When people are properly informed, their choice is clearly for life.
Dr Philip Ney
1967 Abortion Act
Under the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain, an abortion can be performed if two doctors are convinced “in good faith” that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or of risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated.
What now happens in practice, however, is that a woman goes to a doctor or abortion clinic saying she wants an abortion and the doctor signs the consent form – sometimes she is merely given a pre-signed form and never even sees a doctor. Any pretence to examine whether continuing with the pregnancy would damage her physical or mental health has been abandoned, as has any attempt to prove that continuing a pregnancy is more damaging than terminating it.
The biology of pregnancy
When a woman is pregnant, a very complex and overwhelming biological process is set in motion that has one end: for her to nurture and ultimately give birth to the new life within her. A woman’s external circumstances and situation do nothing to change this. The sudden cutting short of this process in an abortion is likely to have negative effects.
The woman’s body and emotions have been preparing for a baby; now there is nothing and women repeatedly talk of feelings of loss, emptiness and the sense that something is not right, that life has no meaning. Depression after abortion is common. In addition, a woman has participated in this process by agreeing to it and, despite all the rhetoric and ideology, she does feel, to varying degrees, guilt. In having an abortion we go against our biological imperative to nurture and care for children; the early feminists were pro-life precisely because they understood this.
Depression before abortion
Studies pointing to the negative outcomes of abortion are regularly dismissed by pro-choice organisations and abortion providers, who claim that abortion has a negative impact on just a small minority of women who had “pre-existing” mental health problems. It is indeed true that depression is a strong contra-indication for abortion: it is well known that caring for a child will prevent a depressed woman from committing suicide. She needs help to overcome her depression, not the death of her baby, which will greatly intensify her depressive state.
Damage of abortion
Visits to any support forum for women after abortion show that women are actually suffering in droves after abortion, although this fact never seems to make it onto any official platform. If we talk about this real damage, we are accused of scare-mongering: when and how is the truth going to filter through? The emptiness and longing for a baby, grief and guilt can erode a woman’s life, confidence and well-being. There can be deep feelings of sorrow, of rage against her partner or family, a sense that one is going crazy. Many anecdotal stories of distress that last long after abortion attest to this.
There are reliable indications that women are more likely to be suicidal and commit suicide after abortions. Even if suicide does not occur, suicidal ideation is common. Traumatic reactions such as nightmares and anxiety attacks are, again, frequently reported. A form of post-traumatic stress disorder, post-abortion stress syndrome is a term that has begun to be quite widely used. Physical complications include possible infertility and breast cancer; these sequlae are disputed but enough reliable studies exist to show that there is a plausible link. This medical information should be given to women considering abortion as a matter of routine.
Attachment and bonding to subsequent children are affected, particularly when the woman has not been able to go through a grieving process for her lost child. The relationship with the abortion father usually breaks up; the figure of around 70 per cent is often quoted. This makes sense, particularly when abortion has not been a woman’s true choice and she has at some level been coerced into it through lack of support. If it is clearly her choice and the man has been more ambivalent, that is also a recipe for severe tension in the couple. The woman actually needs and wants support from her partner in pregnancy while he has been societally conditioned to say “It is her choice” – she feels abandoned and he feels powerless. Sexual problems after abortion are frequently reported.
There can be a real destruction of a woman’s self-image and self-confidence. Eating disorders are common, substance abuse, social isolation and withdrawal. There is so often a forceful unconscious drive to get pregnant again, leading to another abortion or to a child in circumstances that are, ironically, just as difficult as the original ones or even more difficult because of the woman’s depression and loss of self-worth. Perhaps the deepest and most pervasive level of outfall is in terms of spiritual damage. This might be described as a loss of belief that the world is a good place in which essentially good things happen and a loss of meaning and joy. Something has been unalterably changed in the woman – she will never be
Some women go straight into the grief and devastation; for others, the abortion is denied and repressed, sometimes for many years. It is not uncommon for women’s grief and desperate desire for a child to emerge as she approaches menopause and the end of her child-bearing years. There are links to infertility and to breast cancer after abortion, both of which are of course denied by some doctors and the pro-choice lobby. Whatever information emerges about the negative impact of abortion, it is instantly dismissed or denied. Why this attachment to abortion at all costs, in the face of all evidence?
When the woman attempts to speak of her grief, she will find that she is repeatedly silenced. People will say that there was no baby, just a foetus, that she did the right thing or that it was, after all, her choice. If she goes to her GP complaining of depression or sadness over the abortion, she will not be referred for grief counselling. She will not be told that she needs to begin on a journey of facing the abortion; the abortion will, again and again, be trivialised and the humanity of her lost baby denied. No one, basically, wants to know about a woman’s grief after abortion. It should all be tidied away, and we should just agree to carry it in silence, just as the unwelcome and inconvenient pregnancy was hushed up and done away with. There are few people to help with the aftermath of abortion.
Messages of hope
What people need – men, women and the people that surround them – are messages of hope about pregnancy. Rather than seeing an unexpected pregnancy as instant reason for doom and gloom, something that prevents a woman from following the planned trajectory of her life and desires, a sense of hope and possibility needs somehow to be communicated to women facing crisis. A crisis is an opportunity for change, growth and development, not a catastrophe. In fact, ambivalence about pregnancy almost always exists; we do not have to see the “solution” to that as abortion. As Dr Philip Ney says:
I think it is safe to say that every woman who has an abortion is ambivalent about it at some time. Our findings indicate the degree to which a baby is wanted is lowest during the first trimester when there may be nausea, vomiting and recriminations. The desire for the baby grows during the pregnancy, for as the body attaches to the baby, so there is also a growing mindset of attachment. If every woman is to some degree ambivalent about having a baby, then it is also true for the father, grandparents, etc. The mixed feelings about having or aborting a baby are reflected in the medical profession. Any ambivalence is easily tilted toward welcoming the baby if the mother is well supported, if she has an opportunity to talk about her worries and if she knows that both she and her baby are welcome in this world. There is a vast difference between having a wanted baby and a welcomed baby. To be alive because you are wanted carries terrible connotations. To be welcomed just as you are and where you are is wonderful.
Why wasn’t I told?
This overview of the negative effects of abortion may read like sensationalism. Yet again and again, women say “why wasn’t I told? Why didn’t someone tell me?” We want to tell women now. If you choose abortion in the light of this knowledge, at least someone told you.