Pro-life activists have long touted “post-abortion syndrome”—the notion that women experience major emotional trauma after terminating a pregnancy—as a reason for regulating the procedure. But a new study has found that 99 percent of those who had been through the process believed they had made the right decision, casting significant doubt on a medical theory that has enabled the passing of a ban on late abortions, mandatory ultrasound viewing, and waiting period legislation.
Researchers from Advancing Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a think tank at the University of California, studied a cohort of more than 650 women who had opted for an abortion between 2008-2010. Participants were divided into two groups: one of which consisted of women who had ended their pregnancy within the first trimester, and another analyzing those who did so during the final two weeks before the allowed cut-off point.
Abortion is currently at a rate of around 1 million per year in the United States, which equates to 21 percent of pregnancies overall. Prior studies on the subject have had somewhat different outcomes, which ANSIRH believes is due to factors including the time frame after which subjects were monitored, the year they were carried out and, worryingly, attrition.
The team tested for negative emotions such as anger and regret alongside positive ones including happiness and relief. They found that while women’s short-term emotions varied substantially in the week following an abortion and were largely negative, 95 percent still felt that they had made the right decision at that stage. There were no differences between those who had gone through the process earlier on in the pregnancy and those who had done so later when it came to “decision rightness” and their emotional trajectories.
“In the three years after terminating a pregnancy, women tended to cope well emotionally,” the paper reads. “Women overwhelmingly felt abortion was the right decision in both the short-term and over three years, and the intensity of emotions and frequency of thinking about the abortion declined over time.”
These are the stories of four women who decided to terminate their pregnancies.
Janne Robinson had just landed a dream internship hundreds of miles away from her home in Alberta when she became pregnant at the age of 24. Her musician boyfriend, who she had been with for three weeks, already had one child and was moving to be closer to him, leaving the pair at “cross ways.” The relationship ended after he failed to show up for her abortion, leaving Janne “healing from a broken heart in two ways.”
She says that having children had never been on her agenda. “Before finding out I was pregnant, I lay in bed and thought about the possibility and my gut said loudly, ‘I don’t want a baby.’ I thought and felt in circles for weeks, but ultimately it was that first moment that decided my choice for me.
“Although I have no regret, shame or guilt, it was the hardest choice I have ever made. On some level I believe we are wired to be mothers, and there is nothing natural about vacuuming something from a woman’s uterus.”
Two years after the procedure, Janne is grateful that she has been able to let her experience “live out loud” while encouraging others to do the same—particularly as a number of her friends had gone through the process without ever telling anyone. It has also had a positive effect on her work as a writer and public speaker, focusing on areas including sexuality and body image.
“Talking about shame is important,” she says. “Shame and guilt are heavy, and can manifest in nasty ways in our hearts and our bodies.”
At the end of her first year of college, Yasmin was “absolutely mortified” to discover that she was pregnant, and quickly sought a termination. “I knew 100 percent that I was going to have an abortion. I felt way too young, and my family are Muslim, so I would definitely have been disowned,” she says. “I felt the situation I was in, the odds were completely against me.”
While Yasmin, now 25, is happy with her decision, she admits that she is surprised so many feel the same way. “I thought there would be a lot of women out there who may have had one and then regretted it later down the line. A lot of women seem to use abortion as a form of birth control because they aren’t on the pill or any other contraceptives.”
She is glad, though, that the opportunity is in place for those who need it. “There are so many kids brought into this world to young or unprepared mothers, and the kids end up suffering a lot in life…At 19, I would never have been able to give the child a stable upbringing or security. I don’t regret my decision at all.”
After 15 years with her boyfriend, advertising consultant Dalia knew she didn’t want children. In spite of always using birth control, she got pregnant at 34, and decided to have an abortion. “The decision was easy,” she explains. “We didn’t even think about it.”
She found the procedure to be a “draining experience”—so much so that she later underwent tubal ligation (“tube tying”)—but says that she “feels great” for having it done.
“It was the right choice, the only choice. I never regretted it, not for a second. My husband and I have lots of plans for our future together, we have a lifestyle that we love and we won’t change that over a baby, not in a million years…After the abortion, I felt relieved.”
Now 36, Dalia is “happy that I did it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Accidents can happen even if you are being careful and responsible, so I think abortion should always be an option for women.”
“When I was 19, I became pregnant and sought an abortion,” recalls Renee Bracey Sherman, 29. “I had been using birth control, but didn’t have enough money in my bank account to pick up a new pill pack until the following payday.”
Renee was unaware at the time that unprotected sex after having taken the pill for a sustained period can increase your chances of getting pregnant, and has since become a reproductive justice advocate, seeking to quash misinformation and support accessible sexual health education for young people.
She describes the abortion as “one of the best medical procedures I have ever experienced,” but still felt duty bound to keep what had happened to her a secret “because of society’s negative stereotypes and stigmas about people who choose abortion—especially women of color.” It wasn’t until six years later that Renee felt comfortable telling her family what she’d gone through.
Her work means that she has been able to connect with others who have experienced similar situations, but she remains frustrated by the public perception of those who have had an abortion. “Shame is forced upon them,” she says. “We rarely see stories in news media or pop culture reflecting the vast majority of abortion experiences, so people who have abortions think that they’re alone when they feel relief, empowerment, or happy about their ability to choose abortion. This leads to isolation and increased stigma,” Renee says.
“The findings in this study show that people who have abortions don’t need to feel guilty for not feeling guilty about making an empowered decision about their lives and reproductive health.”
*Name has been changed.