Theresa Burke with David C. Reardon
The following is excerpted from the book Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion by Theresa Burke and David C. Reardon.
It has been my experience that a high proportion of women suffering post-abortion trauma also have histories of molestation, sexual abuse, or incest. Most other post-abortion counselors with whom I deal have reported a similar observation.
In a survey of women in post-abortion counseling groups, 21 percent reported a history of childhood physical abuse and 24 percent reported childhood sexual abuse.1 And in a random sample survey of the general population, Dianne Russell reports that approximately one in three girls is sexually abused before age 18 and one in four is abused by age 14. These alarming statistics have a good deal to do with patterns of abuse and crisis.
Sexual abuse, at any age, can impair one’s ability to be healthy in the present. Sexual abuse is even more injurious when it is experienced during the formative years of childhood, since the distortions sexual trauma inflict can be deeper, more stunting, and more ingrained into the child’s developing personality.2 Sexual abuse survivors describe a sense of lost selves, wounded souls, and stolen psyches.
It was not until television talk shows began to open the window on the experiences of those affected by sexual abuse that millions of people received permission to talk openly about this issue. They began to examine the reality and prevalence of sexual abuse and started to discuss the wide-ranging detrimental effects it has caused in their lives.
At first glance, the idea that abortion can be an extension of sexual abuse may seem unlikely. However, in my experiences with women traumatized by abortion, common themes reappear within each group. For those with similar painful backgrounds, such as parental alcoholism or sexual abuse, the collective pain reveals a deeper meaning beyond the crisis pregnancy and abortion. So much of human behavior, healthy and unhealthy, can be motivated by conflicts and psychological cravings, unmet needs, and compulsive behaviors that feel normal because they are familiar.
If a history of sexual abuse has existed before an abortion, the woman may experience the abortion itself as simply a continuation of the violation she has experienced before. The way in which abortion resembles sexual abuse is striking. In the abortion, the abortionist’s hand or instrument penetrates deep into the woman’s organs. The abortionist is usually a male, and the entry point is the same as where the woman has been violated by men in her past. The abortion’s destruction of the child growing inside her echoes the way sexual abuse destroyed her own innocent and childlike nature. In such cases, abortion can take on elements of a symbolic suicide. The death of the innocent “inner child” is a reenactment of the traumatic loss of the abused woman’s own self.
The effects of trauma often provide numerous invitations to crisis. Desires, beliefs, longings, past experiences, and fears can be employed by the traumatized person in the form of fantasies, reenactments, or repetitions which are unconsciously assembled around the issues of the trauma. Most experts in the field of trauma and abuse support the idea that victims recreate their abuse or trauma in many ways. It is unfinished business, and the victims will continue to act it out until it is somehow resolved or completed. The reenactment can be a ritualized means through which a woman will intensely grieve and mourn.
The grief of abortion, like the grief of incest, is often hidden yet acted out in various ways. It is a powerful recreation of the intrusion forced upon the woman during sexual abuse, in which she is once again called upon to lie helpless on her back, silently enduring the invasion of her body. Afterward, just as after episodes of sexual abuse, she must be prepared to hide her shame, guilt, despair, and grief behind a painted mask of normalcy.
Sheila was sexually and physically abused in her childhood. Not surprisingly, she often ended up with abusive partners. She “looked for love in all the wrong places” and repeatedly found herself pregnant with no partner support. She wrote the following about her five abortions:
There is an enormous hole in my heart, a source of tremendous grief at not having my children. I usually experience deep depression during the holidays, especially at Christmas. Abortion for me has been as inhumane as any abusive relationship I have ever been in. My abortionist took the place of my abusive father and my abusive partner. Neither had any comprehension of my real needs as a little girl or later as a woman. Now I continue to be punished by empty memories of what could have been-what should have been. It’s a stark reality that I must live with. The truth of my life is hideous. My abortions, like my childhood, are a pain that will never go away.
Sheila’s abortions served as a way to symbolize the damage done to her by mimicking the deprivation of love, childhood, and life that had occurred during her own traumatic childhood. Sheila terminated each pregnancy with tremendous grief and heartache, yet each time she felt helpless to do anything differently, seeing the procedure as another casualty in her life. Her road to recurrent trauma was predictable, even habitual. Abortion was a continuation of a pattern begun in childhood and extended into her adult life. It only served to reenact her trauma, while also depriving her of the joy of having children who might have restored meaning and hope in her life.
Maggie had a long and violent history of sexual abuse, which began at the age of four in a child prostitution ring. Years later she described her abortions as her own sentencing and execution.
I remember walking into the clinic and feeling like I was about to take my rightful place in an electric chair. I knew a part of myself would die. I wanted that baby. I wanted all of them. Yet each time I felt like abortion was something that I just had to do.
Maggie felt compelled to sacrifice her children through abortion because of an abusive history. Her own “inner child” had been sacrificed when she was repeatedly and violently sexually abused as a young girl. For Maggie, the analogy of an electric chair verified abortion as a life-threatening shock, similar to many episodes of abuse she had endured as a child. Her inability or unwillingness to carry a child to term and to take on the responsibilities of being a mother arose from the developmental handicaps she suffered as an abused child. She saw herself as that stunted, abused child and could not see how to make the developmental leap to becoming a responsible, loving parent. She felt emotionally stuck and thus trapped in a pattern of abortion, which recreated the traumatic themes of grief, loss, powerlessness, and violence which had shaped her childhood.
Barbara’s history of sexual abuse, followed by six abortions, began with her mother’s abortion when she was only seven.
After her abortion, my mother was never the same. She suffered depression and became a heroin addict. The family split up because of my parent’s drug abuse. I was abandoned by my family and spent years in foster homes, where I was sexually violated by my caretakers. I became a prostitute. I sought love and human touch with sex. Many men had me, many times. I remember times when guys sat at a table playing a game of cards over me-I was the winner’s prize. They played the same game when it came time to see whose turn it was to take me to the abortion clinic. I was high most of the time, trying with futile effort to drown my pain.
Abortion had become just another tough break in life that Barbara felt she had to accept and endure. It kept her trapped in despair and pain. As a seven-year-old child, she experienced feelings of “survivor guilt” associated with the knowledge that one of her siblings had died in an abortion, while for some unknown reason she had been allowed to survive. As her mother’s life deteriorated, so did Barbara’s life. Sexual abuse and prostitution led her full circle back to abortion, again and again. She kept returning to the disparaging arena of prostitution because she did not feel worthy of anything more. Her sexual degradation and multiple abortions echoed unresolved issues related to her mother’s abortion, and her own survival guilt and childhood sexual abuse.
With counseling and the support of those who understood and accepted what she had endured, Barbara is now free of all the secrets that held her bound. She is now capable of speaking about the unspeakable and connecting private anxieties and fears to their source, instead of acting them out in destructive repetitions. She is married to a patient man who is a stable and loving support in her life and is developing a spiritual life that furnishes her with hope and strength. These are the ingredients that will help her continue to heal as she continues to do extensive grief work related to all these agonizing losses.
Marsha remembered a childhood with habitual molestation from her uncle and his friends. As an adult, she became a topless dancer in a sleazy nightclub. In the nightclub setting, she could reenact the humiliation of being an object of the desires of men, but with a twist: she felt that in the nightclub, she held the reigns of power. Through the stage manager and bouncers who protected her from the groping hands of the customers, she could excite men, as she had as a child, but control their advances. Also, as an erotic dancer she was paid a great deal of money to do what she once experienced as humiliating.
As for many, if not most, erotic dancers, the nightclub was a place where Marsha could attempt to master the traumatic experiences of her abusive childhood. It provided a forum in which she could reenact sexually provocative behavior while exercising some control over the excited men, the type of control she never had enjoyed as a child. She was unable to see, however, that while her erotic dancing provided temporary emotional and financial compensations for her wounded childhood, it was not truly empowering or healing. Her offstage life still lacked a sense of the control and dignity she so deeply craved.
Marsha had eight abortions. Each abortion fueled new rounds of dysfunctional relationships, crisis pregnancies, and abortions. Marsha continued to be used and discarded by men who cared nothing for her. It was not until age 51 that she sought help. Her grief over her life and her missing children was profound. However, by dealing with her losses, she began to recognize her inherent worth as a human being, and her desire for real dignity and love.
Certainly not all sexually abused women become prostitutes or erotic dancers, but they are more likely to engage in behaviors that invite despair and humiliation. Even though a sexually abused person can appear on the surface to be quite normal and functioning well, unresolved shame can surface during times of stress. This stress can take its toll in the form of eating disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, extra-marital affairs, shoplifting, child abuse, and a host of other behaviors.
When Complex Needs Clash With Simple Desires
Like other women, sexually abused women long for real love. But because their sexual boundaries were violated at an early age, they are more likely to use their bodies in an attempt to obtain that love. Through provocative and promiscuous behavior in the present, they express the sexual abuse and victimization they experienced in the past. In short, women with a history of abuse are seeking a way to satisfy complex needs regarding love, respect, and trauma resolution.
Unfortunately, in this era of sexual freedom, there is a nearly unlimited supply of predators who want to satisfy a very simple impulse: their desire for uncommitted sexual release. When sexual abuse victims with complex needs meet predators whose interest in them is limited to their ability to satisfy their sexual desires, the result is predictably disastrous. Rather than finding resolution of their trauma and fulfillment of their need for love and respect, sexually abused women are more likely to encounter additional betrayals of their love, attacks on their dignity, and reenactment of their traumas. Sadly, sexually abused women and abusive males even tend to gravitate toward each other. It is as if these women’s heightened vulnerability is a perfect match for these men’s dysfunctional need to dominate and humiliate their mates.
When a pregnancy results between a needy woman and an abusive man who does not want the child, the woman is very likely to be subjected to increased levels of verbal or physical abuse, which is intended to compel her to submit to an unwanted abortion.3 Under these hostile circumstances, many women submit. Their abortions do not free or empower them, however. Instead the abortion experience only strengthens their feelings of self-disgust, shame, and isolation, which serves to reinforce the dynamics that are keeping them locked in abusive relationships. Such was the case of Karen, who had been involved in numerous abusive relationships.
In my situation, abortion was just another form of sexual abuse. It was just another way of abusing me. He had power over me in demanding that I abort. He was completely “turned off” by me being pregnant. He actually punished me with his anger and rage. I could see that I would have to pay the price. Who cared that we created a life together? His sex with me was just as empty as his heart was. I can’t believe I allowed him to control me as much as he did.
Another victim of sexual abuse, Dorinda, commented on the similarity between the horror of incest and the trauma of abortion.
Nothing that happened to my body mattered. As an incest victim, I had absolutely no volition regarding the integrity of my body-somebody wanted it and they took it, no matter what I wanted. In the case of my abortion, I had no understanding regarding the integrity of my body and spirit-“it” had misbehaved and had to be corrected without thought for how much the act would hurt me.
But who could think that a new life nurtured inside the body as one flesh could be severed from that body and ended without causing lifelong grief and yearning? Only a woman who had no idea that her body, or the spirit that infuses it, or the sexuality that permeates it, were connected or mattered.
I was not alone. The common experience of the women in our post-abortion group was the shock of the devastating feelings surrounding this act that was supposed to have no significance-as if our bodies and what they create have no significance, as if we have no significance. Our experiences were similar. I think it’s because there’s a common value underlying incest and abortion (and rape and promiscuity and our historic perception of sexuality)-an incredible callousness toward our bodies and others’ bodies.
Many in contemporary society are concerned with ending the vicious cycle of abuse, yet they cannot see that the perpetrators of violence are often responding to their own memories of abuse. The theme of the victim becoming the perpetrator permeates the literature and clinical research on family violence. Countless articles and intervention programs have been developed with this aspect of trauma in mind.
The concept of victims becoming perpetrators can also be played out in a broader social context. For example, many of the women who initiated, fought, and are fighting the battle for abortion rights have themselves been badly mistreated, abandoned, and forced to suffer the hardships of life alone.4 For many, the battle for abortion is symbolic of their battle to restore a sense of control and dignity to their own battered lives.
Given the fact that many early advocates of legalized abortion suffered sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, it is not surprising that the language of abortion rights centers on “controlling one’s body.” For many, the battle over abortion, even on a political level, involves a symbolic reenactment of their struggle to gain mastery over past trauma and abuse.
Unfortunately, those who use abortion as a means of mastering past trauma are doomed to suffer both disappointment and a deepening entanglement in the cycle of self-destructive violence. Mastery over past victimization can never be achieved by depersonalizing or destroying others.
Abortion only offers the allusion of control. Victims of abuse have a deep hunger for respect, love, and justice. Abortion simply cannot fill these needs because it is inherently a destructive, negating act. Abortion does not create; it can only destroy. It cannot fill holes in one’s spirit; it can only create new holes.
Nothing was ever created by abortion. It can only destroy. And like so many other tools of destruction, it can often destroy far more than we intend.
1. David C. Reardon, “Psychological Reactions Reported After Abortion,” The Post-Abortion Review, 2(3):4-8, Fall 1994.
2. Richard J. Gelles, Intimate Violence in Families: Family Studies Text Services Vol. II [Second Edition] (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 1990). 3. R. M. Tolman, “Protecting the children of battered women,” J. Interpersonal Violence 3(4):476-483 (1988). 4. Gloria Steinem, The Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1992); Patricia Ireland, What Women Want (New York: Penguin Books 1996).