The Manipulation of ‘Post-Abortion Syndrome’: Part One

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE – El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

As the 34th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade was approaching last week, I was both intrigued and surprised by the extensive January 21st New York Times Magazine cover piece entitled "Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?" To a certain extent, the article did attempt to cover both sides of the issue on whether or not this syndrome actually exists. However, the "star" and true centerpiece of the article is a 53-year-old woman named Rhonda Arias who describes herself as an "abortion recovery counselor." Her work began fifteen years ago when she had "what she describes as a revelation from God…she decided that her own pain and unhappiness were rooted in the abortion she had…when she was 19…it was like I'd done the worst thing I could possibly do…a piece of evil had entered me."

Wow. That is powerful stuff. I feel for this woman—I really do. She is clearly in pain and is very hurt, grief-stricken, and scarred. I worked in abortion care for 34 years and have deep, enduring compassion for women's complex struggles, pain, and conflicts. From my years of experience, I know that the overwhelming number of women who have legal abortions experience relief, adjust well, and do not encounter notable emotional, spiritual, or psychological problems. If they did, I would certainly know—as would everyone else involved in the profession of reproductive health care and abortion medicine.

Yet a debate has emerged. The American Psychological Association has concluded that "the time of greatest distress is likely to be before the abortion. Severe negative reactions after abortions are rare and can best be understood in the framework of coping with normal life stress." Other scientific evidence-based research has reached the same findings. The major proponent of the "post-abortion syndrome" movement, a subset of the anti-choice movement, is David Reardon of the Elliott Institute. He claims that his studies prove otherwise. Reardon describes his strategy to create a new anti-choice movement as one that appears pro-woman and moves away from the focus on the fetus. "The whole dynamic of the abortion debate can rapidly change with this potential of post-abortion healing…we must educate the public about how abortion hurts women…stealth healers need to offer mercy and forgiveness to ‘post-aborted women' and then use them as compelling advocates for the unborn."

Rhonda Arias, a woman stuck in her own pain and grief who clearly has never been allowed to truly heal after her abortion, is one of these "stealth healers." According to the NY Times description, this woman's "ministry" appears dishonest, manipulative, and, ultimately, harmful. As Christian Fiala MD, PhD, an obstetrician-gynecologist, family medicine physician, abortion provider in Austria, and president of FIAPAC/International Federation of Professional Abortion and Contraception Associates wrote to me after reading this article, "She is on a personal crusade. This is the opposite of professional behavior. In health care, we need to respect the patient and act in his/her best interest. However, this woman is trying to convince others of her personal mission, which is a truly religious act."

So true. Ms. Magazine wrote about these emerging new anti-choice tactics of the last 15 years as exemplified by Ms. Arias:

"Using the allure of outward compassion, dozens of anti-choice ‘post-abortion syndrome' organizations have sprung up…these groups believe that abortion is ALWAYS (emphasis mine) a wrong choice… (and)… they often engage women in three steps toward recovery:

1. confession of their mistake/sin,

2. reconciliation, usually through a ritual…or retreat…that includes a ‘name your baby' ceremony, and

3. restitution of some sort…frequently, to speak out against abortion and lobby for anti-choice legislation."

There it is, then. I passionately want to see post-abortion healing for those women who regret their abortions and need additional help and support to heal. But I am offended and adamantly oppose seeing women used or manipulated for another type of gain. This is exactly what Reardon and Arias are doing. As William W. West, Jr., MD, an abortion provider and psychiatrist in Texas passionately expresses in an unpublished paper, "…Some women terminating an unwanted pregnancy may feel sadness and a sense of loss. It appears, however, that the overall negative social and political climate surrounding abortion has more to do with creating the psychological difficulties some women face than the abortions themselves. A lack of social support for an unplanned pregnancy, misleading anti-choice messages that are designed to inflict fear, guilt, and shame, and anti-choice groups that harass and intimidate woman at clinics have more to do with the experience of emotional distress than the actual abortion."

I can certainly attest to that. When I was the executive director at Aradia Women's Health Center, we were picketed every Friday and Saturday by such groups. Signs and verbal assaults that label women as murderers, butchers, sinners, and baby-killers are hardly healing mechanisms. As Dr. West indicates, they can only cause pain and stigma. Still, for years, I observed women having their abortions under such potentially guilt-inducing circumstances while the clinic staff tried to create a supportive and nurturing atmosphere. It was the rare woman who asked for post-abortion counseling, although we offered it to everyone after their abortion if/when they felt they needed it.

So what did we talk about in these "post-abortion counseling" sessions? I will discuss that further in Part 2 later this week.

To be continued…

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  • lauramarie

    This is such an important, fascinating topic. As an adult I have always been pro-choice but thought I would never actually have the strength to have an abortion because of fear of psychological trauma. If this idea is mostly made up for political purposes, then we really need to do more to get the word out.