By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College
Anti-choice literature depicts abortions as being psychologically devastating, with women suffering nightmares, feelings of guilt and even suicidal tendencies following an abortion. This raft of supposed emotional problems has even been given a name, “Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome.”
“I had an abortion in 1978. It was the worst mistake of my life. It not only destroyed the life of my baby, it destroyed my life as well. It is time we looked at abortion for what it really is—the death of your own child.”
—Letter to the Editor
But are abortions really psychologically devastating for the large majority of women?
President Ronald Reagan once said: “We cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion…” So Reagan ordered his Surgeon General, Dr. C. Evrett Koop, to prepare a report documenting the psychologically harmful effects of abortion. But Dr. Koop’s dedication to the scientific method got in the way.
Koop’s thorough review of the scientific literature revealed that the psychological problems following an abortion appeared to be “miniscule from a public health perspective,” affecting very few women. Although many women experienced some sadness following an elective abortion, the predominant sensation was one of relief. In fact, given the failure rate of most contraceptives, many women actually appreciated the psychological assurance of knowing that safe, legal abortions were available, if ever needed. Those few women who were suicidal following an abortion were mostly found to be suicidal before becoming pregnant in the first place. Since Koop’s findings did not serve Reagan’s goals, a government report was never published.
Several studies since then have confirmed Koop’s findings. Recently, a major 12-year study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in Jan. 2011 found that having an abortion did not increase a woman’s likelihood to seek psychiatric assistance, although delivering a baby did. (The tens of thousands of auto deaths each year emotionally devastate people “infinitely” more than early elective abortions ever did. Yet no one talks about outlawing cars as a result.)
Anti-choice rhetoric is psychologically harmful
Ironically, if there is psychological harm following an abortion, it mostly comes from (or is exacerbated by) the dishonest anti-abortion rhetoric, itself. There can be much guilt and self-hatred experienced by those women who truly believe that they went against God’s Law and “murdered their own babies”. In addition, when medical personnel, ministers, friends and/or family members are religiously or morally judgmental toward those women who decide to terminate a pregnancy, the result can be emotional distress. Thus, many women who choose to abort still keep it a secret from friends and family. This effort of concealment and lying can also a source of psychological distress.
Helping women psychologically
If our society was really concerned about the psychological health effects on women who choose to abort, it would be paying much more attention to the fact that:
—The world’s anti-abortion laws have never worked anyway, but instead have proved to be a major public health and social disaster, with millions of women every year ending up in hospitals hemorrhaging, badly infected and in debilitating pain from botched abortions. Often left behind are young, unattended children whose chances for survival are bleak.
—Laws that attempt to force women with unwanted pregnancies to stay pregnant against their will—to be unwilling embryo incubators—are laws that demean, endanger, and essentially psychologically and physically enslave women.
—Over 30 million women each year are pressured into actually carrying unwanted pregnancies to term, often leading to physical and psychologically harm to these women, their families and to society at large. Furthermore, studies have revealed that psychological problems, drug abuse and delinquency are more common among the offspring of those mothers who were coerced or forced into carrying to term.
The psychological effect on our nation
Have our pro-choice laws really had a devastating psychological effect on our nation as President Reagan once warned? Hardly! Most Americans and most Western Europeans have healthy families growing up in safe surroundings. In stark contrast, in almost all countries where abortions are still illegal, there are high infant mortality rates and little commitment to either women’s rights, or to the health of children. Yet, anti-abortion activists want the U.S. to have the same anti-abortion laws as countries like Afghanistan and El Salvador.
Societies have never been threatened by laws that permit early safe elective abortions. Instead, societies are most threatened by WMD, poverty, virulent nationalism and racism, economic crises, accelerated ecological destruction, wars, terrorism and religious extremists.
Some concluding thoughts
The abortion battle has never really been about the civil rights of mindless, senseless embryos, or about protecting women from psychological devastation. Instead, it’s been a Catholic right-wing, Protestant fundamentalist, moral zealotry issue, mixed in with political and financial power issues, male domination issues and unwarranted fears of God’s wrath. We have not yet adequately documented the extent of human suffering caused by our conservative religious teachings about women and sexuality. Attitudes derived from centuries of Christian influence have been driven deeply into our collective unconscious and into the structure of our institutions in ways that make it very difficult for us to grow up with our sexuality integrated in a healthy manner with the rest of our personality.
Charles L. Rulon is an emeritus of Long Beach City College where he taught courses in Biology and Society for 34 years. He can be reached at [email protected].
Human Life Review, Spring, 1983.
(HRIRS, 1989) Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations. “The Federal Role in Determining the Medical and Psychological Impact of Abortion on Women.” (Report 101-392, 101st Congress, 1st Session). This report is summarized in the tHumanis, March /April, 1990. “What Koop Didn’t Tell Reagan.”
 See “Examining the Association of Abortion History and Current Mental Health: A Reanalysis of the National Co-morbidity Survey Using a Common-Risk-Factor Model,” by Julia Steinberg and Lawrence Finer (2010), currently available online in Social Science & Medicine. For more information on the body of research addressing this issue, see Evidence Check: Advisory on the Mental Health Impact of Abortion.
See also the 2010 reports from the Guttmacher Foundation (http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2010/12/13/index.html)
 New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 27, 2011. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0905882
David, H. et. al. 1988. Born Unwanted.