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Post-Abortion Syndrome

JCWillke   |   March 13, 1996

Five steps on how you can help

It would be difficult to find a pro-life person who isn’t aware of the negative psychological aftermath of abortion, commonly known as Post-Abortion Syndrome. For most, it conjures up a rather vague vision of her feeling considerable personal guilt and regret at having had the abortion. Frequently one’s knowledge of this comes from having known a friend who suffers from this problem. For a few readers, this is intensely personal, as it is they, personally, who are hurting. The purpose of this article is to briefly set forth the problem and its symptoms, and then to discuss in more detail how each of you can help such a woman.

It must be noted that the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association continue to be influenced by political correctness on this issue. Neither of these national groups has yet to admit that Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS) even exists. Sadly, most other medical groups, while not in a state of full denial, nevertheless have done nothing to elucidate this problem. One exception to this has been a recent article in the American Family Physician, the official journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

The problem

For most women, induced abortion is a traumatic experience, both physically and emotionally. For some, the psychological impact has been likened to that seen in Vietnam war veterans and from certain other severely psychologically traumatic situations. There is a normal psychological defense mechanism that each of us uses. We tend to suppress the bad things that have happened to us and we tend to remember the good things. Up to a point this is normal and, hopefully, effective. For some women it seems to suffice post-abortion. For others, it works for a time. For a few, it never works at all.

The main coping mechanisms are repression and denial. Her counselor and the abortionist both said this wouldn’t bother her. Her girl friends said it wouldn’t bother her. So did her boyfriend or husband. Likewise, it was often her referring physician and sometimes even her clergyman. She also told herself that this would not bother her. Then, when symptomatology occurs, she denies that it is related to the abortion, and she represses the symptoms, internalizing them, and tries to consciously obliterate them from her memory. Oh no, that isn’t why she feels so bad. It’s because her boss, or whoever, was mean to her. No, that’s not why sex has turned so sour. It’s because her husband is so inconsiderate, even a beast. No, that’s not why she finds it so difficult to even hold her sister’s new baby or gush over a fellow-worker’s infant brought to the office. Yes, it is exactly one year since she had the abortion, or five years, or ten, but the reason she feels so bad today must have been the food she ate last night.

The process of repression and denial does seem to work for some. For most, it works for a while, but then things begin to bubble up. Typically, major symptoms can be and are repressed for at least five years – sometimes ten or twenty. Sometimes, even in one’s dying years, the problem rears itself once again. When symptoms do occur, they take a variety of forms. They can include:

  • Guilt feelings
  • Dreams and nightmares about the baby
  • Anniversary reactions
  • Headaches and other physical complaints
  • A loss of tenderness and empathy toward others, particularly to infants and their mothers
  • Flashbacks
  • Sexual coldness, particularly with husband
  • Resort to alcohol and other drugs
  • Acting out occasional promiscuity
  • Thoughts of and actual suicide


We do not know the exact incidence of PAS nor the exact percentages of those who suffer from mild, severe and catastrophic PAS. We do know that it is not directly related to a prior knowledge of fetal development, for a majority of such women did not know this was “a baby”. We also know that it is not ordinarily related to prior religious beliefs, for a majority of women under treatment were unchurched at the time or at least felt that this was not a serious offense against God. Happily, we now have a reasonably good grasp on how to treat PAS. This breaks down into a number of steps.

Counter the repression and denial. She must bring this back into her consciousness. She must admit that she was a party to the destruction of her own offspring. Denying this fact has been extremely corrosive. The only answer is to bring it back to her consciousness and admit this.

Your role here is important. And by “you” I mean any person reading this article. Please do not rely on your physician, your clergyman or a social worker. Professionals often do not help a great deal in this effort. Sadly, more frequently, they have essentially no role to play here and do not understand the need for this. You are more likely to have your own doctor continue to give her anti-depressant pills-perhaps uselessly.

Your job is to be a shoulder for her. You must encourage her to open up and help her in this process. You must support her, understand and love her through this very difficult process.

She must grieve over her lost child. This means tears, real grief and mourning. We all really understand this. If you go to the funeral home and see your good friend, now a widow, standing by her husband’s coffin with dry eyes, uptight, holding it all inside, you know something is wrong. If you’re close enough to her, you will counsel her, “Mary, let it out, cry.” And if you are that close friend, you will share her tears.

Is the unborn a lost child? Yes, certainly. Many women will name the baby. That makes it more real, easier for her. She must go through the same grieving process that a mother would go through for a child killed in an accident or for her spouse whom she has just buried. It’s been very accurately said that there is healing in the mourning (note the spelling).

Your role is to help her grieve. Your role is to encourage her tears and to again be a shoulder for her to lean on. In fact, at times you may be the only person in her life who can offer her the kind of support and help in grieving that will be so crucial to healing her wounds.

Divine forgiveness: Those of us Christians who were pro-life found it entirely natural and appropriate to assure her of God’s forgiveness, that is, if she was a believer. What came as a surprise was that this turned out to be something like 98% of all women counseled, including a majority of women who were not churched. Along with Alcoholics Anonymous, this may turn out to be the second medical, psychological problem that, in almost every case, can be helped only by openly seeking divine assistance. However she knows or does not know God, it looks at this time as though the vital third step in healing is for her to come to the realization that she is not totally worthless, that she is not condemned, that she can be forgiven by a higher power, however she knows Him.

If a woman can get this far, her major symptomatology will usually be alleviated, and she can find reasonable stability and peace once again in her life. But there is a fourth step.

Forgive others: This is difficult but, again, as with the three above, she needs your help in doing this. She needs your support, your counsel, your shoulder. If she can, she must bring herself to forgive the abortionist, the boyfriend who paid for the abortion, the mother, the sister who talked her into it, the school counselor, her classmates, her husband, her doctor, her clergyman. If she can bring herself to this most difficult decision, that is, to forgive those who were a party to this disaster, then, truly, she will have substantial peace and stability in her life.

Forgive herself: Not many can really get this far. The few who do we can truly call saints. They are likened to Mary Magdalene. A very few of these women will then seek expiation, will feel spiritually motivated in love of others to give public testimony about their stories. We must never ask her to do this. It must always be a spontaneous volunteering by her. In giving testimony, she relives a very traumatic experience in her life. Only a few can do this, but those few are truly pearls of great price to the pro-life movement.

In summary we know a lot about Post-Abortion Syndrome. Is this your friend, your relative? Do you recognize these symptoms? If so, do not depend upon your local physician or clergyman to have great insight into this, or necessarily to know the steps needed in healing. You probably should not attempt the above alone, although many do and with success. Your help, almost certainly, will come from one of the 3,800 pregnancy help centers now in existence throughout the United States. It is those good women who know most about this and who often are best equipped to help.

But you may well be the central person who is the key to turn the lock to open up her problem and to help her go through the steps of healing. There are so many wounded women now in our country. We need each one of you to help your neighbor.

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