When I first came across the idea of a Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS)—the cover story on the New York Times Sunday magazine a few weeks back—I was incensed. “What in the hell is the New York Times doing validating the anti-abortionists pseudo science?”
Then I took the time to actually read the article. I was in staunch agreement with the author, who paints pro-life and religious zealots as certifiable nut jobs. But there was something disconcerting about PAS that I could not quite shake, a few kernels of truth behind the fanatical preaching. These kernels were not enough to convince me that PAS exists, but they were enough to convince me that both sides of the debate—right to choose versus right to life—have a lot to learn by unraveling this so-called syndrome.
PAS: Fact or Fiction?
Imagine that you are one of the approximately 1.3 million women who get an abortion every year. While you regret having an unplanned pregnancy, you are relieved after the procedure is over. You were not financially, emotionally, or logistically ready to have a child. Now imagine someone comes along—an abortion recovery counselor—and tries to tell you that instead of relief, you should be feeling remorse. The abortion, you see, was not the end to your problems, but the beginning.
According to pro-life and anti-abortion groups, many women will develop Post-Abortion Syndrome. Symptoms include guilt, shame, sadness, remorse, lowered self-esteem, depression, and hostility. PAS supporters point to abortion as reasons for drug and alcohol abuse, suicides, and eating disorders. Anecdotal testimonials from women help to highlight their claims:
“My abortion has left me empty, alone, and in despair. It has taken me to a place I almost could not come back from. The self-hatred I see every time I look in the mirror has been my constant companion for the last ten years,” says Lori, a woman quoted on the right-to-life Web site, Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries.
Although anti-abortionists describe PAS as a real medical condition, they do not prescribe a medical cure. Rather, they offer week-long counseling retreats, which usually lead women on a path towards God and away from reproductive rights.
Sanctity of the unborn fetus is the widely held reason why pro-lifers oppose abortion. However, PAS puts a new spin on their arguments, and therefore, a new weapon in their arsenal. If abortions cause women serious psychological distress, maybe more people will oppose them. To date, however, no credible scientific research backs their claim. Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association recognizes the syndrome as a disease. C. Everett Koop, our former pro-life Surgeon General, issued a 1987 report finding no evidence that abortion causes psychological harm. In 1992, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that there is no evidence of an abortion-trauma syndrome. Other studies have found the same rate of depression and psychological distress in post-abortive women as that experienced by women after childbirth.
These empirical results have most pro-choice groups discounting PAS as a syndrome contrived by the religious right to further their anti-abortion agenda. However, this brings me back to my original kernel of hesitation: is it all so clear-cut?
For instance, by eagerly shooting down the idea of PAS, pro-choicers have failed to acknowledge that some of the “symptoms” of PAS may actually occur. Isn’t it true that some women may be sad after an abortion? Or remember the age that their unborn child would be today? Or wonder whether they did the right thing? I’m not saying these “emotions” should be labeled as “symptoms;” I am suggesting that perhaps they do occur, if only temporarily, in some women.
While surely the abortion recovery activists have spun these normal feelings into a suicide-causing medical scapegoat, advocates on the other side of the argument should not foster the idea that an abortion is something women can simply forget about. Too easily discounting negative post-abortion emotions would be akin to dismissing the difficult decision women made. Reflection and discussion should be encouraged, not left to the pro-life counselors, whose tactics are anything but open-minded.
On the other hand, pro-lifers should recognize their own hand in creating PAS. If a woman feels guilt or shame after an abortion, it is almost entirely due to anti-abortion advocates putting it there. Guilt? Shame? Now why would a woman, told she has been stained by her abortion, called a baby killer, or raised in an atmosphere of abstinence-only or go to hell, feel guilt? Or be too ashamed to tell friends and family about her choice? In fact, I cannot imagine any women feeling good after being told that part of the abortion recovery process (as stated on abortionfacts.org) is, “Counter the denial. Bring this back into your consciousness and admit you were a party to killing your own baby. You must grieve over your lost child.”
I think there are better ways to go about protesting abortion than making women who have gotten them feel like dirt. I do not really see what this accomplishes, other than further stigmatizing and marginalizing the act of abortion and therefore, the women who decided to get one. This is dangerous on many levels. Using junk science to further a political and moral agenda is irresponsible, but diagnosing a non-existent condition is simply reckless.
Even if you could not imagine ever getting an abortion, chances are you know someone who has. While both sides of the debate lob shots, our friends move on with their lives. Whether they see their abortion as the beginning or an end, we should give them the room to discuss painful issues an abortion can raise. Unraveling the PAS myth means realizing these issues may be there. It also means realizing that scare tactics and false maladies are not a means to an abortion end. This harms the very women pro-lifers claim to protect. In an ideal world, no woman would be faced with the abortion prospect. But until then, let us all open our ears and hear what they are saying.