Psychological Aftereffects of Abortion: The Rest of the Story

By Arthur, Joyce | The Humanist, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Psychological Aftereffects of Abortion: The Rest of the Story


Arthur, Joyce, The Humanist


Over the last decade, a consensus has been reached in the medical and scientific communities that most women who have an abortion experience little or no psychological harm. Yet a woman's ability to cope psychologically after an abortion continues to be the subject of heated debates. Vocal anti abortion advocates claim that most women who have abortions will suffer to some degree from a variant of post traumatic stress disorder called post abortion syndrome, characterized by severe and long lasting guilt, depression, rage, and social and sexual dysfunction. Why is there such a major discrepancy between the scientific con sensus and anti abortion beliefs?

Conflicting studies done over the last thirty years have con tributed to this atmosphere of confusion and misinformation. A 1989 review article that evaluated the methodology of seventy-six studies on the psychological aftereffects of abortion noted that both opponents and advocates of abortion could easily prove their case by picking and choosing from a wide range of contradictory evidence. For example, many studies--especially those done between 1950 and 1975--purport to have found significant negative psychological responses to abortion. Such studies, though, often suffer from serious methodological flaws. Some were done when abortion was still illegal or highly restricted, thereby biasing the conclusions in favor of considerable (and understandable) psychological distress. In some cases, research was based on women who were forced to prove a psychiatric disorder in order to obtain the abortion. Further, a large number of studies, both early and recent, consist simply of anecdotal reports of a few women who sought psychatric help after their abortion. In short, many studies which favor anti abortion beliefs are flawed because of very small samples, unrepresentative samples, poor data analysis, lack of control groups, and unreliable or invalid research questions.

Researcher bias on the part of scientists and physicians has also been a serious problem. In earlier times, society's views on how women "should" feel after an abortion were heavily skewed toward the traditional model of women as nurturing mothers. In one study done in 1973, postdoctoral psychology students taking psychoanalytic training predicted psychological effects far more severe than those predicted by women themselves before undergoing an abortion. This might be because traditional Freudian theory teaches that a desire to avoid childbearing represents a woman's denial of her basic feminine nature.

Some psychiatric studies, along with much of today's anti abortion literature, tend to cast women who have abortions into one of two roles: victim or deviant (although these terms are not necessarily used). Victims are coerced into abortion by others around them, in spite of their confusion and am bivalence, and against their basic maternal instincts. Deviants have little difficulty with the abortion decision, which is made casually for convenience sake. Such women have no maternal instinct and are often characterized in a derogatory or pitying fashion as selfish, callous, unfeminine, emotionally stunted, and neurotic.

Books written by anti abortion advocates that deal with post abortion effects are, by and large, heavily infected with bias. Not only is contrary evidence unrefuted, it is rarely even mentioned. Incorrect and out of date "facts" abound. The authors' pop psychology often seems to be based on little more than their own wishful projections about the nature of women and how they should feel. Here are two typical examples from essays in the anti abortion book The Psychological Aspects of Abortion (1977):

It is interesting that women who need self punishment

do not abort themselves more often.... Abortion is

done "to" the women, with her as only a passive

participant. This is further indication of masochism.

(Howard W. …

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