As a Counsellor on the team the first thing I ask myself is ‘How do women actually feel after an abortion? and What are the facts and myths out there?’
Beware, there is lots of misleading research out there!
In order to answer this question many researchers have examined whether having an abortion results in women suffering from mental health problems. On reading these studies it becomes clear that most of these studies are not reliable (APA, Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, 2008).
Abortion in most cases does not cause mental illness
Luckily a handful of studies stand out from the rest in terms of their methodological rigor. One such study was conducted in the United Kingdom by the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Gilchrist et al., 1995). This study provides high-quality evidence that among women without prior psychiatric disorders, faced with an unplanned pregnancy, the relative risks of psychiatric disorder among women who abort the pregnancy are no greater than the risks among women who pursue alternative courses of action such as adoption or childbirth.
There are however situations where abortion has been found to actively contribute to mental illness, these are:
- Multiple abortions associated with poor mental health (Harlow et al., 2004)
- Terminating a wanted pregnancy late in pregnancy due to foetal abnormality appears to be associated with negative psychological experiences equivalent to those experienced by women who miscarry a wanted pregnancy or experience a stillbirth or the death of a newborn (Kersting et. al, 2005).
Every women’s experience is unique and no matter how you put it abortion is a significant stressful life event
Although in some women abortion can be experienced as a relief, abortion can raise a number of emotional responses including sadness, guilt, rage, shame and regret. Women’s psychological experience of abortion varies depending on many characteristics such as:
- prior mental illness;
- the circumstances of women’s lives and relationships before, at the time and after the decision to terminate the pregnancy was made;
- the reasons for, type, and timing of the abortion;
- and the larger cultural, religious and social-political context.
This variability is an important factor in understanding women’s psychological experiences following abortion. Furthermore, abortion is not a magical unpregnancy … it is a loss, a change, and it requires psychological adjustment (APA, 2008).
Similar to other types of stressful life events women will vary in how they cope with, and adjust to unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Therefore some women may experience severe negative psychological reactions. Like many other stressful life events, abortion may indeed be experienced as traumatic by some women.
Societal and cultural context can add to the psychological distress of the women’s experience
Women’s psychological experiences of abortion are shaped by the immediate and larger sociocultural context within which the abortion occurs. Social and cultural messages that stigmatize women who have abortions and convey the expectation that women who have abortions will feel bad may themselves engender negative psychological experiences.
Acknowledge your experience whatever it may be and if you feel you need to … there are professionals who are genuinely here to help without judgement
Every woman is unique in how she feels after an abortion. You are not a bad person. You are also not alone, about 42 million women worldwide have abortions each year. Remember that we make the best decision we can under the circumstances we are in.
Other parts of your life may be very stressful, your relationship, school, your job, your kids etc. Abortion may bring up old experiences or feelings you have been repressing. For instance, if sexual abuse is a part of your past, you may find yourself re-living feelings related to your abuse. Feeling vulnerable about the pregnancy and abortion may trigger you to remember a time in the past when you felt frightened and vulnerable.
If your feelings are overwhelming and do not seem to be resolving or you are suffering symptoms of depression, it is important to consult a professional.
American Psychological Association, Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion. (2008). Report of the Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/mental-health-abortion-report.pdf
Harlow, B. L., Cohen, L. S., Otto, M. W., Spiegelman, D., & Cramer, D. W. (2004). Early life menstrual characteristics and pregnancy experiences among women with and without major depression: The Harvard Study of Moods and Cycles. Journal of Affective Disorders, 79, 167–176
Kersting,A.,Dorsch,M., Kreulich,C.,Reutemann, M.,Ohrmann,P.,Baez,E., & Aroldt,V. (2005). Trauma and grief 2-7 years after termination of pregnancy because of fetal anomalies—a pilot study. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology,26, 9-14.