Abortions and Mental Health
Please note: This article is not taking a view on the rightness or wrongness of terminating a pregnancy. Instead, the focus is on highlighting and acknowledging and addressing the shame and other mental health issues that can arise.
A little about me
I (Jonathan) am not a Psychiatrist. I am not a Psychotherapist, nor a Counsellor. I am an ordinary man who in my early 20’s made a decision, with my then girlfriend, to terminate our pregnancy. I buried my emotions surrounding the event until fifteen years later. Becoming a Christian, the Lord brought to my awareness my buried thoughts and feelings. With his help, the help of friends, counselling, and engaging in personal research, I was able to process my buried emotions and heal from the psychological and spiritual impact with which I had failed to engage.
I have since worked to create and set up the post-abortion healing course, aimed at helping women, and men, recover from the affects of abortion and now run this with my wife, Francesca.
Abortion is widespread in our society. The Royal College of Gynaecologists state that 33% of all women (in the UK) will experience at least one abortion in their lifetime[i]. Following a number of research studies into the link between abortion and mental health, conclusive evidence from qualitative findings remains elusive. Opponents of any link site flawed research practice, however, as Orlinsky and colleagues (1994) outline ‘all studies suffer from some flaws’. [ii]
However, in 1987 the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders acknowledged the affects of abortion with regard to mental health. They described several symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, feeling flashbacks, denial of emotions associated with the abortion, feeling detached or estranged from others, angry outbursts, hypervigilance and depression, all of which have been evidenced by women attending our courses.[iii]
A later study conducted by Dr Vincent Rue (1995) published a definitive work identifying post-abortion stress as a variant of a post-traumatic stress disorder.[iv]
More recent research studies have also shown a link between abortion and mental health. Coleman (2011) conducted research between 1995-2009 measuring the association between mental health and abortion, concluding that ‘women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81% increased risk of mental health problems’.[v]
The post-abortion healing course
We have set up a post-abortion healing course which runs termly at different venues across the UK. The nine week structured course, for up to eight women, facilitates the guests in processing buried emotions, as part of a discussion group. Most of our guests arrive displaying symptoms of depression or anxiety related to the abortion, that they feel no longer able to cope with. Each group is facilitated by three experienced helpers who are non-judgemental, accepting and focused upon providing a safe and caring environment. The abortion may have taken place recently, perhaps only one year previously, or it may be several years in the past.
Our course is for Christian women. Our aim is to help our guests to find the way to repair their relationship with God and to feel loved and accepted as part of the healing process. Over the nine weeks they are helped to explore and understand their feelings around depression, anxiety, fear and shame.
The impact of shame after experiencing an abortion
Some women attending the course acknowledge an overwhelming sense of shame surrounding the abortion. They are desperate to rid themselves of such feelings, which intrude on their lives and cause them to doubt their relationship with God.
The emotion of shame, the sense of there being something intrinsically ‘wrong with me’ as a person, leads to an interlocking loop of thoughts around blame, shame and responsibility. Women who are prone to shame, for whatever reason, tend to take a disproportionate degree of responsibility for the difficulties in their lives. With regard to abortion, self-critical messages might include, ‘I am a bad person’, ‘What I have done is unforgivable’, or ‘I should be over this’. Women feel shame for experiencing feelings and thoughts connected with the abortion including flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares and automatic negative thoughts. For some, the feeling that life is out of control has led to distressed eating, compulsive working and other addictive behaviours.
Other emotional symptoms that we have noticed on our course
Apart from an internal sense of shame, the effects of an abortion lead some women to feeling alone and isolated. They can feel compliant and disinterested in life, or unmotivated and bored. Alternatively others have an urge to run away, or feel panicked and distressed. Reminders of past events surrounding the abortion have caused some women to becoming easily triggered.
Specific triggers have included the anniversary dates for when the child would have been born, noticing pregnant women, or friends having babies. Other triggers are associated with life changes such as, getting married, having a subsequent birth, changes in the working environment and the onset of menopause.
Our course enables each woman to explore and discuss the emotional, psychological and spiritual impact of her abortion, moving toward an increased understanding, a clearer perspective, self-compassion, self-acceptance and the restoration of her relationship with God.
The course was established before 2000, and since this time over 300 women and 40 men have completed the course. The group course, for women only, runs on a regular basis, and due to the lower demand, courses for men are arranged separately, as required. We use exactly the same material for women and men, the issues being similar.
There can be a real reluctance to admit to emotional, psychological or spiritual problems following an abortion, where admitting to the pain might seem to add to the burden of what is already being experienced.
Our course is highly effective at restoring and rebuilding the lives of those who have the courage to attend. This was illustrated by one guest who arrived for her first session dressed in black. At her final session she arrived wearing a beautiful white dress. Reflecting upon the impact of our course she wrote: “I found my way back to Jesus, I found my way back to life, thanks.”
We have created ‘Restore and Rebuild’, a charity, to promote the course to other churches. Details for future courses can be found on the website: restoreandrebuild.org.
[i] Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2011). The care of women requesting induced abortion. London: Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, p.1.
[ii] Orlinsky, D., Grawe, K. and Parks, B. (1994) ‘Process and outcome in psychotherapy – Noch Einmal’, in A.E. Bergin and S.L. Garfield (eds), Handbook of pyscholtherapy and behavior change. New York: John Wiley, pp.270-376.
[iii] American Psychiatric Association (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders III-TR. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association. p.250.
[iv] Rue, V. (1995) Post-Abortion Syndrome: A Variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in Doherty, P. (ed). Post-abortion syndrome: Its wide ramifications. Dublin: Four Courts press.
[v] Coleman, P. K. (2011) Abortion and mental health: quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published 1995-2009 at:
http://bjp-rcpsych.org/Reviewarticles / (Accessed: 5 August 2017).