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Post Abortion-Syndrome: The Solution in Search of a Problem

A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco found that the vast majority of women that had an abortion felt that they had made the right decision.
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A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco found that the vast majority of women that had an abortion felt that they had made the right decision. Researchers examined data from 843 women that sought abortion care between 2008 and 2010; of those that were able to obtain the procedure, 90 percent percent felt relief one week after the abortion, and 80 percent of those that reported having primarily negative emotions about their abortion still felt that they had made the right choice.

As I read about these findings, I thought about that popular boogeyman of the anti-choice movement, the so-called post-abortion syndrome. Anti-choice advocate Vincent Rue is credited with coining the term, which refers to an adverse emotional or physical response to abortion, in 1981, during testimony before Congress. Despite neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognizing it as an official diagnosis or syndrome, the term gained traction in the anti-choice community, to the extent that in 1987 Ronald Reagan asked then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to write a report about the effect of abortion on women.

Koop -- who made no secret of his personal opposition to abortion -- and his staff were unable to find any unbiased, rigorous scientific studies that could support either an anti- or pro-choice position. Yet this idea has persisted in the anti-choice movement, despite additional studies from nonpartisan medical organizations that have also failed to find any evidence that women are either psychologically or physically harmed from a legal, safe abortion. Indeed, a number of anti-choice organizations spend millions of dollars every year to promote the idea that if a woman feels mixed emotions following an abortion, then that automatically means that no woman should ever have an abortion. The idea of this "syndrome" has made inroads in political, public policy, and court decisions, to the extent that many anti-choice politicians cite these purported risks as reasons to restrict access to abortion clinics.

Read enough of the "testimonies" on websites devoted to this mission, and you start to see a pattern: that no matter what other, very real stress may have been occurring in a woman's life -- an abusive partner, economic hardship, substance abuse -- any regret or pain she carries from that time can be explained by one single act, apart from and untouched by anything else. These narratives hold that abortion is the beginning, middle, and end of a woman's problem, and it's not hard to see why such a stunningly simplistic and intellectually lazy explanation has won support from anti-choice politicians and activists. After all, according to this line of thinking, all a woman must do to feel better is apologize and atone -- or, better yet, assume that the very specific circumstances of one individual's life can be extrapolated and writ large onto someone else's life, and try to keep other women from having their full range of reproductive choices.

The UCSF study hints at something else that the anti-choice movement has been reluctant to admit: that when it comes to abortion, women are capable of holding two competing thoughts in their heads. Women often cite economic or educational concerns, relationship instability, and the need to care for other dependents as reasons for terminating a pregnancy. In a small yet compelling number of cases, women choose abortion because their unborn child has been diagnosed with severe fetal abnormalities. Given that, it stands to reason that a woman may regret the circumstances that made abortion her best option -- after all, few of us would choose to be in an unstable relationship or be at risk for losing a job if we had a child, much less receive a diagnosis of grievous fetal complications -- even as she feels relief that she was able to make the best decision for her at that particular time.

As the UCSF study indicates, the majority of women that chose abortion did not regret their choice. Of course, that means that some did. Likewise, some women surveyed that were unable to access abortion care regretted not being able to have the procedure, and others that continued their pregnancies were relieved that they did. These findings remind me of the perspective of a pro-choice activist that I spoke with several years ago, who mused, "The emotionally honest approach is to acknowledge the ambivalence, to acknowledge all of the complex bouquet of feelings and emotions that comes out of this decision. That's the emotionally honest approach."

But in this summer of 20-week abortion bans and TRAP laws, emotional honesty seems to be in short supply. As the Republican Party makes no secret of its desire to demonize a legal medical service in an effort to appeal to its increasingly disillusioned base, any reminders that abortion is a wanted service belie their claim to care about pregnant women. Indeed, studies like the one from UCSF would seem to be the GOP's worst nightmare: a reputable reminder that all the fear-mongering of the anti-choice movement isn't actually true.

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