Understanding Repeat Abortions: An Excerpt from Forbidden Grief
By Theresa Burke with David C. Reardon
Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion.
Christine had her first abortion at the age of 18. She was under treatment for mild depression, and her psychiatrist recommended abortion. Since this was before Roe, Christine was told that she would have to sign a paper that stated she would commit suicide if she did not have an abortion. Her mental health care workers orchestrated the entire event. In reality Christine knew she would not kill herself, but she felt that she had to follow her doctor’s orders.
She later married and became pregnant again at the age of 22. Her husband was eager and ready to being a family, but she felt anxiety and fear over becoming a parent. The message from her psychiatrist that colored her view of herself as a potential mother was that she was not mentally stable enough to have a child and that having a baby would provoke a mental breakdown and even suicidal behavior. The thought of having a baby simply terrified her. Because of her fears of inadequacy, she had another abortion and divorced shortly thereafter.
Christine’s third pregnancy also ended in a second-trimester abortion. This pattern continued three more times for a total of six abortions. Each time she had an intense desire to be a mother, but each time she could see no other recourse but abortion, reenacting the first trauma of helplessness to overcome her perceived inadequacy and incompetence.
She eventually had herself surgically sterilized to avoid a future abortion. But now her self-destructive impulses were channeled into several subsequent suicide attempts.
What a different life Christine could have had if her psychiatrist had reinforced her self-esteem and her confidence in her capacity to be a mother. Instead, her therapist imprinted a deadly message deep into her psyche: She was unstable and inadequate to be a mother.
As a therapist, I worked with Christine specifically to bring the meaning of her repeated abortions into her awareness. Soon she began to realize that she had dealt with the original abortion over and over in the same negative way. It caused not only the loss of six children, but also denied Christine an opportunity to give life, love her children, grow as a woman, and experience the joys of motherhood.
Once she became aware of the original conflict, Christine stated that her “whole life finally seemed to make sense.” She could finally understand why she had become trapped in such a self-destructive pattern. Although an awareness of these patterns was essential for her healing, it also gave rise to tremendous grief and anger at having lost so many years and so many children.
This process, though difficult and bitter, was an important ingredient in helping Christine stop degrading herself. Her episodes of depression subsided, she obtained her first job in 20 years, and she began to ask more for herself in relationships. Instead of viewing herself as an evil person, she saw that her actions had their source in the tremendously painful conflict of an abortion foisted upon her by people she trusted.
Christine’s story illustrates one of the many overlooked consequences of abortion. It is the unspoken but accepted message to a woman that she is inadequate. Instead of being offered support, encouragement, and trust in her ability to care for a child, a woman is often persuaded, pressured or coerced to accept a violent solution that invades her physical and psychological integrity. The result, at the very least, is a lack of self-confidence and a diminished sense of self-worth. When traumatized women lose all confidence in their ability to protect and care for others, they are prone to becoming entangled in a pattern of multiple abortions.
Christine is not alone. Approximately half of all women who have an abortion have had one or more previous abortions. Women with a history of more than one abortion are likely to suffer more severe physical and psychological problems after abortion. Studies of women having repeat abortions show that they are more likely to live in less stable social situations, have nearly twice as many psychological problems, and have twice as much reliance on social support services.1They are also more likely to go through a divorce, to be involved in substance abuse, and to rely on public welfare.2
This problem of repeat abortions is not due to callousness or the careless use of birth control. Instead, it is far more likely that women who have multiple abortions are caught in a pattern of reenacting their traumatic abortions.
A central aspect of trauma is a sense of helplessness. Reenactment is a means by which individuals revisit their traumas, repeatedly returning to the same traumatic situation with the hope, in some level of their minds, that they will eventually confront, conquer, and triumph over the experience.
One way that women who are traumatized by their abortions may seek to reassert power over their lives, and simultaneously to “undo” their abortions, is through replacement pregnancies. Unfortunately, this is a very risky proposition. While some women do carry their subsequent replacement pregnancies to term, others quickly discover that the same problems (including pressure or coercion, which will be discussed further below) that led to their first abortion are still there. As a result, they are likely to have another abortion, which reinforces the trauma of the first abortion. While many forms of reenactment are symbolic, in these cases reenactment of a traumatic abortion can be quite literal, resulting in one, two, three . . . or even a dozen subsequent abortions.
Repeat Abortions as a Result of Coercion
I have heard hundreds of women share stories of how their abortions were very much shaped by pressure, coercion and even force from other people and from their circumstances. This kind of trauma can keep women imprisoned in destructive patterns of repeat pregnancies, abortion and even abuse. Lexie shares her story:
The first time I got pregnant, I was 19. I was living with a much older man, whom I believed was very much in love with me. Like many couples, we had financial problems, and according to him I was just crazy to even think of having a baby. He said: “Hey, you know you not having it, right? I don’t even need to say anything else. I want you to schedule an appointment ASAP.” After that he walked out of the door. He was totally determined that I would have an abortion.
He gave me no option to even think about it. I was absolutely on my own if I wanted to have the baby, and I had absolutely nothing, not even family around me to help me to think about what I was doing. All I could think of was, “I can’t be a single mother; I am not even married. What am I going to do? Where am I going to live? How am I going to work? I can’t leave the baby alone. I have nobody here to help me.” Every time I would try to discuss possibilities of having the baby he would just leave me talking by myself, sitting looking at the walls.
All I knew was he wanted it done, and done as soon as possible. I was almost 3 months, and every day, every single day, I remember how stressful it was for me to be pregnant. I got really sick every day and was throwing up every time of the day and I felt so depressed and alone on those days . . . like never before.
So the abortion schedule was set. My name was called, the nurse opened my legs, and she told me I was going to sleep in seconds. I didn’t even see the doctor’s face. I woke up bleeding, some infection medicine was given, the thing was done. I left that place in such emptiness. The whole thing was removed from me, including my soul.
I couldn’t forget that suction machine. I was thinking, “Where is my baby now? What are they going to be doing with his body? Where is my baby going to be put? Was it a boy or a girl?” I constantly dreamed about that suction machine. What did they do with my baby? Where is he now? How bad have I hurt him? What kind of person would he be if he had the chance to live?
All that was on my mind after the abortion. Every day got worse. I became self-destructive. I couldn’t care for myself at all. Anything that would hurt me, I would go for it, and sex became one of those things. I spent two years trying to tell myself everything was under control: “Come on, it’s only a blob of blood” right?”
I got pregnant again, by the same man. This time he totally abandoned me. He didn’t want the blame for telling me to kill the baby again because we had past terrible discussions blaming each other about the first baby. He totally ignored me again; for almost three months, every time I would think about keeping this baby, he would say something like, “You already know you are on your own! I didn’t ask you to get pregnant! You did it to yourself. I didn’t ask you for a baby! Plus you’re going to be a single mother! Is that what you want?”
I remember looking at baby clothes at the store and looking all those pregnant women with their husbands and kids. All I could feel was, “Here I am, a second time pregnant, 21, all alone, and I have no money.” I tried to think of leaving him and trying to make a living on my own. I asked for help at the school I was going to. All I heard was, “It is very hard, honey, you have no idea what you’re putting yourself into.” Nothing was done or said to help me; all I had was a selfish man, 20 years older than me, telling me I was on my own. He said, “I don’t even want to see your kid; I didn’t ask for babies. You got that?”
The second abortion was performed. I remember waking up in a room, and when I looked straight ahead an abortion was being performed on some girl right in front of the room I was in, and the curtain was open. I heard the noise of the suction machine, and I saw gloves with blood, and suddenly the nurse saw me staring at that thing and she shut the curtain quickly. The other woman woke up crying right by my side, saying, “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?” I looked at her and I started to cry myself. I could not talk for days.
At this point I had lost my own self a long time ago. All I could feel was hate for allowing this to happen to me. Eventually, of course, the rest of any relationship with my boyfriend went down the drain. He started to drink, do drugs; I started to yell, to hate everything about him and everything that would involve his presence as well.
We could not talk with each other for months, otherwise things would fly on the sky and the house would be broken in pieces. Having the police at our door was usual. Bloody noses, kicks and black eyes became our best friends. I had tried to get out of it all so many times, but I had no job, and when I would find one, I would lose it before three months had passed. I just couldn’t care about anything. Everything that would bring me pain I would take it.
The third pregnancy was by another man. Again, I was pregnant for three months and living with the same previous man. This time, at least I was positive this baby was not his, and that somewhat made me feel good. I would make him think it was his and I would hide it from him until he found out I was pregnant. I knew he would tell me to get rid of it. All I could do was have my baby for those three months. I thought, “At least you have three months to live, baby. You know you’re going to die . . . just enjoy your three months, okay?
I would talk to the baby and buy baby clothes. The first place I would go in a store was the baby section. I was going insane. But for at least three months I had my baby. No one could take that away from me.
Eventually he found out and I went for my third abortion . . . just like a pro. After all, look at my background: three abortions. It’s like, “Wow, isn’t it impressive?”
All I know is that since my third abortion, all I can feel and think of is nothing. They took away something special. I had conceived life. But again they had taken the only thing I had that was good and pure in my life. Do you know what I am saying? What’s there left for a person to feel? Tell me.
Lexie’s life spiraled out of control after the first abortion. The three months she had with her baby was a short-lived experience of motherhood until her pregnancy was discovered and destroyed. Clearly, her mental stability deteriorated quickly as the unrecognized trauma repeated itself, drilling the wound deeper into her psyche, and left her feeling helpless to exert any control over her life. Without intervention and healing, Lexie would undoubtedly have continued this very self-destructive pattern of traumatic reenactments.
Repeat Abortions as a Form of Self-Punishment
Many women really do experience their pregnancies and their unborn children as part of themselves. In some cases, abortion may be experienced as a form of self-punishment. The destruction of the woman’s developing child also in some way destroys an extension of the woman herself. She may feel she deserves the feelings of loss and grief that follow, or she may be punishing herself by denying herself the enjoyments of motherhood that she thinks she does not deserve. For some women, these tendencies can play an important role in repeat abortions.
For example, Melissa’s self-punishing behavior was acted out not only through repeat abortions but also through self-injury and risk-taking.
I’ve had seven abortions. Each time I felt numb and dissociated
. . . like a mental case zombie. Afterwards, I’d feel defeated and frustrated with myself. I have enormous self-disgust and hatred. I punish myself by cutting or banging my hands against a concrete wall until they are swollen and bruised purple. I like to hurt myself. There is a strange pleasure in it. Also, I take a lot of risks where I usually get hurt . . . kind of accident-prone, I guess.
When people are afraid to express disturbing feelings outwardly, they may vent these emotions through self-destructive acts. Among the post-aborted women I have seen who engage in self-injury, one commonality is that they have never received permission to grieve the loss of their child. Many self-mutilators brand their anger and pain indelibly into their skin, creating tattoos of scar tissue that mimic their confusion and vexation. Multiple abortions are another way to act out the pain.
How Many Is Too Many?
As mentioned earlier, nearly half of all women entering abortion businesses have had one or more previous abortions. Studies have shown that women who abort are highly likely to become pregnant again within one or two years. For example, one study of metropolitan teens who had abortions found that 27 percent were pregnant again within 12 months, and 75 percent were pregnant again within 24 months.3 In experimental trials with RU-486 abortions, 25 percent of women who had these chemical abortions were found to have become pregnant again within one year.4 When repeat pregnancies are the result of reenactment of trauma, it is quite likely that the subsequent pregnancy will end in another abortion.
The problem of repeat abortions is very disturbing to abortion clinic staff, who spend most of their time counseling women on how to avoid becoming pregnant again. While they believe women should be able to have abortions, many staffers are deeply and rightly disturbed by the pattern of repeat abortions they are seeing. But they are uncertain what, if anything, they can do about it.
At a National Abortion Federation (NAF) meeting, for example, one counselor described a woman who had three second-trimester abortions in a period of less than 18 months. Significantly, each time she would come in for the abortion at 21 weeks, reenacting the late date of her first abortion. An abortion counselor from Connecticut described a woman who came to their clinic for her 14th abortion, saying, “There was a feeling among some of the counselors that we should not continue to see this patient . . . . A feeling that we were in fact reinforcing this behavior.”5
That is exactly what they are doing: reinforcing abusive and self-destructive behavior. Unfortunately, since abortion businesses are committed to performing abortions on request, they have abdicated their responsibility to understand the reasons why women may undergo abortions and to offer help and alternatives (and even refuse to do the abortion) when these reasons are the result of coercion or are distorted, dysfunctional, or even part of a self-destructive cycle.
There is something quite troubling about “medical care” that doesn’t involve any questioning about the deeper things that may be going on within her or offering any better alternatives. In modern medical practice, patients expect a health care professional to treat the whole person. For example, a doctor seeing a patient with heart disease would not simply keep performing heart surgery on the patient but would recommend lifestyle changes and other alternative treatments to lessen the need for invasive medical procedures. But among abortion providers, a mindless submission to the mantra of “choice” has eviscerated any sense of obligation to ensure that the woman or girl is not being pressured or coerced the abortion will actually help rather than hurt her.
One of the counselors at the NAF discussion explained her ability to accept 14 abortions with the comment that perhaps the woman was making the decision “not to contracept,” asking, “Isn’t that valid?” Such an ideological commitment to “choice,” without reflection or review of what is really happening (including whether the woman is really “choosing” the abortion) and what will be its result, is a form of blindness.
Such counselors, both inside and outside our nation’s abortion clinics, have simply blinded themselves to the real needs of women and how abortion can destroy them. Until these counselors confront and overcome their own blindness, they will be unable to truly help women break free from this destructive cycle.
Excerpted from the book Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 2007). Copyright 2002, 2007 Theresa Burke and David C. Reardon.