an abortion. Neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize the syndrome. Even the anti-abortion former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was forced to admit that the risk of serious emotional disturbances post-abortion was "miniscule" after President Ronald Reagan asked Koop to investigate the possible health after-effects of abortion; Koop withheld his findings until 1989.
But PAS nearly gained official recognition from Congress late last year, before lawmakers axed a measure providing funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research the syndrome.
New Hampshire Republican Senator Bob Smith tacked Amendment 2085 on to the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriation bill, proposing that the NIH "expand and intensify research and related activities . . . with respect to post-abortion depression and post-abortion psychosis." The measure passed the Senate without debate -- the first time PAS has earned any sort of federal recognition --before being scrapped by a House-Senate conference committee.
But PAS is not off the legislative radar screen yet. In August, Representative Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania drafted a bill that goes even further than the Smith amendment. In addition to seeking research funding, the Post-Abortion Depression Research and Care Act calls for the establishment of a grant program for organizations that provide services to individuals with PAS. The bill is currently under review by House subcommittee.
Reproductive rights activists have argued that PAS is a Trojan horse, an attack on abortion rights cloaked in a disingenuous concern for women's welfare. An examination of the PAS-counseling organizations and their philosophies would seem to confirm their suspicions. According to David C. Reardon, director of the Elliot Institute, which heads the PAS advocacy website AfterAbortion.org, "[A]s we educate [the public] about how abortion hurts women, it changes the whole equation. The potential of post-abortion healing . . . can rapidly change the whole dynamic of the abortion debate in this country. And I am really confident that we will see an end to abortion within the decade."
According to Ms. magazine, PAS groups focus on three steps towards "recovery" for women experiencing PAS: confession of the abortion, reconciliation through ritual, and restitution. One example of "reconciliation" is Project Rachel, which is tied to the Catholic Church, and organizes retreats for "post-aborted women" featuring "rituals, meditations, a memorial service and a Mass of Resurrection." But other organizations go much farther into the "restitution" stage by advising women who have had abortions to actively campaign against abortion.
AfterAbortion.org features model bills, such as The Protection from High Risk and Coerced Abortion Act. The antiabortion Justice Foundation, actually a malpractice firm, encourages women to sue their abortion providers even years after their procedure. Operation Outcry "seeks to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade by mobilizing those who have been silent about the harmful effects of abortion. This can be accomplished only through prayer and with the testimonies of women who have suffered harm from abortion." Women who have had abortions, then, become the newest foot soldiers in the anti-abortion battle; Reardon, one of the originators of the PAS movement, calls the women "compelling advocates for the unborn."
Abortion is a difficult choice for many women, and can be accompanied by normal feelings of sadness or regret. However, these emotions do not prove PAS advocates' declaration that abortion hurts women. Depression symptoms after abortion occur for a wide variety of reasons: the stress of an unplanned pregnancy, the breakup of a relationship with boyfriend or tension with parents, and mourning over the fetus. But women are also paralyzed by the stigma of abortion -- one that PAS advocates exploit as much as they perpetuate through tactics like "sidewalk counseling" outside of abortion clinics. Lying to relatives and friends out of fear of social disapproval, one study found, became a major stressor for women who had abortions.
Women experience depression after an abortion in equal or lesser percentages as those women following childbirth. For example, less than 20 percent of women who have abortion experience mild, post-operative depression, compared to 70 percent of women who have just given birth, according to Planned Parenthood.
Addressing the potential emotional difficulties of abortion has been a thorny issue for abortion activists as well. As reproductive rights organizer Rosemary Candelario told Ms., "I think the fear in the movement is if we admit abortion is hard for some women, then we're admitting that it's wrong, which is totally not the case."
Attempting to dispel the silence and stigma around abortion, pro-choice organizers have begun implementing more counseling services. The National Abortion Federation runs a hotline that also gives psychotherapist referrals. Many clinics also offer in-house counseling for women after their abortions.
These kinds of services are critical. Abortion opponents have stepped into the silence around the emotional turbulence women may feel after an abortion. Although they have painted themselves as defenders of women's rights, PAS advocates are most adept at co-opting feminist ideas for their anti-abortion agenda. But ordinary counseling provides an invaluable counterbalance, offering women assistance without treating them as pawns in the anti-abortion battle.