Finding healing after abortion
Post-abortion stress syndrome is a controversial topic, but the complex emotions that can come after a crisis pregnancy are real
After experiencing abortion at age 20, Elizabeth Peters had nightmares for years. Now she is happily married and expecting her third child. The Stayton mother has taken maternity photos for other women experiencing crisis pregnancy. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
STAYTON — Elizabeth Peters saw a counselor for years. She regularly had nightmares portraying someone getting murdered in front of her.
“It was always a man. I knew my son was a man, a boy,” she said.
As a 20-year-old, Peters, who is a cradle Catholic, had an abortion. She tells the story of her boyfriend saying that he was too young to be a father. “This is the only thing we can do,” she remembers him saying.
So he made an appointment and he paid the bill. When she tried to cancel the appointment, the abortion office said that the appointments were hard to come by and if she didn’t take this one she’d probably have to carry her pregnancy to term. When she walked into the appointment with her boyfriend and asked if the couple could get a refund if she decided not to go through with it, the receptionist said yes. But, the receptionist added, expenses accrue immediately after the appointment begins.
“It was just fear upon fear,” said Peters.
After seeing a still-life ultrasound, Peters didn’t want to take the abortion pill. The staff moved her out of the room so another abortion could be performed.
“It was three people pressuring me and in order to leave, I took the pill,” she said.
Then came the post-traumatic stress. Then came the nightmares. And they continued for years.
Post-abortive trauma, post-abortion syndrome: These aren’t conditions found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.
One report from 2014 entitled “Abortion and Mental Health: Findings from the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication” found abortion was not a statically significant predictor of subsequent mental health conditions like anxiety and mood disorders.
“This does not mean that abortion care settings should ignore mental health risk,” the report added. “Women seeking abortions may be at higher risk of prior mental health disorders and the abortion care setting may be an important intervention point for mental health screening and referrals.”
Still, another study from 2011, “Abortion and Mental Health: Quantitative Synthesis and Analysis of Research Published 1995-2009,” did find women who experienced abortion are at a higher risk for mental health problems.
People who’ve experienced abortion can face post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, struggles with self-image, difficulties with attachment to subsequent children, anxiety or a number of other mood disorders that are a result of the abortion or whatever experiences or circumstances happened around the pregnancy, says Emily Noack, mental health clinician with Catholic Charities of Oregon, which oversees Project Rachael in the archdiocese. Everyone experiences grief in a unique way.
Noack and the team at the local Project Rachael have a dedicated phone line and email address that women and men can call for free counseling. The team are all licensed social workers providing standard grief support, but with the possibility of also connecting patients with spiritual support.
The team collaborates with parishes, finding the patients whatever kind of spiritual aid they would like: a prayer partner, a priest, a woman religious, etc.
“That collaboration with the parishes ... is key,” says Heather Zarrilli, director of Family Support and Counseling Services at Catholic Charities of Oregon. Men and women who have had this experience can face complex emotions like sadness, anger, resentment and sometimes relief, all at the same time.
“Priests don’t have the clinical counseling training and we don’t have the same spiritual counseling training. ... We can really provide the personal and more comprehensive support when we have both of those together.”
The more support women and men who’ve experienced abortion have, the easier it can be for them to heal.
“There are a lot of women who, if they are struggling after an abortion, need support,” adds Noack. “We want to be a place where people feel comfortable and can come and heal or just have the support of other women.
When Peters became pregnant again, she kept her daughter, despite being abandoned by the father.
“I just knew that I loved my daughter and no matter what happened, I wanted her to know how important she was,” said Peters. She kept her second son when he arrived unexpectedly as well.
A study by the Guttmacher Institute reported that most women receiving abortions have a religious affiliation. Thirty percent described themselves as Protestant, 24 percent as Roman Catholic and 8 percent identified another religion. Thirty-eight percent of patients didn’t identify with any religion.
“The abortion index for Catholic women showed that their relative abortion rate was nearly the same as that for all women,” read the report.
Though she feels welcomed now, Peters felt judgement from some in her family and Catholic community.
“Until there’s a face and a story to a sin, it’s easy to judge,” she says.
When Peters married, her husband adopted her two children and the couple are now expecting a third. Up until her latest pregnancy, she had been taking maternity photos for women in crisis pregnancies. It was a gift given to her when she was pregnant with her now 6-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son.
Mary McClusky is assistant director for Project Rachel Ministry Development and the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Forgiveness and healing are at the heart of what it means to be Catholic,” said McClusky. “Project Rachel Ministry is an extension of the healing ministry of Jesus.”
“Christ came to forgive our sins and calls upon the church to help be a bridge to his divine mercy,” she continued. “The U.S. bishops, as successors to the apostles, have long called upon all the resources of the church to serve those suffering after abortion. It is fitting for a bishop to lead efforts in a diocese to offer both spiritual and psychological help to those who suffer after abortion.”
Susanne Babbel, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explored the topic in an article in Psychology Today: “Feelings are complex, and sometimes a woman will need to seek out counseling to help her sort through her own emotions and reactions as well as any perceived or actual stigma she may be experiencing.”