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The mourning after

Abortion | Does abortion negatively affect women? Pro-abortion forces say no but act as if it does

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

When abortion activists last year squared off in South Dakota over Referred Law 6, the state legislature's outright ban on abortion, the central issue remained the same as it has since 1973: the sanctity of Roe v. Wade. But the battleground itself had shifted mightily beneath the feet of the pro-abortion side.

Instead of focusing on a baby's right to life, supporters of South Dakota's ban zeroed in on the negative impact of abortion on women, on the consequences of a woman's natural aversion to killing her own child. Leslie Unruh, who directed the Vote Yes for Life campaign, crisscrossed the state with a group of post-abortive women who shared their experiences of grief, depression, and substance abuse.

Heading into the November election, The American Prospect published a long report on the strategy, billing it "Pro-lifers' Frightening New Tactic." The piece quoted Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota and the Dakotas: "The abortion-hurts-women movement is the most serious issue that we are dealing with in the election in South Dakota." Stoesz shared similar thoughts with the Los Angeles Times: Unruh's argument "adds an element we're not accustomed to. It's a different line of debate. And it's something we struggle with politically."

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Voters rejected South Dakota's abortion ban, but Unruh's argument, and that of groups like Operation Outcry and Silent No More, is a still a political thorn in abortion supporters' sides. And now, the issue has made its way to Congress.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) on March 9 introduced HR 1457, the Post-Abortion Depression Research and Care Act of 2007. The bill's "findings" section will read like heresy to groups such as Planned Parenthood, which claim that most women feel relief after an abortion and that any negative feelings last only "a little while."

HR 1457 cites evidence of "severe and long-term effects" of abortion on women, including depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts, intense grief, emotional numbness, rage, sexual dysfunction, and relationship difficulties. "Women who aborted a first pregnancy are four times more likely to report substance abuse compared to those who suffered a natural loss of their first pregnancy," the legislative text reads, "and they are five times more likely . . . than women who carried to term."

Pro-abortion groups have long brushed aside such claims as the product of "biased" or "methodologically flawed" research. In January, for example, The New York Times magazine cleared the decks to make room for an 8,343-word treatise titled "Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?" By word number 86, it appeared that writer Emily Bazelon, who is an editor at Slate, had concluded that the answer is no. By word number 507, she removed all doubt: "The idea that abortion is at the root of women's psychological ills is not supported by the bulk of research. Instead, the scientific evidence strongly shows that abortion does not increase the risk of depression, drug abuse or any other psychological problem any more than having an unwanted pregnancy or giving birth."

Bazelon's story goes on to shoot down contrary research like skeet. But depression and suicide statistics cited in the Pitts bill derive from a study released in 2006 by David Fergusson, a researcher from New Zealand who calls himself a pro-choice atheist. Fergusson's findings correlate with those of pro-life researchers at the Elliot Institute and elsewhere. HR 1457, with 16 Republican co-sponsors to date, would direct the National Institutes of Health to study for the first time the physical and emotional health consequences of abortion, and to issue Health and Human Services--funded grants for the purpose.

Meanwhile, the abortion-hurts-women argument has given rise to Exhale, a group that offers post-abortion healing from the side that claims abortion does no harm. Since 2005, the group has offered a post-abortion counseling line that was founded, according to its website (4exhale.org), as an "alternative to politically motivated counseling agencies and [to] create awareness that abortion . . . is normal in the reproductive lives of women and girls."

On March 13, the California-based group began offering on its website six post-abortion e-cards. "I think you're strong, smart, thoughtful, and caring," one card says: "I think you did the right thing." Another card reads, "There are no words to express my sympathy for your loss. As you grieve, remember that you are loved." A third card invokes God: "The promise of God is to be with us through all of life's transitions. God will never leave you or forsake you. May you find comfort in God's constant love."

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