By Theresa Burke with David C. Reardon
Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion.
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. They are also more likely to go through a divorce, to be involved in substance abuse, and to rely on public welfare.
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 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 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.
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.
Repeat Abortions: What the Research Says