Help For The Postabortion Woman
Teri K. Reisser & Paul C. Reisser
One Woman’s Story
Seventeen-year-old Linda had always considered her life to be pretty average. Like most of her friends’ parents, her mom and dad were divorced. After they first split up, when she was 13, she had gone to her dad’s place every other weekend, but for the last year or so she had made the trip only about every other month. Her relationship with her mom had been OK-until she started dating.
It seemed to Linda that her mom had a “guilty until-proven-innocent” attitude toward any member of the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, communication between the two of them became somewhat strained when Linda had started seeing Steven on a steady basis in her senior year. Even if Steven wasn’t exactly what every mother dreams of for her daughter, he certainly knew how to make Linda feel special, and she hadn’t felt that way for a long time. She found herself compromising on her list of “dos and don’ts” in exchange for the dream of married life with Steven after graduation.
Four months later, Linda discovered that she was pregnant. She was, to say the least, in a state of shock. How could this have happened when they had been so careful each time? Steven was supportive and reassuring, but he also was certain that an abortion would be the only sensible solution. He would even pay for it. Linda had always believed that abortion was wrong and said so. Thus began their very first serious fight.
Unfortunately, the alternatives to abortion were discouraging. Linda couldn’t tell her mom she was pregnant-things were already pretty tense at home. She’d probably be grounded for the rest of her life, and the possibility of not being able to see Steven was unthinkable. How about her dad? No, he was now wrapped up with his new wife and her three kids. All he wanted from her during their monthly phone calls was the reassurance that his precious little girl was doing just fine. In addition, the friends who knew she was pregnant said she was crazy even for hesitating. What was she supposed to do with a baby at 18? She would have to scrap all of the plans she and Steven had made, and all of her girlfriends were predicting that he would look for greener pastures when she lost her bikini-perfect figure. So, in the end, Steven scheduled the abortion.
The receptionist at the clinic was friendly, brisk and efficient, assuring her that the procedure was no worse than having a wisdom tooth removed. Linda tried to express her doubts to the woman, but she was cut off with a polite, “Now, dear, don’t worry about it. Everyone feels a little nervous the first time. You’ll be just fine.” And as she returned to the waiting room, she listened with amazement to the loud chatter. The receptionist must be right. Nobody else seemed very upset. But when Linda came out of the anesthetic, she wept inconsolably, grieving a loss she didn’t quite understand.
Steven drove her home and was extremely attentive for a few days. After that, a coolness crept into their relationship, and his suggestion several weeks later that they break up was met with indifference on Linda’s part. By that time, a combination of numbness and toughness protected her, like a scar, against feeling anything too deeply.
Four years of college came and went, and Linda dated a lot, being careful not to become too involved with anyone in particular. And she never forgot to take her birth control pills. Two years after graduation she met John, who was the embodiment of her girlhood dreams of Prince Charming. Against her better judgement, she allowed herself to be carried back to the feelings of happiness she had abandoned years ago. As the chill in her heart thawed she could once again make wedding plans.
Several months into their marriage, John began talking about the possibility of starting a family. Unexplainably, a sense of panic welled up inside of Linda. As they discontinued using birth control, a growing depression crowded in on her like a gathering storm cloud. She started avoiding sexual intimacy with John. Increasingly, she found herself waking in the middle of the night in an anxious, cold sweat. She couldn’t quite remember the details of her nightmares, except that they had something to do with babies.
When John’s sister and husband came for a weekend visit to show off their newborn daughter, Linda could hardly function. After they were gone, she began thinking about the baby she had aborted and found herself crying uncontrollably at odd times of the day. For the first time, she started wondering if she was losing her mind.
John, who had been so patient and understanding in the beginning, grew frustrated with her inability to shake the growing moodiness, which now dominated her life. He suggested that she seek professional help. A counselor encouraged Linda to ventilate her feelings toward those involved in the abortion experience, and she was surprised at the depth of anger she expressed toward her mother, her father and her old boyfriend. The counselor said she had done some good work, and it was indeed very cathartic. She went home feeling better than she had in months. But then, halfway through the week, she plummeted to a new level of depression.
Again she spoke to the therapist, and he suggested that she needed to leave the abortion episode behind and focus on her present relationships. When she tried to return to the subject of the abortion again the following week, the counselor told Linda that a past abortion alone could not cause her serious emotional problems. She would need to stop dwelling on that episode as an excuse for her present condition. Confused and discouraged, she discontinued therapy after two more sessions and began wondering how it would feel to slip away on an overdose of her antidepressants.
Am I All Alone in This?
Though the names and identifying elements have been changed (as they will be in other stories in this booklet), the above account is true, and by no means unique. This year, thousands of “Lindas” will enter into therapy with counselors who are likely to gloss over or trivialize the connection between abortion(s) in the past and a woman’s present emotional pain. Perhaps you have even experienced some of what the woman in this story felt, but have been afraid to seek out professional help. You may have scanned through the multitudes of self-help books in your
local bookstores, hoping to find even one that would help explain why you can’t seem to stop thinking about your abortion.
Perhaps you’ve never told your “secret” to anyone because you were so afraid of what the reaction might be. Actually, with one out of every four pregnancies now ending in abortion in America, probably one or more women in your circle of friends share the same secret. After all, most women don’t enjoy talking about their abortions, even if they believe in the personal right to make that choice. It’s not likely to be a topic on the agenda for discussion during lunch with friends, or even in a women’s support group.
A Gap in the Literature
Before the Supreme Court swept away most abortion laws in its landmark Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, those who fought to legalize abortion argued that the only trauma associated with ending a pregnancy was the humiliation and horror of an illegal procedure. Deal with a problem pregnancy painlessly and safely, and a woman could get on with her life without the destruction caused by a back-alley butcher. Any emotional suffering experienced after a safe, legal abortion could be explained as transient “bad feelings” caused by hormonal fluctuations.
The notion that abortion normally produces few, if any, emotional aftereffects prevails among doctors and psychologists to this day. This probably stems from the fact that most of the limited research about postabortion trauma has, until very recently, been based on questionnaire data. Unfortunately, the results of questionnaires completed by women soon after an abortion are likely to be unreliable because of the psychological “numbing” that often occurs in reaction to a highly stressful event. In order to protect their mental stability, many women must rationalize the need for an abortion and therefore repress any initial feelings of guilt. As a result, most emotional reactions to abortion are delayed, sometimes for as long as five to 10 years.
It is not surprising, then, that women who take the time and effort to fill out and return questionnaires would report few negative emotional reactions to their recent abortions. As these results have been compiled and published in the professional literature, counselors have developed a widespread attitude that the need for postabortion counseling is minimal except in a small number of women who are already “unbalanced” emotionally.
It is interesting that one survey of more than 1,000 women who were on their way into a clinic for an abortion indicated that 24 percent of the women were having “deep emotional conflicts” about the impending procedure (Medical World News, March 9, 1987). This would imply that more than 350,000 women a year, in this country alone, may well be hurting over a previous abortion. And yet, on a recent radio talk show in the Los Angeles area, a Planned Parenthood representative claimed that no more than “a couple of hundred women at the most” per year are negatively affected by abortion in the United States.
Post Abortion Syndrome
More recent research, however, is beginning to demonstrate that abortion can, in fact, be responsible for a profound array of long-term emotional disturbances in a woman’s life.
Investigators are beginning to use the term “post abortion syndrome” (PAS) to describe a woman’s inability to: (1) process the fear, anger, sadness and guilt surrounding her abortion experience, (2) grieve the loss of her baby, and (3) come to peace with God, herself and others involved in the abortion decision.
How does PAS develop? A woman faced with a crisis pregnancy experiences a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety about her situation, and she seeks a fast solution to her dilemma. Since abortion is legally and socially sanctioned, it is the choice she is likely to make, even though she may be violating her own moral code in doing so. Immediately after the procedure, she will usually feel profound relief that the crisis is over, for better or worse. But any moral struggle she felt prior to the abortion will resurface eventually, at which point she will question her decision. In many cases, she may learn more about fetal development, or undergo a change in moral perspective, which will also lead to uncertainty about her past choice.
Common Defense Mechanisms
Since she cannot go back and “undo” the abortion, she will employ one or more of the following defense mechanisms to protect her from uncomfortable or frightening thoughts and feelings.
1. Rationalization: This involves finding logical reasons or plausible explanations or excuses for having had the abortion. (Example: “It wouldn’t have been fair to bring my baby into the world because I wasn’t ready to be a mother-I probably wouldn’t have been able to be a good mother at this point in my life.”)
2. Repression: A way of preventing unconscious information from reaching the conscious mind-blocking out memories of the painful emotions surrounding the abortion. (Example: “I did just fine with my abortion. Sure, I may have been upset a little at the time, but it doesn’t bother me at all now.”) Sometimes a woman can push down not only the painful emotions but the actual details of the experience, as well. Some have even “forgotten” that they had a second or third abortion.
3. Compensation: An effort to make up for the abortion by “doing good things.” (Example: being overly involved in church activities, working in the pro-life movement, becoming a “super-mom,” having an “atonement baby” soon after the abortion.) It can also mean working very hard to prove that the abortion was really necessary. (Example: If a woman sacrificed her baby for a promising career, she might be heavily invested in making that career a great success.)
4. Reaction formation: The pushing down of frightening feelings and thoughts connected with a past abortion by vehemently professing the exact opposite of those feelings-as if by expressing the contrary thought enough times, one can begin to believe it. (Example: becoming militantly vocal in the pro-choice movement.)
Symptoms of Post Abortion Syndrome
These defense mechanisms are very effective in keeping the painful memories away, but they consume a lot of mental energy as a woman works to ignore powerful emotions. Eventually, if enough stress enters her life, she may find that she lacks the stamina both to cone with current stresses and continue repressing “forgotten” memories. A variety of experiences (such as pictures of prenatal development, a subsequent pregnancy, or even the whine of a dentist’s drill that resembles the sound of the abortionist’s equipment) may trigger symptoms associated with PAS.
These symptoms will not necessarily appear at the same time, nor is any woman likely to experience the entire list. Some may occur immediately after an abortion, and others much later. However, if three or more of the symptoms listed below describe what you have been going through recently, chances are you are experiencing PAS.
1. Guilt: Guilt is what an individual feels when she has violated her own moral code. For the woman who has come to believe, at some point after the abortion, that she consented to the killing of her preborn child, the burden of guilt is relentless. There is little consolation to offer the woman who has transgressed one of nature’s strongest instincts: the protection a mother extends to her young.
This inner voice of self-condemnation begins playing a repeating tape in the mind that accuses, “You are defective. How could you have done this thing? You are a desperately wicked person.” It is also normal for many postabortion women entering therapy to verbalize their belief that any unhappy events that have ocurred since the abortion were inevitable because they “deserve it.” Most of the remaining symptoms listed below result from listening to that mental tape day in and day out.
2. Anxiety: Anxiety is defined as an unpleasant emotional and physical state of apprehension. Postabortion women with anxiety may experience any of the following: tension (inability to relax, irritability, etc.), physical responses (dizziness, pounding heart, upset stomach, headaches, etc.), worry about the future, difficulty concentrating and disturbed sleep.
The conflict between a woman’s moral standards and her decision to abort generates much of this anxiety. Very often, she will not relate her anxiety to a past abortion, and yet she will unconsciously begin to avoid anything having to do with babies. She may make excuses for not attending a baby shower, skip the baby aisle at the grocery store, and so forth. This unrecognized “baby phobia” may eventually lead to a full-blown agoraphobia, where the mere act of leaving home creates great distress.
One such woman entered therapy a year after her abortion, profoundly shocked at the levels of pain and anxiety she was experiencing. Every day she was taking eight to 10 Xanax (a tranquilizer related to Valium), prescribed by a psychiatrist who had discounted her description of the pain surrounding the abortion. She had developed agoraphobia and was in imminent danger of losing her job because of the panic attacks that occurred frequently before leaving for work. Only when she had come to realize that her present behavior was somehow connected to her abortion could she force herself to drive on the freeway, at night, to attend a postabortion therapy group.
3. Psychological “numbing”: A person who has experienced a highly painful loss will develop an instinct to avoid future situations that might lead to serious pain again. Many postabortion women maintain a secret vow that they will never again allow themselves to be put in such a vulnerable position. As a result, without consciously thinking about what they are doing, they may work hard to keep their emotions on a flat level, experiencing neither highs nor lows. Not only does this flatness of emotional experience affect their own outlook, but it greatly hampers their ability to form and maintain close interpersonal relationships.
It is not uncommon during therapy to hear a postabortion woman talk about her life as if it were happening to another person whom she watches go through all the motions of living.
Beth expressed it this way: “I remember when I was younger I would wake up in the morning excited just to be alive in such a wonderful world. When we first got married things that happened to me either made me really happy or really sad. But after the abortion two years ago, it seemed like something turned off inside me. Nothing touches me anymore-good or bad. I can’t get excited about things that used to put me in orbit, and now when I read about sad things that happen in the newspaper, I just think, ‘Oh well, life comes and goes. They’ll get over it.’ I wish I could go back to the way I used to be. What’s the use of going through life cold and indifferent to things that happen to you and around you?”
4. Depression and thoughts of suicide: All of us are acquainted with depression. It is a mood filled with sadness, guilt and feelings of hopelessness. A more severe and prolonged depression is characterized by a sense of utter futility, and a complete inability to experience pleasure from any source. It may lead to suicidal ideas, as a person blames and hates herself so much that she simply wishes she were dead.
Few postabortion women reach the point of an overt clinical depression. Most continue to function and perform the duties of life, while still experiencing many of the following:
* Sad mood-ranging from feelings of melancholy to total hopelessness.
* Sudden and uncontrollable crying episodes-the source of which may be a total mystery to the woman, if she hasn’t yet connected her present sad mood to memories of the abortion. The unpredictability and intensity of these crying spells may give rise to a sense of panic over being so out of control. A more severely depressed woman may feel like crying but lack the energy to do so.
* Deterioration of self-concept-because she feels wholly deficient in her ability to function as a “normal” woman. These feelings of unworthiness are profound because she sees herself as unredeemablea lost cause. She does not believe she can help herself nor can anyone else help her.
* Sleep, appetite and sexual disturbances-usually in a pattern of insomnia, loss of appetite, and/or reduced sex drive. Oftentimes, sleeping and eating behaviors can go into the excess-oversleeping and overeating. It is unusual, however, for a woman to experience an increased sex drive during a depression. In fact, many postabortion women report pain with intercourse.
* Reduced motivation-for the normal activities of life. The things that occupied her life before the depression (working, hobbies, reading, child care, relationships and so on) no longer seem worth doing.
* Disruption in interpersonal relationships-because of the general lack of enthusiasm for all activities. This is especially evidenced in her relationship with her husband or boyfriend, and particularly so if he was involved in the abortion decision. Anger can be stored against him even if he was supportive of whatever she decided. A woman is often likely to resent his neutral stand when, in retrospect, she believes he should have been more protective of their child during a time when she herself wasn’t thinking clearly. A host of psychosexual disorders crop up in the aftermath of a couple’s abortion, and such a couple is far more likely to break up rather than stay together more than one year after the abortion.
* Thoughts of suicide-or preoccupation with death. Not surprisingly, some postabortion women are so depressed that they have come to the point of believing they would be better off dead. If such a woman is able to verbalize the desire to end her life, and especially if she actually has a plan to do so, she is experiencing the severest form of clinical depression and needs immediate professional attention.
Emily described herself, during the first session of postabortion group therapy, as being normally a very disciplined person. She was very surprised by her emotional instability over the past several weeks. She said that she was avoiding meals, tossing and turning at night for the first time in her life, and crying in the middle of the day for no reason at all. She had become increasingly irritable with her two children, and was easily distracted. For instance, she described one incident where she went into the kitchen to prepare her son’s lunch, then found herself standing in the middle of the kitchen, staring off into space, unable to remember what she started to do. Most of all, Emily was terribly frightened because she had never experienced anything like this following seemingly more traumatic events before.
Her husband was becoming angry about her prolonged agitation over the abortion and began to insinuate that maybe she was mentally unbalanced. After many weeks of fighting, Emily had come to feel that it was all quite hopeless and had given up trying to salvage the relationship. She admitted in the first therapy that she was toying with the idea of taking her own life, but didn’t think she could overcome her strong sense of responsibility toward her children. She began to cry profusely as she confessed that even this sense of loyalty to her own children was beginning to crumble. After all, she sobbed, she wasn’t a fit mother. Perhaps they would be better raised by someone else.
It is important to remember that the symptoms listed above may be seen in anyone who is depressed. Post abortion syndrome may be the primary cause of the depression, or it may be but one of several contributing problems. Some work with an experienced counselor (hopefully one who understands PAS) may be necessary to put all of the components of a depression into perspective.
5. Anniversary syndrome: There tends to be an increase of PAS symptoms around the time of the anniversary of the abortion and/or the due date of the aborted child. This phenomenon is reported with some consistency by women who are experiencing PAS.
6. Re-experiencing the abortion: A very common event described by postabortion women is the sudden distressing, recurring flashbacks of the abortion episode. Sometimes this happens in situations that resemble some aspect of the abortion. A routine gynecological exam is an obvious example, but even the suction sound of a household vacuum cleaner, for example, has reportedly triggered troubling flashbacks.
Often, women re-experience the abortion in the form of recurring nightmares about babies in general or her aborted baby in particular. These dreams usually involve themes of lost, dismembered or crying babies. One woman described a recurrent nightmare in which the bloodied upper torso of her aborted child was clinging to the outside of her bedroom window at night, repeatedly calling out to her mournfully, “Mommy, help me!” Another woman talked about a nightmare in which she was frantically trying to gather up all the pieces of her aborted baby and put them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. As gruesome as these dreams sound, they are not unrepresentative of the experiences shared in a postabortion therapy group.
7. Preoccupation with becoming pregnant again: A significant percentage of all women who abort become pregnant within one year of their abortion. The desire to quickly become pregnant again-as soon as possible-is verbalized often in the counseling room. This may represent an unconscious hope that a new pregnancy, often called the “atonement baby,” will serve as a replacement for the one that was aborted.
8. Anxiety over fertility and childbearing issues: Some postabortion women maintain a fear that they will never become pregnant again or never be able to carry a pregnancy to term. Some expect to have handicapped children because they have “disqualified themselves as good mothers.” Those women whose worldview includes a belief in God and divine accountability will actually verbalize these fears in terms of God punishing them.
9. Interruption of the bonding process with present and/or future children: The postabortion woman may not allow herself to become properly bonded to another pregnancy because of a fear of loss, as explained above. Or she may begin another pregnancy intending to be the world’s most perfect mother, in order to make up for aborting the last pregnancy.
Likewise, the woman who already had children at the time of her abortion may discover that she is beginning to look at her existing children in a different light. At one extreme, she may unconsciously devalue them. One woman sadly commented, “I always thought my children were the most prized possessions we had; now I catch myself looking at them while they are playing and thinking bizarre things like, ‘You were the lucky ones. You were allowed to live.’ ” She may go in the opposite direction and become overly protective. Another woman confessed that, since her abortion experience, she had become obsessively involved with her children, wanting to prove to the world and to herself that she was not a bad mother.
10. Survival guilt: Most women do not abort for trivial reasons. They find themselves in the midst of a heartbreaking situation whereby they stand to lose much if they choose to carry their pregnancies to term. In the end, the decision boils down to a sorrowful “it’s me or you, and I choose me.” In an attempt to assuage the guilt of being the survivor, some women will enter a heightened and unrealistic compensation mode whereby they attempt to atone for their selfish choice.
She may keep herself very busy doing unselfish volunteer work. Indeed, she may become overly zealous in the pro-life movement. And this, unfortunately, may be the worst possible place for her to be. If she has not found forgiveness for her own abortion, she will not likely to be able to extend compassion and forgiveness to anyone else who has aborted a child. All too often, “talking someone out of having an abortion” becomes her way of making payments on the debt she feels she owes. Any seasoned director of a crisis pregnancy center has learned to screen out and refer for counseling the well-intentioned volunteer who hasn’t worked through a past abortion. While postabortion women who have experienced healing and forgiveness are usually highly effective counselors, those who lack this experience of healing can turn a conversation with an abortion-minded woman into a disaster.
11. Development of eating disorders: Some women seeking postabortion counseling have developed eating disorders. While this phenomenon remains largely unexplored at this time, several factors may contribute to it. First, a substantial weight gain or severe weight loss is associated with unattractiveness, which reduces the odds of becoming pregnant again. Secondly, becoming unattractive serves as a form of self-punishment and helps perpetuate the belief that she is unworthy of anyone’s attention. Thirdly, extremes in eating behavior (such as bulimia or anorexia) represent a form of control for the woman who feels her life is totally out of control. And finally, a drastic weight loss can shut down the menstrual cycle, thus preventing any future pregnancies.
12. Alcohol and drug abuse: Alcohol and drug use often serve initially as a form of self-medication – way of coping with the pain of the abortion memories. Sadly, the woman who resorts to alcohol and/or drugs eventually finds herself having not only more problems but also fewer resources with which to solve them. The mental and physical consequences of alcohol or drug abuse only amplify most of the symptoms the woman is already experiencing.
13. Other self-punishing or self-degrading behaviors: In addition to weight loss and substance abuse, the postabortion woman may also enter into abusive relationships, become promiscuous, fail to take care of herself medically, or deliberately hurt herself emotionally and/or physically.
14. Brief reactive psychosis: Rarely, a postabortion woman will experience a brief psychotic episode for two weeks or less after her abortion. The break with reality and subsequent recovery are both extremely rapid, and in most cases the person returns completely to normal when it is over. While this is an unusual reaction to abortion, it bears mentioning only because it is possible for a person to have a brief psychotic reaction to a stressful event without being . labeled a psychotic individual. During such an episode, the individual’s perception of reality is drastically distorted.
One woman, a respected professional who lived by herself in a small town, passed a very large piece of bloody material only hours after returning home from her abortion. She examined it and decided that it had to be her eight-week fetus. (She later reported that the clinic had been extremely busy the Friday she had gone in; presumably, the physician neglected to make sure the fetus had passed through the suction tube, or perhaps she had been carrying twins.) Because she had, until then, believed that an eight-week fetus is an unidentifiable mass, the unmistakable human characteristics of the fetus sent waves of horror through her.
Using a soft kitchen towel, she carefully wrapped it up, decided it was a girl, gave her a name, and proceeded to rock her and talk to her during the next two days as if she were a live baby. By late Sunday afternoon, she began to acknowledge that her baby had died. She drove out to the seaside, because she wanted to bury her baby in the ocean. A few hours later, she felt as though she were waking from a long dream. The fetus she passed had been real, but then she had experienced a total break from reality for nearly two days. Needless to say, she was badly shaken by the experience. Having heard that a local crisis pregnancy center offered postabortion counseling, she went there for help soon thereafter. She has not experienced any recurrences of psychotic episodes, brief or prolonged, since that time.
The Tasks of Healing
In the experience of many therapists who are now working with postabortion women, it has yet to be found that time alone will bring real, lasting healing. The old adage “time heals all” becomes “time represses all.” While a postabortion woman may have acquired enough coping skills in her life to be a well-functioning member of society, the potential for deterioration because of the repressed pain always remains. When a woman comes to a point in her life where she recognizes the need to deal with a past abortion, a skilled professional or lay counselor can be of great help in leading her through the tasks of healing.
1. Working through the denial (re-experiencing the abortion): The very first task of healing is for the woman to access the negative feelings that surrounded the abortion experience. Most women, even those currently experiencing a great deal of postabortion stress, have utilized repression for so long as a coping strategy that they have long forgotten the fear, anger, guilt and grief associated with the abortion. Until these powerful emotions are fresh in the woman’s mind again, there is literally not much with which to work.
The simplest way to access the feelings is to provide a safe, supportive environment in which the woman can tell about her abortion experience. The more she is allowed to verbalize, the more she will remember. Since a woman will naturally feel resistant toward deliberately doing something that will make her feel badly, a sensitive counselor can help her re-experience the abortion with very gentle prompting (“What were you thinking as you drove to the abortion clinic?” “What did the operating room smell like?” “What did the machine sound like?”).
2. Dealing with issues of guilt and forgiveness from God: The Christian woman is very likely to begin, at some point after her abortion, feeling like a second-class citizen in God’s economy, even though she may know this to be incompatible with Scripture. She usually will either turn away from the church completely, or enter into an intense compensation mode, with the rationale that if she is only good long enough, if she can only prove herself, God will surely forgive her someday. Of course, this is not a conscious thought process on her part. During therapy, however, she might startle herself by realizing that she even has a specific number of years in mind for a period of penance. If feelings of closeness to the Lord were previously enjoyed before the abortion, no such feelings now exist, and she probably believes the relationship to be irreparable in view of her atrocious sin. How dare she presume to sit at His feet like an innocent child after what she has done? Working her way back into the periphery of His kingdom, in the lowest rank of privilege, may be the highest spiritual goal she can imagine.
Norma was married at age 25. When she and her husband returned from their one-week honeymoon, she discovered that she was already seven weeks pregnant. In less than 24 hours, she, her husband and her doctor had calmly decided on and carried through with an abortion, because they felt it would be a most inopportune time to have a baby. Norma later would have liked to say that she had been bullied into the decision. But, in fact, the decision was made rationally, and in retrospect, she took full responsibility for the choice. This was hard for her to live with during the next 10 years because she had been raised in a Christian home where there was a high regard for life, even though she was not a committed Christian at the time of her abortion. She worked night and day in her church for five years after recommitting her life to Christ, and still could not begin to consider the idea that she might already be forgiven for the abortion.
One night, during a postabortion group therapy session, as Norma was struggling with the idea of God’s forgiveness, the leader asked her to think about what she expected from her young son whenever he did something wrong. “I want him to see the wrong action through my eyes-without denying that he did it or making lame excuses for why he did it,” she replied, “and I want to know that he is really and truly sorry for what he did.”
She was perplexed when the counselor asked if she ever remained cold and punishing toward her son once he had reached the point of true repentance. “Why on earth would I do that?” she asked. “He is my child-I love him!” Then she slowly began to realize that God, as her loving parent, had been patiently waiting five years for her to simply turn around and ACCEPT His forgiveness. She then wept tears of joyous healing.
The most essential task for the Christian postabortion woman, then, is to accept on an emotional level what she probably already knows on an intellectual level: that God’s forgiveness is already complete and that she must reach out and take a firm grasp of that forgiveness. It is extremely helpful to use the loving parent/repentant child analogy if a woman can relate to it. (If she never had a loving parent, this might be a difficult concept for her to grasp.)
The parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 is illustrative of the predicament of the postabortion woman seeking to work off her sin. The servant, rather than begging the master to forgive his debt outright, asked for time to pay back the debt, which was impossible because the debt equaled far more than the servant’s entire lifelong earning potential! Likewise, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is poignantly like the Christian postabortion woman who has settled for being the least among her Father’s servants because she cannot bear living away from His household completely. Such a woman needs to put herself at the end of the story, where the waiting father is so elated to have his broken child back that, despite the past sin, he welcomes his child with a great embrace and with tears of joyful reunion. The son expected minimal acceptance but received maximum (and unwarranted) forgiveness. There was no talk of punishment; the father only wanted his son to return home.
Many women, even though they come to understand the loving, forgiving nature of God, are seemingly unable to move through this important second task. To trust fully is a very frightening proposition for someone who has never learned how to trust. Additionally, some women may unconsciously choose not to accept God’s forgiveness. Holding on to one’s “defectiveness” can become a rationalization for failing to move forward as a new, whole, functioning, ministering person in Christ.
It is interesting that women who come into group therapy with no particular previous religious affiliation will often express, to varying degrees, an awareness of God. Sometimes, as they observe Christians in the group individually experiencing God’s forgiveness, there arises a yearning for that same reconciliation with our Creator. A Christian counselor needs to be prepared to explain, in the simplest of terms, how to grasp hold of this forgiveness.
3. Anger and forgiveness toward herself and others involved in the abortion decision: Most women experiencing PAS have repressed (or “stuffed down”) a tremendous amount of anger since the time of the abortion. At the same time, there is usually a serious resistance to getting in touch with this anger and identifying it for what it is. Sometimes, this is caused by a fear that the expressed rage will lead to a total loss of control. The Christian woman is often especially hampered in working through this task area because she has sat through a great many sermons in which she was exhorted to forgive others as she has been forgiven by Christ, and not to harbor resentment toward another human being.
The biblical command to forgive others as we have been forgiven demonstrates a deep and beautiful truth, indeed. Unfortunately, until we can identify precisely what needs to be forgiven, it lays beneath the surface like a pool of toxic waste material, ever threatening to bubble up and poison our efforts to reach emotional wholeness. The postabortion woman must stop denying the pain and anger she once felt (and possibly still feels) before, during and after her abortion. Helping her to clarify her anger clears a path to true and final forgiveness.
Elisa’s mother and father had coerced her into getting an abortion when she was only 15 years old. In the postabortion therapy group, she denied, sweetly, any traces of bitterness against her parents, even though they had refused to discuss the episode with her over the years. As an adult, she knew that what they had done to her was wrong, but she believed that, as a Christian, she had no grounds for harboring any resentment toward them.
She shocked herself when she was asked to write a pretend letter to her parents telling them how she felt about their part in the abortion decision. The rage she expressed in written form distressed her greatly because she honestly didn’t know where it came from. As she began talking about the contents of the letter in the group one night, she slowly realized that the anger she unconsciously held against her parents all these years had created a tremendous barrier in her ability to trust them or to feel close to them. That night she made a conscious decision to stop blaming them for the abortion, and the path to true forgiveness was now wide open.
It is interesting that sometimes a postabortion woman who is extremely hard on herself can easily extend compassion toward other members of the therapy group. Pointing out the inconsistency between her behavior and her thinking, coupled with the understanding and compassion felt from the rest of the group, will often help a woman relinquish her entrenched self-recrimination.
Liza met her husband while he was still in the midst of divorce proceedings. She became pregnant but did not tell him for fear of putting too much pressure on him during a time in his life that was already too stressful. Because it was 1956, Liza performed an illegal abortion on herself by inserting a sharp instrument through her cervix. She almost bled to death before finally getting to a hospital, where a physician angrily completed the botched abortion, verbally abusing her during the procedure for attempting such a stupid thing. Being a staunch Catholic, Liza was deeply ashamed of what she had done, and never told another human being about it until she entered a postabortion therapy group 31 years later.
She put off telling her story to the group as long as possible, and when she finally did start talking, she just could not bring herself to tell the other members of the group how she had actually tried to abort the child herself. After much gentle urging from the counselor, she finally blurted out her confession and put her hands over her face, waiting for the condemnation she knew would come. To her great surprise, the other women silently wept in sorrow for the turmoil she must have felt to be driven to such a desperate act, and for the burden she had carried alone for so many years. For Liza, the fact that these women were readily able to love her, no matter what she had done in the past, was a major turning point in her being able to forgive herself.
4. Grieving the loss of the aborted child: Many women experiencing PAS have never recognized the need to grieve the loss of their aborted baby. Hindering them in this important task of healing are: (1) the belief that, as the “executioner,” it would now be hypocritical to mourn, (2) the fact that she has no memories of a whole child to facilitate a healthy grieving process, and (3) societal denial of the need to grieve what was, after all, only a “lump of pregnancy tissue.” It is crucial for a postabortion woman to come to a point of understanding that she aborted a real human baby. Unlike the mother who has lost a 2-year-old, the postabortion woman has no memories upon which to draw. And since a healthy grieving process requires those warm memories, it is often necessary to help a woman “recreate” her baby by pretending she knows his or her physical characteristics in order to get a mental and emotional picture of the child firmly fixed in her mind. Naming the child also seems to be an important task because it gives her child individuality.
With a portrait now indelibly etched on her heart, she can begin the difficult task of asking her child’s forgiveness for the abortion. This can be a very frightening experience for the Christian woman who pictures her child now standing next to God, stretching an accusing finger down toward earth. This picture, of course, adds to her feelings of alienation from God. This woman must come to a realization that nobody in God’s presence could reflect anything but His love, compassion and forgiveness. After an emotional and tender reconciliation with the child she never knew, after she feels that her child has already forgiven her, she will finally be in a position to say goodbye to her baby-for now.
A wonderful technique to help her facilitate this step is to encourage her to write a pretend letter to her aborted child, pouring out her heart and explaining (but not excusing) the circumstances under which the abortion was obtained. She might tell the child how much he or she is missed, how sorry she is, how she longs to see him or her someday, and so forth. Here is an edited version of an actual letter:
“Dearest Baby: I don’t know how to begin writing this letter to you. I hope it’s OK to think of you as a girl, because I always believed in my heart you were. You know, I only had your two brothers after I was pregnant with you, and I always wanted a daughter. I would have named you Dawn, and when I picture you, I see you with blue eyes, just like mine . . .Baby Dawn, what can I say to tell you how sorry I am that I don’t have you to hug or to dress or to put ribbons in your hair? I was so young and frightened when I found out you were growing inside of me. I allowed some foolish people to talk me into killing the only daughter I ever had, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life . . .I’m so happy you’re with Jesus now. For a long time now Heaven has seemed like a really scary place to me because I was afraid of seeing you again, but lately I’ve begun to understand that you understand and have forgiven me. I can’t wait to hold you one day. Goodbye, my precious daughter . . . ”
It should be stressed, at this point, that the women working through this postabortion healing task must have a clear understanding that they are not, in actuality, contacting their children in any way. Rather, this is an exercise in the imagination for the purpose of gaining a clear understanding of where their children are, and what their future relationship will be one day when they are reunited.
Having successfully worked through these major task areas, will the postabortion woman ever feel pain over her past abortion again? Most likely. It is unrealistic to expect that someone who has grieved deeply will never come up against painful reminders of her loss. The goal, rather, is that she will become a whole, functioning person who is able to cope with those ongoing reminders as they arise, rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.
How can a postabortion woman know that she has truly experienced healing? She can be confident that healing has occurred when she is able to accept responsibility for her part of the abortion decision; she can speak openly about her abortion (not in a compulsive way) when it is appropriate to do so; she has accepted God’s total and unconditional forgiveness; she has forgiven herself and will allow herself to lead a fulfilling life, despite her past sinful choices; she has extended forgiveness and understanding to others involved in the decision; and she feels reconciled to her aborted child, eagerly looking forward to someday being reunited with him or her.
A Happy Ending . . . and Beginning
Before concluding, we would like to add a postscript to Linda’s story, which we told at the beginning of this booklet.
After two more months of depression, Linda called a crisis pregnancy center located in her community. A concerned friend had told her that one of the services offered by the center was postabortion counseling. She attended the initial session of a therapy group one night against John’s wishes. Although the first meeting had been previously defined as primarily informational, Linda cried several times during the two-hour session.
Four sessions into therapy, Linda became a Christian through the efforts of the friend who had recommended her to the center. Between her deepening commitment to Jesus Christ and time spent in the group, she began pulling together the pieces of her life and looking at them to figure out how she had arrived at her present situation. Her depression and late-night outbursts had decreased. When the group ended several weeks later, Linda had managed to stabilize her daily mood swings. She began looking forward to her second pregnancy and improving her communication with her husband, who had finally agreed to seek marriage counseling with her.
An Important Note to the Reader:
If the message of this booklet has touched you because you have had a past abortion or know of someone who has, we encourage you to not delay in seeking the help you need in order to deal with this episode in your past. Listed below are two possible resources to get you started:
– The Christian Action Council (101 W. Broad Street, Suite 500, Falls Church, VA 22046 (703) 237-2100) can assist you in finding the crisis pregnancy center closest to you. The Christian Action Council also publishes a wonderful paperback workbook entitled Women in Ramah:A Postabortion Bible Study, by Linda Cochran. This resource helps apply the truths of Scripture to the hurt, anger and guilt that many women feel after an abortion. The questions and exercises can be completed individually or in a group setting. To obtain a copy, write to the Christian Action Council at the address above.
– Open Arms (P.O. Box 1056, Columbia, MO 65205; 314-449-7672) offers a post-abortion Bible study, entitled “In His Image,” that can be used to bring hope and healing, both to women and men. Training seminars and additional ministry resources are also available to anyone wishing to reach out to those recovering from the post-abortion period.
The above article, “Help for the Post Abortion Woman” is written by Teri K. and Paul C. Reisser. The article was excerpted from a pamphlet published by Focus on the Family in 1991.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.