Counseling Aborted Women

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Ann [not her real name] organizes and leads support groups for women who have had abortions. She is able to relate directly to the emotional problems these women have. For Ann had an abortion herself in 1973.

According to Ann, there are patterns of behavior that are typical for many aborted women. They go through the classic emotional cycle that psychologists have recognized for many traumatic human experiences. Except that, for most trauma, society understands and assists her through the stages. When a close relative dies, friends will offer consolation, and if you have unusual difficulty getting over the grief, professional counselors are ready to assist you. But for abortion, the standard response is, "The problem's taken care of. What are you so upset about? Just get over it".

But an aborted woman is not going to just "get over it". She has been through a wrenching experience and she needs help. And so aborted women will go through the classical trauma cycle -- except they never reach the "acceptance" stage.

But where can she go for help? She will go to pro-choice groups for help, but to the pro-choice people she is an embarrassment. They don't want to talk about emotional or psychological problems resulting from abortion -- that does not help the cause. She is afraid to go to pro-lifers for help, because she thinks pro-lifers want her to suffer as punishment for her actions.

Denial

The first stage in post-traumatic stress is denial. People will refuse to admit that they have a problem, or will blame their problems on something else. Ann relates an early experience of her own: She was sitting in a bus station writing down her thoughts about her abortion as a way to deal with it. A woman she had never met before sat beside her and tried to strike up a conversation with her by asking what she was doing. She didn't want to talk about abortion, so she said she was writing a letter to her boyfriend. The stranger started asking questions about the boyfriend, so Ann finally admitted she was writing about abortion. The stranger then said, "Well, I assume you're pro-choice". Ann stumblingly said that she wasn't sure. The women than proceeded to tell her about her own two abortions. She had to do it, she explained, because her husband was in medical school and they just couldn't deal with a child. As she spoke, tears were streaming down her face, but she kept repeating, "But it was no big deal".

She knew another woman who had completely blocked all memory of her abortion out of her mind. Until one day the two of them were planning to go to a nearby city, they had made plans, and just before they were to leave her friend sat down on the floor and said she couldn't go. She asked why not, and her friend replied, "I don't know. But I just know something terrible happened to me there, and I can't go back". Months later her memories of having an abortion in that city surfaced.

When people cannot acknowledge the source of their problems, they resort to a variety of psychological defense mechanisms. Emotionally-healthy women will use a number of different, relatively harmless methods. Less-healthy women will use one repeatedly, resulting in compulsive, and often destructive, behavior. At the extreme, some resort to drug abuse or promiscuity. Many become excessively angry or depressed over seemingly unrelated things.

Guilt

But underlying the denial is often an incredible feeling of guilt. Ann relates that many of the women in her support groups cannot bring themselves to even say the word "abortion". One girl she knew went out and stole something, and she told Ann she did it because she wanted to be put in jail. She felt that she did not "deserve" to be walking around free after what she had done. (What she had stolen was so small that the courts didn't even bother to prosecute her -- they just gave her a warning and let her go.)

An aborted woman who becomes pregnant again often has an almost paranoid fear that her baby will be deformed or be born dead, to punish her for her abortion. If she has a miscarriage or some other problem (and as about 15% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, this is not unusual and may have nothing to do with the abortion) she is convinced that God is punishing her.

Atonement

Many try to make up somehow for the lost baby. Aborted women will frequently become pregnant again on the anniversary of the abortion of the abortion or around the time the baby would have been born. Ann called these "atonement pregnancies". Perversely, they often end these pregnancies with another abortion. She knew a woman who would buy a cat or a dog every year around the anniversary of her abortion. She didn't connect this to her abortion at first, but it was her way of finding a substitute object for her maternal instincts. But as what she really wanted was not a pet but her baby, a few months later she would always get rid of the cat or dog. Until the next year, when she would get another. When she finally realized the connection, she was able to overcome the compulsive behavior and really deal with her feelings.

Counseling

Not every woman who has had an abortion goes through these emotional problems. No one really knows how prevalent it is. But many many women seek help. How many suffer silently?

The first thing an aborted woman needs is to recognize her feelings of loss over her abortion. No one can do this for her. All that one can do is provide a safe environment for her to express her feelings of loss. You must be willing to let her speak without judging her or telling her what to do. Once she can acknowledge her feelings of loss she has taken the first step toward dealing with the situation. Sometimes accepting the loss of the baby is too big a first step. But if she can just acknowledge some loss -- even if it isn't the "right loss" -- she has made a beginning. Perhaps she can recognize the loss of her boyfriend, or her relationship to her parents, or even something vague like her lost youth or innocence.

Abortion often severely harms personal relationships. If her boyfriend, husband, or parents pressured her to have the abortion, she may have feelings of anger or resentment, that these people she loved and trusted have betrayed her. Ann quoted a study that found that almost 90% of marriages do not survive an abortion.

If you are trying to counsel such a woman, be prepared for her to lash out at you, as if you were to blame for her problems. Especially if you are a man: aborted women often have tremendous feelings of anger and resentment against men, because a man got her into this situation to begin with, and often a man pressured her to get the abortion.

Sometimes it is helpful if the woman takes some active step to acknowledge her loss. Ann often suggests that she do something in memory of her baby, like write a poem, or put a flower on the piano at her church.

The next step is to overcome her feelings of guilt. She must be reassured that God will forgive her. She must reach the point where she can forgive herself. She must understand that while there are practical consequences of her actions, these do not mean that God has not forgiven her. She may have to deal with broken relationships, medical problems resulting from the abortion, and her own feelings of loss and emptiness. But these have nothing to do with God's forgiveness. He will forgive her long before she can manage to forgive herself.


Note: The article, Recognizing Post Abortion Syndrome was written by Ann.
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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

Copyright 1996 by Ohio Right to Life
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