The personal stories of women’s experiences following an abortion are rare in our public discourse. As a topic that continues to evoke strong emotions on both sides, there can be a reluctance to give airtime to women’s negative experiences for fear that it could result in abortion laws being wound back or public support for abortion being weakened.
And yet, despite the efforts to suppress or silence them, stories of abortion grief continue to surface.
The ABC recently published a story which gave voice to some of these stories. Some make for difficult reading. They tell of hidden pain and years of internal struggle and suffering (*names have been changed).
There’s 24 year old Sarah* who had an abortion in 2018:
“[I felt] relieved at first just because the morning sickness and the nausea was gone. [But] ever since then [it’s been] a lot of regret and so many emotions. It’s such a complex thing, it’s really hard to translate into words … it’s almost like the longer time goes by, it gets deeper and deeper.”
Amanda’s* first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. She gave birth to her first daughter soon after. Her daughter was born at 28 weeks and, despite being given only a 50% chance, she survived. Amanda experienced postnatal depression and so, when she found herself pregnant again only a year later, she had the first of what would eventually be four abortions. She was 26 years old.
“I felt an emptiness from that first time and you just push it down, you think ‘It’s for the best’.”
Amanda’s grief only surfaced once she had other children.
The ABC journalist writes, “While Amanda does not believe knowing about post-abortion grief would have changed her mind about having her abortions, she may have sought help earlier.”
“There needs to be information and transparency about what this can lead to… this is what can happen afterwards, this is what you can feel, this is how it can affect you,” Amanda said.
Pregnancy support counsellor Narelle* encourages women to speak about their experiences and believes that there are many more women who experience post-abortion grief than the studies show, arguing that because the topic has “become such a political football ... we can’t have a proper conversation about it”.
Yet her experience talking with women following their abortions has confirmed for her that it is an issue that is more common than most people realise.
“It’s definitely something we’re not aware of enough. [Post-abortion grief] is definitely real.”
Others, however, like University of Sydney academic Professor Kirsten Black, feel the problem is not a significant one:
“There is going to be a small group of women who do really feel grief and always there is follow up, and women are provided with counselling support should they require it … [but there’s] absolutely no evidence that abortion, statistically speaking, will impact adversely on mental health.”
“I’m not denying it happens but it’s rare and for most women that is not the experience.”
Putting her comments about there always being follow up aside (this is not the lived experience of many post-abortive women), Professor Black’s assertions about mental health are in direct contrast with the findings of a longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the University of Otago, which found that having an abortion as a young woman raised “the risk of developing later mental health problems – including depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse”.
The lead researcher, Professor Fergusson, who describes himself as “an atheist, a rationalist and pro-choice,” was himself surprised at the findings of the study, which “tipped the balance of scientific evidence towards the conclusion that abortion increased psychological distress rather than alleviating it.”
“At age 25, 42 per cent of those who had had an abortion had also experienced major depression at some stage during the previous four years – nearly double the rate of those who had never been pregnant and 35 per cent higher than those who had chosen to continue a pregnancy.”
“Separate analysis had confirmed the mental health problems followed the abortion – not the other way around. The study, funded mainly by the New Zealand Government, had assessed the young women’s mental health regularly through adolescence, and had also considered their family and educational circumstances.”
Women’s Forum Australia’s own review of the available research found consensus among researchers that at least 10-20 per cent of women who choose abortion suffer from severe negative psychological complications, including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders. In-depth interviews with women have shown that these psychological harms are often long-term, emerging months or even years after the abortion.
As more personal experiences are made public, it’s becoming clearer that the thesis which has long held abortion to be a procedure without consequences is simply false.
More research must be conducted into the risks and harms so that there is a solid evidence base to inform any policy change. It is critical that research into these risks is made available to women to empower them to make informed decisions.
In the meantime, it’s time that we as a community start to take seriously the stories of women who do experience post-abortion grief, and provide them with the support they need to heal.