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."
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."
The cards, according to Exhale co-founder Aspen Baker, are designed to address the range of women's responses to an abortion. "Not everyone is grieving their loss," Baker said. "Not everyone has a relationship with God. . . . We hope the people who send them take the time to think . . . about what is best for the person receiving it and what they need to hear."
Caron Strong, national director of Operation Outcry, a support group for grieving post-abortive women, criticized Exhale's mixed messages: "It's just very revealing of duplicity," said Strong. "On the one hand, the message is that abortion is a simple procedure that just takes a few minutes, and you can be over it for the rest of your life. On the other, the message is that abortion is very difficult and that God will be with you."
Strong, who has had four abortions, including three while married to a man who convinced her to terminate, said Exhale and other pro-Roe groups somehow count their own abortion experiences as more valid than those of women who grieve. "Their argument with us is, 'You can't tell us abortion hurts all women because my abortion didn't hurt me.'" But Strong turns the reasoning in the other direction: "Don't tell us that abortion never hurts women, or even that it's rare, because it did hurt us."
Strong remembers lying on a table in the procedure room at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Union Avenue in Memphis. "When I heard that machine go off, I realized they were taking the life of my child. Tears were running down my face and the nurses were standing over me chatting about birthday cake. They couldn't have cared less."
Exhale, like others on the pro-abortion side including Peace After Abortion author Eva Torres-Bueno, denies the existence of Post-Abortion Syndrome and attribute abortion fallout to preexisting causes. Torres-Bueno, for example, typically pins negative abortion reactions to such root causes as a repressive religious upbringing, an unsupportive boyfriend, or negative societal views of abortion. (Fergusson's study found no correlation between his subjects' post-abortion suffering and any preexisting conditions.)
For Strong, the cause of her own pain was simple: "It was me allowing the death of my child to take place. . . . I can remember them pulling and tugging on the third abortion. They couldn't get it. The doctor was being very stern with me and the nurses were trying to get me to hold still. It was years later before I realized I must have been much farther along than I thought. When the puzzle pieces came together about abortion procedures, I just spiraled down into a pain that I had never known."
With HR 1457, Joe Pitts hopes to form a foundation of solid research that will help women avoid Strong's suffering. But with a Democrat-controlled Congress, the bill may not move far. Pitts' press secretary Skip Brown notes that when the GOP controlled Congress, "Republicans always moved Democrats' bills on post-partum depression. It is unclear whether they will return the favor. It will be a shame if they don't, but with a Democratic Congress, it's going to be an uphill climb."