When Sarah (a pseudonym) walked into my office, she looked like hundreds of people I’ve treated for trauma recovery. She was having issues with her husband, she felt estranged from her children and she lacked confidence in herself.
Over the following months, Sarah and I uncovered traumas throughout her life. We found that her marital problems were a combination of her lack of self-confidence and his blunt personality. Her children loved her, but they didn’t know why she sometimes pushed them away. And her fulfillment in life was being stunted by a childhood filled with abuse, shame and, in her late teens, an unexpected pregnancy and an abortion.
Sarah’s story is very similar to most of the people I’ve worked with. Childhood traumas generate internal disruption and dysfunction, which leads to challenges in the workplace, in oneself, and in one’s family and community. But the big difference between Sarah and most of my clients is that she had an abortion. And as state lawmakers consider the issue of abortion, they need to keep people like Sarah in mind — women who aren’t shouting their abortion, but instead are silently grieving.
Out of all of my patients, perhaps 20 have admitted to having an abortion. And for each of them, the abortion was a traumatic experience on top of many traumas beforehand, often including sexual abuse. They saw abortion as the only way out of a terrible situation — an abusive relationship, being kicked out of their home, or being unable to find a job and earn an income.
My clinical therapy experience matches survey research, like that from the Guttmacher Institute in 2005 which revealed the biggest reasons behind choosing an abortion. Among them: almost 75% of women couldn’t afford a child and 48% of women were having relationship issues. Guttmacher also reported in 2007 that half of women have at least two abortions, often related to “unintended pregnancies” which then lead to financial and relationship challenges.
But traumas associated with abortion aren’t ended by the procedure. In fact, many of them begin there. A study conducted by Support After Abortion found that 34% of women suffer “adverse impacts” like anger, shame and regret from medication abortions. Most of these women said they had nobody to talk to afterwards, and had no idea where to go to understand and address their complicated grief.
This study and other research by Support After Abortion contrasts with The Turnaway Study, which found that just 5% of women regret their abortions. The Turnaway Study is regularly cited by major media outlets as a rebuttal against the idea that abortion harms mothers who terminate their pregnancies. But even 5% of women who have had an abortion is a huge number. Guttmacher estimates that 23.7% of women have abortions, which using the Turnaway Study’s numbers means that nearly two million women regret their abortion. Leaving these women to suffer in silence is a disservice to them, their families, and their communities.
Because of its politicized nature, the public is told one of two stories: Abortion is right or wrong. But like most of the women in the Support After Abortion study, Sarah wasn’t a pro-life advocate or a religious person; she was a woman who made a choice, and that choice had been generating years of sadness, grief and suffering that she had never shared.
She was also hesitant to approach me because like most women who want to seek healing after abortion, she preferred anonymity out of fear of rejection and judgment.
My job as a therapist is to use effective clinical treatments and techniques to treat people suffering from trauma. These range from asking open-ended questions, empowering the client to lead therapy sessions and using best practices like EMDR to heal specific traumatic experiences. But my job is also to focus on what a client needs, and denying trauma from an abortion is no different than denying trauma from sexual abuse or neglect — it irresponsibly keeps people from becoming their best selves.
Sarah deserved better than to suffer years of silent regret and shame. I was grateful to be able to help her learn how to address the traumas she had endured, and to heal. As abortion continues to be debated across the state, therapists, lawmakers, abortion advocates, and abortion opponents must put aside differences and make people like Sarah a priority.
Adam Fadel is a licensed clinical therapist and founder of the Charlotte clinic The Corner: Institute for Transformation.
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