C Rulon: Are Abortions Psychologically Harmful?

By | July 20, 2011

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?

Scientific findings

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…”[1] 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.[2]

Several studies since then have con­firmed Koop’s findings.[3] 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.[4] (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.[5]

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].

[1]Human Life Review, Spring, 1983.

[2](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.”

[3] 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)

[4] New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 27, 2011. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0905882

[5]David, H. et. al. 1988. Born Unwanted.

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