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Post-abortion distress

Special Issue | Even pro-choicers are seeing the pain is more than physical

Issue: "Down Syndrome = Death Sentence?," Jan. 18, 1997

Karen was 15 when she became pregnant. Her parents urged her to have an abortion--they didn't want to raise another child, they said. And since she was already in her 11th week, there was no time to wait. Her mother took her to the clinic and the thing was done. Crisis over.

Five years after her abortion, Karen's relationship with the baby's father, which she had nurtured as a way to justify the abortion, was over. She slipped into depression. &quotThat's when I started doing drugs and got heavily involved in one-night stands. I became worthless. I sought avenues to try to cover up how I was feeling and the worthlessness that I felt. I sought out really toxic relationships--like each relationship got even worse and worse. I kept putting myself into circumstances where I think I wanted to be killed, but not having enough courage to do it myself.... I think deep down I really wanted to get rid of the feeling I was having and I didn't know what to do with it."

Pro-lifers call Karen's experience post-abortion stress. The depression, the self-loathing, the suicidal thoughts are all typical delayed reactions to abortion, they say. But for years pro-abortion forces have denied that post-abortion stress exists. Abortion solves problems, they say. Karen was probably disturbed before her abortion, they would suggest.

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But there is some evidence that the wall of post-abortion denial is cracking. Some honest proponents of abortion rights are admitting the ugly secret of post-abortion distress. And although their understanding of the depths of the problem is limited, their acknowledgment is a huge advance. One of the new acknowledgers is Ava Torre-Bueno, a licensed social worker, who began doing pregnancy counseling in a Planned Parenthood clinic in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade was decided. Five years later she became director of counseling at that clinic. She left in 1985 and three years later opened up a private counseling practice, where she counsels many women who are distressed by their previous abortions.

Ms. Torre-Bueno says plainly that she doesn't believe in post-abortion stress as a psychiatric ailment; she'd rather call it post-abortion distress.

But the distress is so common that she's written a book on the subject called Peace after Abortion.

According to Ms. Torre-Bueno, many women think they are suffering from distress about an abortion. In reality, she says, the abortion opened up long-suppressed feelings. &quotSomething unresolved has come back on them." Maybe they lost a parent to death, or were abandoned as children, and those feelings of loss and abandonment were unleashed by the powerful emotions surrounding abortion.

Ms. Torre-Bueno advises clients to deal with past issues of abandonment or loss. Post-abortion distress can be a good thing, she says, because &quotyou can heal old stuff. You're in pain from it, but you can heal from it."

She admits some clients have trouble with the abortion itself--maybe as many as a third. They are mourning their babies' potential--what they could have become--or regretting the loss of innocence that the abortion represented in their own lives, not suffering guilt for killing their unborn children.

Although Ms. Torre-Bueno remains committed to abortion and is not out to tear down the abortion culture, her work is cracking the foundations of post-abortion denial. Some family-planning clinics are buying her book.

Her supporters know that abortion produces sour fruit. But more often she hears the question, &quotWhy don't you stop talking about it?" from her pro-choice colleagues. For a long time, she says, &quotpro-choice folks ... wouldn't look at [post- abortion distress] seriously and deeply. They wouldn't address it."

To her critics who think she has been co-opted by pro-life people, Ms. Torre-Bueno says they just aren't listening to their clients. Women who come into family-planning clinics saying, &quotI want the pill because I could never have another abortion," are not making a statement of commitment to birth control, Ms. Torrel-Bueno says, although that is what the family-planning counselor hears. Instead, they are admitting that abortion was so painful they don't ever want to have another.

Ms. Torre-Bueno urges counselors to say, &quotTell me about your previous abortion." Too often they don't, she says, &quotbecause people in family planning don't want to hear that she had a problem." Her goal is &quotto get [counselors] to hear that sentence and ask the next sentence correctly."

When that happens, the folks at family planning clinics will hear some heartbreaking stories, which might even break some hearts among abortion's strongest allies.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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