The experience of having an abortion is one that women never forget. And it is one from which most women don’t completely heal emotionally, according to the New Hope Pregnancy Care Center.
Some are devastated and about half suffer some symptoms of post-abortion syndrome.
New Hope Pregnancy Care Center Executive Director Tracie Shellhouse said most people are not aware post-abortion syndrome exists, but research confirms the disorder is a “really big issue for women.”
Post-abortion syndrome is comparable to the post traumatic stress disorder that affects wartime military veterans or anyone else who has experienced a tragedy.
“Most of the time when we think of post traumatic stress, we think of war veterans — those who have seen combat, but it really applies to anyone who has gone through something traumatic,” Shellhouse said.
Individual limitation and tolerance to intense emotional disturbance varies from person to person. Events that traumatize one might not bother another, but all are left with a psychological imprint.
“What we are seeing with post-abortive women is they are experiencing post-traumatic stress,” she said.
“What is traumatic to one person, another might be able to weather through and it not bother them,” she said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national population in 2010 was 308.74 million with 50.8 percent or 156.84 million being women. While there are no accurate numbers on how many abortions are performed annually, the number is estimated between 1.5 million and 1.8 million.
Focus on the Family and the Guttmacher Institute both estimate that 33 percent of American women have an abortion before the age of 45. Census figures show there were about 56.18 million women between the ages of 18 and 45 in the United States, so according to statistics, as many as 18.72 million women in that age group will have an abortion.
“About 19 percent of women who have an abortion can be clinically diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder,” Shellhouse said. “Half of them (post-abortive women) have some symptoms, but maybe not all of them. Twenty to 40 percent of the overall big number shows moderate to high stress levels and avoidance behavior relative to the abortion. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to be reminded of it and that is manifested in a number of ways.”
It might be that a post-abortive woman cannot be around children or infants without experiencing stress. Some women call New Hope Pregnancy Care Center on the anniversary of their abortion or what would have been their child’s birthday.
“Many women, on the anniversary of their abortion, will experience psychological stress,” she said.
One friend in the pro-life movement had three abortions, “and she knows when her babies were due and sometimes struggles with depression at those times of the year.”
Her trauma was also manifested through her refusal to go to a dentist for more than 20 years even though she had pain in her mouth and knew she had cavities and needed other dental repairs.
“She wouldn’t go to the dentist because of the suction sound of the device that removed the spit from her mouth. She had two vacuum aspiration abortions where they literally sucked the fetus out and dismembered it. The sound of the vacuum and the suction bothered her and for a long time, she had a hard time even vacuuming her house.”
The woman finally found a compassionate dentist who understood that the suction and act of reclining in a dental chair caused the woman to relive her experiences.
“He was a dentist and a pro-life Christian. Part of his ministry through his dental practice was to be very considerate of post-abortive women and provide dental care in a way that wouldn’t be so traumatic,” Shellhouse said. “It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, something will trigger something and psychologically for that person, they’d just as well be back 20 years ago and experience all those feelings.”
Experiencing physical pain for no reason is an extreme example that would fall within the 19 percent, but that could be a single manifestation in someone else.
“I’ve been involved in pregnancy help work since 2003 and have, over the years, met multiple women who have experienced things like that. I’ve also met plenty of women who will tell you ‘My abortion doesn’t bother me at all’, so it’s dependent upon the person,” Shellhouse said.
There are factors women should consider before having an abortion. If they are pro-life or already a professing Christian and believe abortions are morally wrong but have the procedure anyway, those women stand a much higher risk of not being able to deal with all of their emotions and psychological stress.
Former New Hope executive director Yaunna Higgins told of a woman who came to the center for a pregnancy test. The test was negative, but in the course of talking to her, the woman revealed she had had an abortion 10 years earlier. Since that time, she was unable to hold a job, dropped out of college, bounced from one relationship to another and began heavily drinking.
“She didn’t know what was wrong with her,” Higgins said. “She never connected her behavior to the abortion until she came here. Again, that is an extreme, but I think it’s maybe more typical than we want to believe.”
In some ways, Shellhouse said the emotions experienced by post-abortive women are the same as those experienced by other survivors of parents, spouses or other loved ones. That same sense of sorrow returns on every anniversary of the departed one’s death or birthday.
“The survivor didn’t initiate that. It wasn’t the survivor’s fault. It’s even worse when women know they made that decision, that they could have chosen life. They didn’t so they beat themselves up. Oftentimes, if they are Christians, they will not let themselves feel forgiven,” Shellhouse said.
“Even though we know Jesus Christ died for all sins — they will accept forgiveness for everything else in their lives, but they will say that’s the one thing ‘I can’t forgive myself for and I know God could never forgive me.’
“We’re here to tell the truth that God does love you and God does forgive, but part of being able to feel that forgiveness is to go through a healing process. Be honest about the decisions you’ve made. Be honest about how you feel about it.”
New Hope Pregnancy Care Center urges women to look at their actions through a biblical perspective about how God looks at their actions and them as a person.
“He loves us. He doesn’t love our sins, but that never stops him from loving us,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we have a post abortion recovery class every year because women are experiencing this, maybe not to the extreme of it destroying their lives. Many women are very successful. They go on. They finish high school. They finish college and do well in careers, but a lot of times they will still have a certain area of their lives that’s just not working out.”
Shellhouse said women might be successful in their chosen professions but not in relationships. They could be happily married, but unable to bond with their children.
“It’s not that they don’t love their children, but sometimes they feel like they don’t have the right to happiness. I’ve heard women say, ‘I’ve killed my child. I don’t have a right to be happy,’” Shellhouse said.