Abortion, depression, and the prochoice movement

I recently posted an article to my Facebook about a new study that debunks research that suggests that abortion leads to mental health problems. I was excited to see the media release about the findings, because the abortion leads to depression argument is a trope consistently hauled out by anti-abortion activists as a reason to end abortion rights. As a person who has looked into the research by anti-abortion activists, I can say that every study I’ve seen has not utilized proper research methods to collect and analyze data. Shock, right? “Research” by antichoice groups amounts to “collecting information that backs up our position” or “manipulating data until it says what we want.” Thus, I’m annoyed by it as a researcher and as a prochoice activist. Antichoice activists themselves have actually been shown to be a significant cause of distress after abortion.

Before I became prochoice a few years ago, one of my biggest problems with abortion was that the woman was upset afterward. Growing up in an antichoice conservative Christian community, I believed that women were always extremely upset after an abortion. And my concern for the woman’s well-being was a key reason I didn’t support abortion.

One day during my Masters program, I was becoming gradually more feministy, and we were discussing reproductive rights in a graduate seminar. Out of the people present, I was probably the least supportive of choice (though I was a few steps closer than a few years before that). My professor said something radical that day that has echoed in my mind for the last several years: “For some women, getting an abortion is not a big deal. It’s just like untying your shoes.” At the time, I was shocked. Did she really just compare abortion to an everyday activity? It was the most radical thing I had ever heard in regards to abortion, and it was all I could think about for days.

When something blows my mind and makes me angry, I have a weird reaction: I tend to become curious about it. That’s exactly what happened this time. I looked into research and learned that the most commonly reported emotion after an abortion is relief. I also logically thought through my concern for the well-being of women: wasn’t I patronizing them by saying that I am trying to protect them from their own emotions? (The way women are treated like children in regards to abortion decisions is an issue that seriously pisses me off, fodder for another post). Suddenly, my position on choice was thrust into a grey sea of ambiguity, and that’s where it stayed  for a while.

On the radio earlier this year, I was being interviewed about abortion rights. One of the hosts asked me: “what do you say to the argument that women regret abortions?” My response was: “That’s not a reason to take away our rights. Some people regret haircuts, that doesn’t mean we outlaw barbers.” Admittedly, my response was a little glib, but I meant it in a radical way– the same way that for some women, abortion is no more traumatic than an everyday activity. So it was with a smile that I posted the article about the links between abortion and mental health being debunked. The research about women and mental health matters a lot to me.

Shortly after posting the article, a friend sent me a facebook message. With her permission, I’m going to copy our conversation below:

Friend: One of these days, I’d like to hear your thoughts on addressing the pre-existing condition issue with abortion and it’s mental health after-effects.

My anecdotal experience as a 14 year-old with pre-existing depression was that I ended up suicidal after an abortion. NOW, of course, I realize that it was not the abortion that was the cause of my suicide attempt. (I was kept in the hospital for several months actually. I felt very ashamed and could not shake the suicidal ideation). I realize NOW that it was the sexual abuse, the neglect…you can insert a long list of risk factors here…. that lead to the pre-existing condition of adolescent depression and the resultant spiral of shame associated with the abortion.
But, the bottom line is that within a few days of getting an abortion, I made a serious suicide attempt.

So, while you will now find me voting and fighting for abortion rights, I secretly hide my own story. Not out of shame or because I blame the abortion for my woes. (I did for years but got a lot of therapy along the way in my training and “saw the light”.) I don’t tell my own story because it always gets turned against me as fuel for pro-lifers AND I don’t really know how to offer a solution. Is it screening? Is it offering mental health services immediately?

Anyway, I realize that you are busy. I just read the article and had a reaction. I totally agree with the premise. I do think that my experience is common, though: a woman in a horrible situation has an abortion and then feels so ashamed that pre-existing depression pushes her to the edge. I hear the story often and pro-lifers do exploit it.

There has to be a way to address it without discounting it as irrelevant to the pro-choice cause.

I might be the perfect person to help come up with that solution one day.

Anyway! Thanks for listening! I don’t feel that this is really too personal because you are such a strong advocate so I hope it hasn’t burdened you!
Shelly: Thanks for sending me this. I actually believe that we need to de-stigmatize and honor all experiences with abortion. Have you ever checked out this website? It’s actually a pretty cool collection of a variety of experiences with abortion. Unfortunately, I do think what you’re talking about happens–women who are at risk for depression have to make a choice and this country severely stigmatizes EITHER choice (I often wonder what world Juno was living in) and they have a crisis. I understand that your story is exploited by pro-lifers, which sucks, but thats not a reason not tell it. For me,  personally, I don’t know if I could ever get an abortion. But you will find me fighting to protect anyone’s ability to do so. The prochoice movement is made up of a variety of different people with various views that unite behind one single issue. I think that’s beautiful, and thank you for reminding me of it :)

Ah, thanks! I have looked at that site. I am not sorry. I am sorry that the man who raped me didn’t go to prison. I am sorry that the process wasn’t handled well and I didn’t have a support system in place to help me through it. But, I am not sorry that I had the abortion. I do think that I will become more involved. I believe wholeheartedly that if someone had done actual screening/counseling beforehand that I might have divulged the truth and gotten help (and the man involved might have served some time), so I would really like to see minors screened in some fashion, perhaps all women. At least give them an opportunity to feel that the choice is, in fact, theirs. You know how when a woman shows up at the ER, suspicious doctors screen for domestic violence? I would love to see that process in place for abortion.

In my case, my perpetrator forced me to do it. I had no ownership. Was it the right thing? It took me about 20 years to figure out that it was, of course, the right thing to do. I will tell the story, but there is a Lifetime movie in there, for sure. It’s all very complicated.

Thanks for the encouragement! I have been at a loss as to how to help the cause without feeding the pro-life fire.


My friend’s story is a powerful one. Her story highlights the stigma surrounding abortion in this country, the guilt and shame assigned to women who have made either choice, and the variety of life experiences that have brought each one of us to this issue.

Anecdotally, I can share with you that the local Planned Parenthood is dedicated to the idea that a woman is in control of her own body, and no one else can make a decision for her. The health director explained to me that the clinic staff always isolates the woman from anyone else she might have come with before the procedure to make sure she really wants it. If a mother insists and the daughter objects, the procedure is not performed. Period.  That level of autonomy is integral for our movement to be about rights.

The other thing that touched me about my Friend’s story, is her hesitance to speak about it because it is co-opted by anti-abortion activists. And to that I have one thing to say: who cares? We cannot control how what we say is interpreted, or who will turn our words against us. But we can control our freedom to share our story with confidence, and to have our story be accepted as part of the beautiful quilt of the prochoice movement. On this side of the fence, we should not be restricting which stories are told or how they are read. There are a bunch of antichoice researchers for that.

Posted on: December 15th, 2010 by Fair and Feminist 3 Comments

3 Responses

  1. khan says:

    I had an abortion in 1991. The counselor made a point of separating me from my companion and asking if I really wanted this.

  2. I’m so glad your friend feels empowered to tell her story now. The more we talk about our experiences, the better.

  3. tin lizzy says:

    I don’t have time to ruminate further at the moment, but just wanted to add my voice and concurrence to your own experience and take on things. I’m a former anti-choice, anti-feminist funda-gelical Christian who thanks to life/college/experience transformed into a prochoice liberal/progressive feminist. I’m a clinic escort in Mpls, and have strong notions/experience about choice and the impact/suck of antichoicers on women getting abortions.

    Anyway – more conversation another time, I’ll keep reading. Thanks for writing.

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