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Religious Tolerance logo

Post-Abortion Syndrome

Comments on PAS. Do pro-life efforts aggravate
PAS? Personal experience. Support. Our opinion

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Comment by the head of the Exhale hot line:

Aspen Baker is a co-founder and the executive director of Exhale -- a non-judgmental service provided as an alternative to politically motivated counseling agencies. She commented:

"What the Harvard literature review and other similar literature reviews point out is that there has been no perfect-science study done that provides real evidence that there is a direct correlation between abortion and mental ILLNESS, or a psychological disorder. Which also doesn't mean one doesn't exist, it just means no study has shown it to exist. ..."

"The spectrum of feelings that women and men can have after an abortion -– from relief and empowerment to grief and sadness -– all deserve to be heard and supported. The presence of normal, natural human emotion does not in fact predetermine mental illness. Quite the opposite, in fact. A person’s ability to identify and cope with their feelings around an abortion experience is a very positive action and one that puts them in charge of promoting their own emotional health."

"Exhale believes that more research needs to be done to better understand the emotional experience of abortion and the kinds of strategies women can use to promote their own well-being. ... The current social climate around abortion is definitely not the most conducive environment to a woman’s well being after an abortion. And yet, we know from listening to women on our talkline, that they have everything they need to be well after an abortion. The best each of us can offer is to listen and be a witness to their unique story." 4

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Do pro-life activities aggravate PAS?

Although pro-life groups often emphasize their concern over the mental health of women who have had abortions, they may also actually contribute to restrictions that aggravate whatever women's mental health problems do exist.

Women seeking an abortion may suffer additional stress from a number of causes:

bulletThey may have to travel for a long distance in order to reach an abortion clinic.

bulletThere may be a long waiting period before she can have an abortion.

bulletShe may have to run a gauntlet of pro-choice protestors or "sidewalk counselors" in order to get access to the clinic.

bulletThe physician may have had to read a state-mandated statement about abortion that discusses the risks of an abortion, the development of the embryo or fetus, and some pro-lifers' beliefs about fetal pain. Often the objectivity of these statements is highly questionable since their purpose is to try to persuade the woman to not have an abortion.

All of these factors are either caused or aggravated by pro-life activities. All place the woman under increased stress.

The Harvard Review article commented that a woman entering:

"... abortion clinics through a group of anti-abortion demonstrators [is] a stressor that has been shown to be associated with psychological distress ... increasing a women’s belief in her ability to deal with having an abortion decreased her likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms following abortion. Such findings suggest that insofar as inaccurate 'informed consent scripts' undermine a woman’s belief in her ability to cope after an abortion, they may contribute to her risk for depression. (Page 270) 3

Rebecca Wind of Guttmacher Institute reported that:

"While 34 states currently require that women receive counseling before an abortion is performed, seven of these states specifically require that women be warned of possible negative psychological consequences resulting from the procedure. 'Paradoxically,' the authors of the new study [of adolescents] suggest, 'laws mandating that women considering abortion be advised of its psychological risks may jeopardize women’s health by adding unnecessary anxiety and undermining women’s right to informed consent'." 8,9

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Beliefs of clinical researchers and psychologists Anne Speckhard and Vincent Rue:

This team has played an active role in promoting public awareness of PAS.

In an article in the Journal of Social Issues for 1992-FALL, they suggest that PAS is really a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that may not materialize, or may start immediately after an abortion or may have a delayed onset. It produces "... flashbacks, nightmares, grief and painful abortion recollections resulting in reduced responsiveness." They list symptoms that appear after an abortion, including "... difficulty concentrating; exaggerated startled responses to memories of the abortion experience; physiological reactions to events that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the abortion; self-devaluation; and the inability to forgive the abortion decision."

They cite a study performed in the 1980s among 80 women who had abortions at a clinic in Baltimore, MD. The study found that 16 of the women had PTSD symptoms. Three to five years later, the study found that almost half of the PTSD sufferers were still having flashbacks.

The team observed that some "... fathers, siblings and other family members of the child, and abortion clinic staff" also suffer from PTSD. 5

Unfortunately, they do not state what percentage of women who had unwanted pregnancies and who decided to give birth also suffer from PTSD symptoms. In studies such as this, data from a test groups is useless unless it is accompanied with information from a control group.

It appears impossible to resolve the conflict between this study, and the conclusions of the many peer-reviewed studies discussed elsewhere in this site.

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One woman's experience:

We received the following note in an Email from a woman in her late 20s who had an abortion for medical reasons about a year previously. Her experience emphasizes the importance of a woman being fully informed in advance about all aspects of the procedure, including the possibility of future emotional distress from PAS. With her permission we reprint part of her Email below:

"I am not saying that I condone this practice [of abortion access]. I do think that one thing should be changed and I want to tell you why because if my story can help just one person then it was worth while. Never in my time of having this procedure done did anyone go over the aftereffects of what this procedure can do to you mentally. I thought that by detaching myself that I wouldn't have to deal with the mental pain it caused. I was wrong and since then I have learned to grieve for my loss because after all it is a loss. I believe that women who are thinking about having this done should be told of the after effects it has and the loss they will feel."

"I have been pretty open about my decision to have an abortion so that I may hopefully be able to help someone make the right decision for them and hope that if they do go through with the procedure that they understand the lasting after effects it has. I know that this will be with me till my dying day and I have to accept that to be able to get through this. My only hope it that I can change one persons mind who is border line on their decision. By no means am I saying to have an abortion is wrong or right I just think that there should be a little more honesty involved in it. I put postings on websites in hopes to reach out to someone who needs the honest truth. Nothing can ever prepare someone for what they will deal with afterwards but the truth from someone who has been there. I hope that this is seen and I hope that I can reach as many women as humanly possible."

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Our conclusions (Warning: bias alert. Personal opinions expressed):

Many social and religious conservatives, pro-lifers, and their organizations, report high levels of PAS in the U.S. The surveys that they conduct reflect this experience. Yet many professional mental health organizations and pro-choicers report no significant increase in mental health issues, on average, following abortion. Again, their surveys reflect that observation.

We suspect that both groups are correct, but are reporting separate phenomenon. The former are very aware of women who have had very serious negative experiences after abortion, and base their conclusions upon those women's problems. The latter's studies report no significant problem on average among large groups of women.

The lack of accurate, objective studies seems to be a common theme running through the field of mental health:

  • Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was widespread concern about memories of early childhood sexual abuse created during recovered memory therapy. Some turned out to be triggered memories of real abuse; the vast majority were determined to be real-feeling, gradually pieced together memories of abuse events that never happened.

  • There were estimates that underground, inter-generational Satanic groups ritually murdered up to 60,000 infants and young children a year in the U.S. Countless tens of thousands more were believed to have been injured during Satanic Ritual Abuse. A more accurate number appears to have been zero.

  • For decades, some religious and social conservative groups have promoted the belief that a homosexual orientation is disordered, abnormal, chosen, changeable with reparative therapy, and is caused by poor parenting and/or sexual molestation during childhood. Meanwhile, mental health professionals and human sexuality researchers concluded the opposite: that homosexual and bisexual orientations are not a mental illness; they are normal for a minority of adults. They are discovered, not chosen; fixed; and caused by genetic factors perhaps triggered by an unknown environmental factor.

  • Currently, there are widely conflicting beliefs concerning the mental health implications of abortion. The degree to which the ideology of the survey organizers affect the design of the studies and their interpretation is unknown, and can only be speculated.

In some cases, people were sent to jail or legislation was passed to fight non-existent abuse of children. Massive effort is currently being invested by sexual minorities to achieve equal rights, including the right to marry, and by social and religious conservatives to prevent that equality.

In each case, the mental health profession has failed the public by not conducting objective and accurate studies -- preferably with the joint cooperation of both sides in each debate -- and effectively publishing the results.

In the U.S. the Food and Drug Administration regulates new medications rigorously to prevent dangerous and ineffective drugs from reaching the market. But there is no similar effort by the federal government and/or professional mental health organizations to limit or counteract dangerous and ineffective therapeutic techniques or to publicize accurate information.

The public deserves better.

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Support groups for women experiencing PAS:

bulletPASS Awareness "...provides a neutral, non-political, non-religion based, non-judgmental place for women to communicate with each other after an abortion." See http://www.afterabortion.com/

bullet Exhale is an after-abortion counseling talk line. They were motivated to form the group because "...they, or someone they knew, had personally experienced the lack of non-judgmental services available for women and their significant others after an abortion."They were the first post-abortion talk line in the U.S. that is neither religiously nor politically based. Their toll-free number is 1-866-439-4253. It is accessible throughout the U.S. Persons outside of the U.S. can call 1-510-446-7977. Their website is at:  http://www.4exhale.org/

bulletThere are hundreds of help lines in North America. Most are anonymous, confidential and staffed by trained volunteers who care. They go by a variety of names: distress lines, crisis centers, suicide prevention bureaus, etc. Even though the words "crisis" and "suicide" often appear in their names, most of their calls are from people in distress and who simply want someone with whom they can talk.

bulletIn the U.S. see: http://suicidehotlines.com/ for a listing of help lines by state. There is a also a national hot line at 1-800-784-2433.

bullet In Canada, look for a number on the first or second page of your telephone book, or in the "distress center" topic in your yellow pages.

bulletAbout.com maintains a list of PAS web sites that offer information and/or support. See: http://womensissues.about.com/

bullet "Rachel's Vineyard," a ministry of the Roman Catholic group "Priests for Life" provides retreats and educational DVDs to help women and men, grandparents, siblings etc. suffering from "post-abortion trauma." They write: "The unhealed trauma of an abortion experience can create a living hell for those who suffer. The quest for true healing therefore, frequently becomes a spiritual journey." see: http://www.rachelsvineyard.org/

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Gail. E. Robinson, et al., "Is there an 'Abortion Trauma Syndrome'? Critiquing the evidence," Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Volume 17, Issue 4, 2009-AUG, Pages 268 to 290.
  2. An abstract of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry article is available at: http://www.informaworld.com/ and at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/
  3. Serena, "New study debunks 'Abortion Trauma Syndrome," Feminists for choice, 2009-AUG-24, at: http://feministsforchoice.com/
  4. Aspen Baker, comment posted on the "New study debunks 'Abortion Trauma Syndrome," article at: http://feministsforchoice.com/
  5. Anne Speckhard and Vincent Rue, "Post-Abortion Syndrome a Growing Health Problem," Journal of Social Issues, 1992-FALL. Discussed at: http://www.forerunner.com/
  6. "Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Health Care Rights," American Psychiatric Association, 2009-SEP, at: http://www.psych.org/
  7. B. Major, et al., " Psychological responses of women after first-trimester abortion," Arch Gen Psychiat 2000; 57: Pages 777-784.
  8. Rebecca Wind, "New study finds abortion does not cause mental health problems among adolescents,"Guttmacher Institute, 2010-SEP-24, at: http://www.guttmacher.org/
  9. Jocelyn T. Warren, "Do Depression and Low Self-Esteem Follow Abortion Among Adolescents? Evidence from a National Study." Guttmacher Institute, at: http://www.guttmacher.org. This is a PDF file. The paper will be published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Volume 42, #4, 2010-DEC.

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Copyright © 1998 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-OCT-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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