Reading Evelyn Tsitas' article 'Abortion: Grief, suffering – or relief?', I was struck by the following paragraph: "So I have no time for the women who can't get over their abortions. They obviously didn't want to have a termination in the first place. While I feel sorry for them, I also refuse to buy into the pro-life line that every abortion will cause grief."
I am pro-choice, and these words gave me pause. Is it impossible to do both? To feel compassion for women at the same time as deny anti-choice rhetoric?
Working for a pro-choice pregnancy counselling organisation (few of which exist in Australia), conversations about women and abortion are an everyday occurrence. It is our job to talk about these issues – and it is something that women sometimes ask our counsellors as they are trying to make a decision about a pregnancy: 'how will I feel after an abortion?'. The answer is rarely clear-cut, and deserves a lot deeper examination than a throwaway line which lumps all women who 'can't get over their abortions' together.
Tsitas' article implies that we – that is, people who identify as being pro-choice – can't feel empathy or compassion for women who have some emotional fallout after an abortion without somehow allowing the anti-choice lobby to score some points. While this can be a fraught process, I would argue that it is not only possible, but necessary, as pro-choicers, for us to provide space and support for any woman suffering after an abortion, while at the same time loudly denying the anti-choice myth that all women who choose abortion will become emotional wrecks.
Firstly let's get one thing clear: some women do experience ongoing sadness or emotional distress after choosing abortion. It is vital to recognise too, in this debate where facts can be outweighed by emotional response, that the vast majority of women who do have abortions do not suffer any long-lasting emotional (or physical, for that matter) health problems – a point Tsitas makes in her essay. The American Psychological Association's Taskforce on Mental Health and Abortion reviewed 20 years of research and studies into the psychological effects of abortion and released its final report in 2008. It found no difference in the psychological effect of terminating an unplanned pregnancy and carrying that pregnancy to term, and that the legal and voluntary termination of a pregnancy rarely causes immediate or long-lasting negative psychological consequences in healthy women. Several other esteemed studies have reached the same conclusion. Why then do we still need to spend time and energy refuting this myth?
The answer is terrifyingly simple: abortion is still heavily stigmatised in most areas of Australian society. Stigma scares women in not talking about their abortions, not sharing their stories, for fear of judgment or harassment. Any abortion rights advocate will tell you that they've had several women, some of whom they've just met, disclose that they have had an abortion. Many of these women will only have told a handful of people before, and the relief in being able to talk about it with someone they know will be supportive of their decision is palpable. These are strong, independent women who haven't suffered in any way from having a termination, aside from the perceived necessity of having to keep it to themselves. This pervasive stigma often means that the stories we do hear about abortion – with a few notable exceptions, which mostly come out during campaigns for legislative reform – are those from women who have suffered in the aftermath of an abortion. It's part of our work as the pro-choice feminist movement to change this, but it's slow going.
It is our experience with the counselling we provide that some women suffer not from an abortion per se, but from the circumstances and events which surrounded their decision to have a termination. Women most likely to suffer emotional distress after an abortion are those for whom the decision to terminate contrasts significantly with their values – those who would identify themselves as 'not believing' in abortion, but might also believe that in this circumstance they had no choice. Most often, women in this situation who in an ideal world would like to continue with the pregnancy find themselves faced with an ultimatum by a partner or a parent: 'have an abortion or get out'. For other women, particularly younger women, this is compounded by a lack of institutional support from schools, universities, and other government and private bodies. Such women do often feel like they have no choice, and ensuring that real support is there for women to make the choice they want to make is a battle that we have a long way to go to win.
The other side of the coin is that there are those women who decide, after receiving a diagnosis of a serious maternal or fetal health problem in a wanted pregnancy, to have a termination. These are heart-breaking situations and not easy for any woman or family to deal with – it is unlikely anyone could go through this experience without experiencing some degree of emotional scarring. These women and families deserve support and respect for their decision, not judgement or disregard.
Tsitas' article makes a vital point in this debate though: that the stories of women who do suffer after an abortion are often used by the anti-choice lobby as 'proof' that abortion causes long-lasting emotional damage. The irony is that by advocating more difficult access to abortion, by working to maintain the stigma around abortion, by actively spreading misinformation about abortion, by insisting that all women feel trauma and guilt following an abortion, anti-choice forces are arguably worsening the outcomes for women. Their actions go a long way to furthering the emotional issues they claim to want to prevent.
This is the problem with women's post-abortion stories: that they are co-opted by a movement in order to prove a point. Those same people or organisations who publicise stories of women having trouble coping after a difficult abortion decision are not often seen advocating for better supports for pregnant women: many are anti-paid maternity leave, and I have yet to see any of them publicly stating their support for programs to help pregnant or parenting students stay in school. Their answer to everything is that abortion is bad, always and in every situation, and that is that.
I can feel Tsitas' frustration with this approach in her essay – and I completely sympathise with it. What I can't agree with is the disregard shown for that small number of women who have difficulty coming to terms with the circumstances of their abortions.
The pro-choice feminist movement has to work to provide a space for all women to share their stories of abortion, and not to disregard those we think give a platform to the anti-choice lobby. We have to – and I believe we do – work towards a place where no women regret their choice, where supports are there to allow every woman to make whatever decision she chooses to about a pregnancy, not the one she thinks is the only one available. This means better contraceptive access, better sexuality education, a more supportive health system, better access to domestic violence and sexual assault support services, and more support from governments, schools and other institutions for pregnant and parenting women. It's our job as a pro-choice feminist movement to be compassionate towards every woman who has to make or has made this decision, at the same time as refuting the myths and misinformation spread by the anti-choice lobby. It's our job to do both.