Q & A: Finding Real Answers
About The Psychological Effects of Abortion
Didn't former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop conclude that there are no psychological consequences from abortion?
Actually, no. Dr. Koop was assigned by President Ronald Reagan to produce a report on the psychological impact of abortion on women. What Koop told the President is that he could not find any studies at that time which were not seriously flawed. As a result, the data was simply inadequate to determine the extent and degree of psychological impact of abortion, if any. He made a recommendation for a government-funded study to evaluate this question, but unfortunately this was never done.
Extremists who want to deny any psychological importance to the abortion experience have repeatedly misquoted and twisted Koop's statements. In essence, Koop's official statement was simply that we need to do more research before we can arrive at any irrefutable conclusions. Radicals have twisted this to mean, "Koop didn't find anything, so nothing exists." In numerous interviews, however, Koop has refuted this misrepresentation of his views. He has stated he is personally convinced by the existing evidence that many women do suffer serious post-abortion psychological problems. Speaking as the Surgeon General, however, he conservatively, and properly, concluded that more research needs to be done.(3)
So what are the psychological aftereffects of abortion?
Every woman is different. They have different responses that may appear in a different time frame. Some women repress or are unaware of any aftereffects for years. Many reactions are delayed but are triggered later by significant events such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, or a religious conversion.
Commonly reported reactions include: feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, helplessness, grief and/or remorse; uncontrollable crying; feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment; feelings of distrust and betrayal; lowered self-esteem; avoidance of babies, small children, or anything to do with pregnancy; fear of future pregnancies or desire to have a "replacement" baby; flashbacks to the abortion experience; nightmares or sleeping disorders; depression; sexual dysfunction; eating disorders, substance abuse or other self-destructive behavior; broken or abusive relationships; problems bonding with other children; suicidal thoughts or tendencies; and other problems.(4)
A major problem is that women and men may feel unable to share their grief with others. When they turn to people who are "pro-choice," they will probably be told "Forget about it. It wasn't really a baby, yet, so there's nothing to feel bad about." Such "comforting" words actually deny the reality of one's grief and stymies the healing process. On the other hand, women and men are likely to feel afraid to share their pain with people on "pro-life" side because they fear they will be rejected and condemned. As a result, women and men who are struggling with a past abortion are likely to feel "boxed" on both sides. To whom can they turn? Who will acknowledge the reality of their grief without making them feel even more guilty? This is why so many carry the burden of their grief alone, and this burden can place an enormous strain on their ability to function and relate to others.
You said that some of these reactions might be delayed or repressed. Are there times or circumstances when they are more likely to occur?
As mentioned before, significant changes (such as the birth of a child, death of a family member, the break up of a relationship, or even physical changes like menopause) in a woman's life might trigger some of these reactions. Many women often have "anniversary reactions" on the day the baby was aborted, or around the time when her baby might have been due.
Can abortion effect children who are born later?
Yes. Many women who have abortions experience physical problems with future pregnancies, including miscarriages, ectopic (tubal) pregnancies, stillbirths, and premature birth (with effects children's development). Other physical complications could lead to sterility or difficulty conceiving a child.
Children can also be affected by the mother's emotional problems. Many women either have difficulty bonding with their children or become very overprotective.
Are you saying abortion can even affect one's parenting skills?
Yes. Women may be afraid or unable to bond with or love their child because they are obsessed with the aborted child. They may see the child as a "replacement child" for the one who was aborted and be constantly comparing them to "what might have been." They may experience depression which leaves them unable to care for their children or anger which could lead to abuse.(5) For example, in the case of Renee Nicely of New Jersey, post-abortion trauma triggered a "psychotic episode" which resulted in the beating death of her 3-year-old son, Shawn. She told the court psychiatrist that she "knew that abortion was wrong" and "I should be punished for the abortion." Unfortunately, Shawn became the victim of her frustrations.(6)
Or the mother might be extremely overprotective, afraid that God will punish them for aborting their child by harming or taking away their later children.
What kind of impact does abortion have on a relationship with a boyfriend?
Many women choose abortion in an effort to save their relationship or "keep" a boyfriend from leaving. The idea may be very subtle -- an "it's your decision" mentality -- or an outright threat to leave if the woman does not abort. But this never works. Most relationships do not survive the abortion.(7)
For many couples, there may be resentment or anger if one of them only "went along with the abortion" to please the other. Women who feel they were not supported by their partner, or men whose partners aborted against their wishes, are especially likely to have problems coping with an abortion. Either or both of them might be feeling grief or guilt, but are unwilling to share their feelings their partner for fear of upsetting them. This can be especially problematic for men, who are often taught to hide their emotions. All of this can lead to a break-up between the couple.
What is the impact of abortion on marriages?
If the abortion takes place before the marriage, with a person other than the spouse, it can still have an impact on the person involved who brings this emotional baggage into the relationship. This is especially problematic if the person keeps the abortion a secret from their spouse, who will not understand their emotional problems. Secrets can be devastating to a marriage, since they keep a person from giving and receiving unconditional love.
If the abortion takes place within the marriage, it can be a breeding ground for anger and resentment between the spouses. They are more likely to feel resentment, anger, and rage toward each other. Several famous cases of domestic violence involved abortion: including the Lorena Bobbitt(8) case and the O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson case.(9)
Are you saying abortion can increase the risk of domestic violence?
Yes. It is no accident that the abortion rate and the domestic violence rate have risen almost side by side. Abortion tends to create feelings of anger, bitterness and resentment between partners. A woman who is self-destructive or suicidal, but afraid to deliberately harm herself, may be more likely to become involved with a violent man. She may feel unconsciously that she "deserves to be punished" because of her abortion. Because her abortion has destroyed her self-esteem, she may think that she does not deserve a better relationship than the abusive one she is in.
The most troubling concern of domestic violence counselors is that so many abused women stay in abusive relationships. In many of these cases, the best explanation for this victimizing behavior may be found in the self-punishing aspects of post-abortion trauma. Therefore, until domestic violence counselors begin to address the underlying problems associated with post-abortion trauma, they may never help this group of women escape from the cycle of violence in which they are trapped.
Does abortion have any impact on men?
Yes, it does. Men involved in abortion have reported many problems they say were a direct result of the abortion experience, including broken relationships; sexual dysfunction; substance abuse; self-hate; risk-taking and suicidal behavior; increased feelings of grief over time; feelings of helplessness and guilt; depression; greater tendencies toward becoming angry and violent, and a sense of lost manhood.(10) (For more information on men and abortion, see the related article in this insert).
I'll admit that abortion is not a good thing. And it may have physical and psychological risks. But don't you have to admit that legal abortion is safer than illegal abortion?
No. Legality reduces the risks abortionists face because they are not doing anything illegal when they perform abortions. Legalized abortion allows them to lower their standards because they do not fear exposure. Remember, most illegal abortions were performed by doctors. The skill level hasn't increased, only the ease of advertising.
I still think that legal abortions must be at least marginally safer than illegal abortions. Certainly women who suffer physical complications can get emergency medical treatment faster now without being afraid of becoming involved in a criminal investigation.
That's true. And that is the only health benefit of legalized abortion. But the overall impact is still very negative because the total number of women having abortions increases dramatically. Why? Because legalizing abortion has made it easier to pressure reluctant women into having abortions. Before abortion was legal women at least had the excuse that abortion was not safe. But now, since abortion is seen to be safe, they no longer have that reason to refuse abortion. As a result, the number of abortions has skyrocketed with only a minimal improvement, if any, in safety. So, while the percentage of deaths from hemorrhage and infections may go down, the actual number of women suffering these complications goes up. Plus, since psychological complications are even more common than physical complications, the number of women experiencing complications of one type or another is increasing dramatically.
1. Los Angeles Times Poll, March 19, 1989. See also Mary K. Zimmerman, Passage Through Abortion (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977) and David C. Reardon, Ph.D., Aborted Women: Silent No More (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987).
2. Reardon, Making Abortion Rare (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 1996).
3. "Revisiting the Koop Report," The Post Abortion Review, Summer 1995, 1-3. See also "Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's Statement on Post-Abortion Syndrome," Life Cycle, September 1989, 2.
4. For more information about studies documenting these symptoms, see the list of resources on the back page of this insert. You can also visit the web site of the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research at www.prolife.org/afterabortion/ for documents on post-abortion research.
5. See Philip Ney, et al. "Relationship between induced abortion and child abuse and neglect: four studies," Post-Abortion Syndrome: Its Wide Ramifications, Peter Doherty, ed. (Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 1995)
6. See Reardon, Aborted Women, op cit.
7. Linda Bird Franke, The Ambivalence of Abortion (New York: Random House Inc., 1978) p. 63. See also Reardon, Aborted Women, 45.
8. See "The John and Lorena Bobbitt Mystery Unraveled." The Post-Abortion Review, Spring/Summer 1997.
9. Paraphrased from a letter by Christine Shaw, quoted in Abortion and Violence: Is there a connection? by Linda D. Bartlett (Lutherans for Life, 1229 South G Ave., Bldg. B, Suite 100, Nevada, IA 50501)
10. Strahan, Thomas, "Portraits of Post-Abortive Fathers Devastated by the Abortion Experience," Assoc. for Interdisciplinary Research in Values and Social Change, Nov./Dec. 1994.
Reprinted from The Post-Abortion Review, 5(4), Fall 1997. Copyright 1997, Elliot Institute.