A Christian response to post-abortion trauma

A Christian response to post-abortion trauma

Julie Cook

Julie Cook is the National Director of Abortion Grief Australia Inc (AGA), a national non-profit organisation and Australia's leading authority on abortion trauma. In this capacity, Julie has delivered numerous professional development presentations throughout Australia.

First becoming concerned about the lack of professional discussion on the issue following the suicide of a young patient during her student nursing days, Julie has worked in a voluntary capacity with AGA - formerly known as Women Hurt By Abortion - for sixteen years.

With historic parallels to both post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and child sexual abuse, abortion trauma is an unsustainable diagnosis in the current political climate.

Neither PTSD nor child sexual abuse were new traumas, but it took a social movement in conjunction with health professionals willing to explore and advocate for, before the reality of these traumas was accepted.

The ongoing tragedy of not listening to or responding to the needs of those traumatised has been that we have failed to learn. Worse, we now have a situation where the manifestations of this trauma are being used to promote the need for abortion.

However, the Catholic Church is well placed to create the social and professional environment needed for health professionals to be able to address the issue of abortion trauma.

Contemporary society, and most of the medical profession, now regard abortion as an essential tool to combat social ills.

South Australian statistics indicate that by the age of forty, one in three women have experienced at least one abortion, thus giving our communities a saturation level that makes abortion trauma a major mental health issue even if, as often claimed, the traumatised represent only a minority.

Abortion trauma is at present understood to be a type of PTSD. It usually has a delayed presentation, and often manifests as a cocktail of self-destructive behaviours, relationship problems, mental health issues and replacement pregnancies, leading to either repeat abortions or what is termed the "atonement child".

The cardinal features are denial and suppression, meaning most do not consciously connect their abortion with the problems they are experiencing.

There are now at least 24 published studies linking abortion to substance abuse, including studies during pregnancies. One recent ground-breaking Australian study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry (2008) found that those who aborted were 3.6 times more likely to abuse hard drugs and twice as likely to be binge drinkers.

"Self-medicating" with alcohol and/or drugs is a typical coping mechanism for those conflicted by their abortion experience, and Australian research published in April (Paediatrics), showing a 40-fold increase in drug affected babies being born between 1980 and 2005, should have been a wake-up call.

However, true to a predictable mindset among our health authorities, one of this study's authors, Professor Fiona Stanley, followed by using the national media to call for more to be done to prevent "unplanned pregnancies in drug using women". This further supported the perception of the necessity of abortion, and the unreported practice of women deemed "defective" being pressured into unwanted abortions.


Such has been the denial and trivialising of this trauma in the medical literature that it has become viewed as a contentious issue. As one doctor stated, "To speak of abortion trauma is professional suicide."

As recently as last year, the American Psychological Association was still claiming after "rigorous review" of the best available science, there was no evidence that an abortion increased the risk of mental illness. They are not alone. Other prominent medical institutions and publications, including Australian, have also undermined professionals developing their expertise in the area of abortion trauma.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of post-natal depression (PND) where health professionals work in close association with those providing abortion services.

A generalised term for depression following childbirth, PND has long been used to justify the claim that abortion is safer than childbirth, implicating even legal decisions regarding doctors' responsibilities towards pregnant women.

However, giving birth can trigger the onset of abortion trauma, and those working with PND patients consistently report over-represent- ation of women with abortion histories. While some studies support a link between PND and abortion, there has been precious little interest in further researching this relationship.

Just as in previous generations when PTSD sufferers and child sexual abuse victims were blamed for their afflictions, so too are those suffering from abortion trauma re- traumatised by the medical community's lack of accountability.

Women are blamed for their poor abortion outcome. Either, it is claimed, because of their decision- making ability in crisis or because of pre-existing emotional/psychological problems.

So successful has been the "blame the woman strategy" that pro-choice researcher Professor David Fergusson believed the recent series of studies linking abortion to mental health issues could be attributed to previous mental health problems and so lead one of the largest most comprehensive longitudinal studies in the world to demonstrate this.

However, what he found convinced him concerns about abortion in regards to mental health were credible, stating, "It borders on the scandalous that one of the most common medical procedures performed on women is so poorly researched and evaluated."

By ignoring growing international research linking abortion to substance abuse, suicide, depression, relationship problems, domestic violence, and premature death, health authorities have allowed current attitudes towards abortion to remain unchallenged, making it extraordinarily difficult for professionals to treat abortion trauma seriously.

Further, government funding for post-abortion counselling goes almost universally to institutions involved in the provision of abortion services, clearly creating a conflict of interest and placing these services in a position to suppress deeper investigation of abortion after-effects.

Pro-life organisations, who should have an interest in addressing abortion trauma, have not had the expertise, the resources or the mental health focus to grasp the seriousness and magnitude of the problem.

Catholic health institutions, which are better placed to deal with abortion trauma and could provide the professional support needed, are handicapped by a reliance on information from mainstream professional bodies.

Abortion trauma is destroying families on a scale that is yet to be appreciated. Untreated it has a tendency to be trans-generational.

We, the Christian community, have the opportunity to heal the wounded, but we've lacked the insights to realise this, for most of us have never had the opportunity to listen to these broken and wounded parents or realise that what the media portrays is not the human reality behind abortion.

We have the answer to abortion in Christ's teachings, exemplified by Jesus' response to the woman taken in adultery. The righteous wanted to throw stones, but He reached out with love and she responded for she knew how broken she was. We too need to reach out and give hope.

Abortion trauma is a serious mental health issue which the Catholic Church's response needs to reflect. This response could start with giving leadership to its own health institutions, a leadership these institutions have been unable to give to their Church.

Health providers are routinely witnessing the ravages of abortion trauma. It is crucial we help them make the connection.

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