The key to moving on from the pain and loss is awareness and understanding  

  Newsletter Excerpts 2004/05 

“My Foetus” - Abortion Language is Powerful

Medical terminology maintains the clinicalness of the procedure effectively distancing the person from the deeper reality and wider impacts.

The documentary “My Foetus” screened on TV One (7th September 2004) attempted to lift a veil of secrecy, and perhaps succeeded in terms of presenting some of the ‘medical facts’ about abortion. Because the abortion issue is full of emotional contradictions the presenter, Julia Black, wanted to strip away the emotion and deal with the ‘facts’. Yet, emotions are part of what make us human and when considering the complexity of the physical, emotional, spiritual, relational…. processes of pregnancy and abortion, you cannot ignore a person’s emotions and spirit – if you do, you do so at a cost.

Pregnancy and abortion language does much to support the reasoned or rationalised “clinical” choice and the disconnection from the emotional and spiritual reality. The terms e.g. ‘foetus’, ‘products of conception’, ‘tissue’, ‘the pregnancy’ often used with pregnant mothers, especially those ambivalent about keeping the baby, effectively depersonalises the situation, aids avoidance of an emotional attachment or connection to the life growing inside, distances them from the abortion experience.

Most women with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy face a “crisis time” and decision making period, in which they might focus on the various options - to continue with the pregnancy, or have an abortion or opt for adoption - all emotionally charged options. A woman may experience a whole range of sometimes mixed and conflicting thoughts and emotions, pressures and fears – it can be a time of huge anguish for her (and her husband or partner). A medical solution to such a complex, multilayered and deep issue is limited and fraught with hidden and often unanticipated psycho-spiritual sequelae.

It is interesting that many who support women for abortions and many women who go for abortions refrain from using the ordinary terminology accepted when a woman is pregnant - the reality of “having a baby” is subtly, and often not so subtly, denied or ignored. The presenter of “My Foetus” acknowledged how hard it is to use the word foetus when looking at the 3D images for “it looks very much like a ‘baby’” – yet she was unable to, or deliberately did not refer to her abortion in terms of an unborn baby that died, nor her current pregnancy as “my baby”. Julia Black said she found it hard to reflect on the ‘foetus’ she destroyed. She had had a scan with her first pregnancy at 8 weeks but did not want to think of it as a healthy 8 week foetus, and admitted to “blocking it out of my mind”. The ‘blocking out’ mechanism, disconnection between head and heart or “denial” is often employed to enable a woman to proceed with the surgical procedure to “terminate the pregnancy” and “remove the products of conception or foetal tissue”, and so avoid facing the deeper reality of what is happening to her baby and herself with abortion as a death event.

Women may cope afterwards by maintaining the sense of “it’s not a baby”. One woman said that holding onto a belief that it was not a baby, from the time before her abortion until now, had enabled her to frame up the abortion in a reasonable (able to be reasoned) way and enabled her to cope with it, until she came to the realisation it was her ‘baby’ she lost, and then everything began to cave in on her, and the grief and guilt that surfaced soon gave way to despair.

For many women who come for healing afterwards, their perception at the time of the abortion, later changes, when they come to view things differently as they mature, and new learning or a ‘trigger event’ uncovers the ‘truth’ they denied and feelings they suppressed sometimes long ago. It is when head knowledge and heart (emotional and spiritual) knowledge meet that the “connection” happens and realisation dawns.

Julia Black, the presenter of “My Foetus”, was herself fully pregnant with her second ‘foetus’ at the time of making the documentary and later is seen playing with her growing child, having aborted her first ‘foetus’ as a lifestyle choice. She was more curious now pregnant for the second time about the whole abortion issue, and wondered if she could still be “pro-choice” knowing the reality of what abortion is and does. After her dispassionate research and doing the documentary she held to a woman’s right to choose and she herself having ‘no regrets’ over her abortion. Is there a level of denial still present? It would be interesting to see where she is at in another 20 years in her thinking and feeling around her abortion.

Sadly, the whole area of the possible aftermath was not even mentioned on the programme “My Foetus”. Women can suffer depression, unresolved anger, feelings of guilt and impacted grief. Today women are permitted to grieve after normal miscarriage, but the grief attendant on an ‘intentional’ miscarriage is neither societally recognised nor accepted - it remains hidden beneath a pall of public silence, thus also silencing women who hurt and suffer alone, and those whose grief cannot be acknowledged even to themselves.

Who will speak out for these women, or how can these women be empowered to share their experiences and lift another of the veils of secrecy around abortion?

- By Carolina Gnad

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Could Assessment of Psychological Risk Factors for Post Abortion Problems Mean Fewer Abortions?

There is not a great deal of attention given to possible risk factors for post abortion psychological problems. Some studies show that abortion is in fact contraindicated when psychiatric disease is present (Ney & Wickett 1989, Gibbons 1984, Rosenfeldt 1992). Other studies suggest that existing psychiatric or psychological problems, or other factors, can influence adjustment afterwards.

Some women are more at risk of negative abortion reactions than others. Specialists in post-abortion recovery and research in Britain and USA recognise that dysfunctional or abusive relationships (either present or past), those who have religious or philosophical values in conflict with the procedure, those who are not sure how they feel about their pregnancy and lack support systems; and those who are in adolescence at the time of an abortion and lack the ability to fully understand possible future implications, may be more at risk of greater post-abortion psychological problems. Furthermore, when a woman at any age is pressured by those around her to have an abortion she is likely to experience more distress around the decision, as well as guilt, anxiety and depression afterwards. Common sense would say that if a person is suffering mental illness, or has been in abusive and dysfunctional relationships, these things are more likely than not to worsen with the lived experience of abortion.

Abortion is always stressful and how well a person copes with this stress depends on the individual’s resiliency and conditions under which the stress occurs. Post-abortion researcher Dr David Reardon notes: If a glass plate and a plastic plate are both dropped, the glass plate is likely to shatter, while the same stress may cause the plastic plate to only crack or chip. In either case the damage cannot be blamed on the material; it must be blamed on the fall. While the extent of the damage is related to the nature of the material, the fall itself is the direct cause of the damage. In the same way, while the nature of an individual psyche or the mental state of the person at the time, helps determine the extent of post-abortion injuries, it is the abortion itself which is the direct cause of these injuries.

The approach to abortion is largely a medical one, it is often viewed as a simple, safe ‘procedure’ to remove the products of conception or to terminate the pregnancy. But the effects are not always that simple. This medicalisation of what is inherently a deeply human and complex experience may distance a woman from the event and the psychological, spiritual, deeply personal and interpersonal reality and consequences. For example, where the reality of the life of the baby is denied or largely ignored a woman can be alienated in her grief. The devastation can be profound when later she confronts the death of her baby and accepts responsibility for her part.

Data and research is always limited and can be biased and worked to suit whatever argument or position a person wishes to adopt. However we are dealing with people first and foremost and many of those who have experienced abortion first hand acknowledge they did not expect to suffer afterwards the way they have, albeit sometimes delayed suffering.For most women faced with the problem of a difficult or unwanted pregnancy, to be rid of the problem initially can be a relief, but the deeper reality and issues for the person are often not acknowledged in the whole abortion process. The abortion that was the solution often then becomes or adds to the problem.

For most surgical procedures risk factors are considered, and for those where there is significant loss or impact e.g. hysterectomy, greater consideration is given to informed consent and the psychological impacts. Yet for abortion, where there is a death in the womb, there is little attention given to ‘fully informed’ consent, and consideration to possible psychological impacts. Is that because if women were more fully informed, given more in-depth counselling and were properly assessed in terms of risks for physical or psychological problems afterwards - by doctors, nurses and counsellors would some women choose to not proceed with this definitive life-affecting and self-changing choice?

- By Carolina Gnad

  1. Identifying High Risk Abortion Patients, David Reardon, PhD, Post Abortion Review, Vol 1, No.3, Fall 1993
  2. Women’s Health After Abortion - Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy, Ian Gentle, de Veber, 2002
  3. Post Abortion Syndrome - Its Wider Ramifications, Peter Doherty Four Courts Press 1995

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Considerations for talking to children about a past abortion.

Despite abortion being generally considered socially acceptable it is still often a deeply guarded secret and for many surrounded by silence and shame. Even parents who feel comfortable sharing their story with other adults may hesitate telling their children afraid of how it might affect their relationship.

One mother said “I could never disappoint my children, by letting them know that I went against everything I have taught them...” Others may worry their children may end up hating them, or may not find it in their hearts to forgive them. They could worry that their children might question whether of not they are truly loved or can trust them as parents to not hurt them. Parents may worry that rather than help their children to not get into the same situations that it may give them permission to make the some judgement calls or decisions if the same thing happens to them.

Interestingly, children often sense that there are pseudo-secrets within the family - this may cause them to question their security, lead to a lack of trust and difficulty communicating with their parents. Dr Philip Ney, a psychiatrist who has done extensive work with abortion survivors and siblings of aborted children, said “There are very few secrets within the family. The facts seem to indicate that the loss that has affected you will be communicated in one way or another, and children guess at what happened. You cannot not communicate. You will show something has changed you, especially something as disturbing as an abortion.”

Many parents wonder when the right time to tell children might be, and whether or not they should tell them at all. The burden is on the parents to discern how important and necessary it is to openly share about the abortion with their children and to understand their own reasoning and motivation for doing so. Parents need to be sure they are acting in the best interests of the children rather than seeking to resolve issues in their own lives through the disclosure.

Questions they might ask include:

  • How will this benefit my children?

  • How will this affect their development now and in the future?

  • How will this contribute to or interfere with their own emotional maturation?

  • How will this contribute to or interfere with their relationship with me and my role as a parent?

  • What is the benefit in telling them now rather than later when they are young adults or adults, and may be better able to understand the issues and integrate the information into their reality.

It is imperative that parents have worked through their own grief processes first and be far enough along in their own healing to be able to cope with their children’s emotional reactions. Some may seek to vicariously reconcile with their aborted child through telling their other children but they need to develop a relationship with their aborted child before they can consider telling their living children about the abortion. If parents are not really healed then telling children can amount to dumping their grief and guilt onto them. Unresolved conflicts, unfinished mourning can mean they are ill-prepared to deal with their children’s reactions in a healthy manner and may communicate their own fears and unresolved issues to them.

Some reasons for telling children may be:

  • If the abortion is publicly known or will become public e.g. if a parent is speaking to others about what happened in a formal way

  • If it becomes apparent that the children are aware there is something amiss or have guessed that an abortion took place

  • Where the effect of the abortion impacts adversely on the family e.g. severe depression, substance abuse, divorce, violence in the home, and where sharing what happened brings opportunity for healing of wounds.

  • Where parents have relationship difficulties children may feel they are to blame somehow for the emotional struggles of the parents. Sometimes sharing about the abortion, if it is part of the problem, can help to clarify the picture for them.

  • Never telling or deathbed confessions can be problematic as they can leave families with the aftermath and nowhere to turn to have questions answered should they find out later.

Discussing past abortions with children needs to be age appropriate. Parents need to answer children’s questions honestly and give as much information as they seem able to handle or want to know. Parents need to monitor children’s reactions and address issues as they arise; be aware young children may have a tendency to broadcast such news or ask questions at inappropriate times so parents might stress this is a family issue and not one to be discussed with others outside the family. A shared family memorial may be appropriate.

Children need to know that parents will always love and accept them no matter what, not only through words but through a willingness to listen and spend time with them. They need to know they can come to their parents if they experience a similar crisis. Outside help for children - a trusted counsellor or pastor or family friend may be helpful.

Reactions of children may vary, depending on age, maturity, the circumstances, state of their relationship with their parents. Some may feel relieved to know as it might help explain certain things, others may be angry, confused and act out, whilst others may be sad for or protective of the parents, and yet others may openly mourn for their own loss through the abortion. Whatever the reaction they will need support and time to work through their own processes. Parents have to be prepared to allow their children to feel whatever they need to feel and to work through it allowing the children to express themselves.

Adapted from “Talking With Your Children About Abortion”, Post Abortion Review, Issue (12)1, Jan-Mar 2004

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