« She’s In | Main | An Interview with Jessica Berger Gross, the Editor of About What Was Lost »

“Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?”

Nothing is easier to love than an unborn child.

An unborn child never cries all night. She never spits all over your shirt. An unborn child doesn’t bite the other kids at preschool. He doesn’t hurl food from his highchair to the floor. An unborn child doesn’t sneak out of the house at 3 A.M. An unborn child doesn’t get drunk and smash up the car. An unborn child never aggravates, upsets, or disappoints.

When I had a miscarriage, I lost an unborn child. Since having had a baby, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the unborn and the born. One thing I can say for sure is that the born are a lot more work and a lot more mess. They make physical and emotional demands that the unborn do not. They’re not harder to love than the unborn, but it’s a different kind of love. My love for Frances is love for a real and willful individual, a human being who is changing and growing everyday and over whom I have little real control. The unborn child I lost was real, too, but what I mourned was a dream—my hopes for what she might become. The fact that those hopes will never be realized gives them a paradoxical power: They are impossible to fulfill, but also impossible to destroy. The unborn child is pure potential, and when she is lost, she attains a state of permanent perfection.

Emily Bazelon touches on this dynamic in “Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome ?”, her cover story for yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, as she describes a ceremony conducted at the end of a 10-week program for women—in this case, prisoners—who have had abortions:

Inside the Tom Baker Chapel of Hope at the jail, Harper and Kimbrough arranged long pieces of gauzy white cloth over the altar and onto the floor, so that the material lined a short aisle. Into the cloth they tucked white teddy bears with red hearts around their necks that read “Happy Mother’s Day” and “No. 1 Mommy.” Kimbrough sprinkled silk rose petals over the altar and floor. On a side table, Arias placed baskets of cloth “heritage dolls.” Their heads and hands were tied with thin ribbons. Their faces were blank. Heitzeberg erected a curved metal frame over the altar and draped it with more white cloth. Kimbrough climbed on a chair to hang a string of Christmas lights over the top. Arias surveyed the altar. “It looks like a bassinet,” she said approvingly….

Heritage Doll

Arias wove a sermon from Biblical stories: Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Hannah praying to God to give her a child, Eve celebrating the birth of her sons. It was time, Arias told the inmates, to release their babies to the Lord. Kimbrough and Harper passed around the baskets of heritage dolls, telling the women to take one for each baby they’d aborted or miscarried. The women rocked the blank-faced dolls, many holding three or four. Their faces dampened with tears….

She instructed the women to stand up, speak in memory of their lost babies and take their heritage dolls to the altar. The women stood one by one. They clutched their dolls and said they were sorry. They imagined a baby with his father’s dimple or curly hair or green eyes. One woman mentioned a child who had been born and taken into state custody, and the woman who kissed the pictures of her daughters sent them her love. For the most part, though, the messy mothering of living children — and the reality of their lives outside the prison — did not intrude on the ceremony. The women focused on mourning the elusive, innocent loss represented by the dolls. They gave them fairy-tale names: Sarah Jewell, Angel Pillow, Xavier Dante. At a side table, Kimbrough and Harper wrote the names on certificates for children “expected to be born.” The documents promised, “By virtue of being conceived, the spirit of this child lives eternally with Jesus and in the heart and the mind of the mother, now and forevermore.”

I can’t think of a better symbol, a better embodiment, of the unborn child than this heritage doll. It’s a blank canvas onto which one can project a fantasy child, a perfect child. To the extent that it suggests anything, it suggests an angel. The extent to which this meshes with Rhonda Arias’s description of aborted babies hugging their mommies in heaven suggests that the resemblance is intentional.

Should the anti-choice movement decide to start using heritage dolls instead of blown-up photos of aborted fetuses, it’s going to be bad news for reproductive rights. Those photos are arresting, yes, but they are also gross, and I really do believe that some of the bad feeling they engender bounces back on the people who display them. I do volunteer work at the Planned Parenthood in my town, and we’ve had our share of protestors. I’ve had occasion to talk to a few people who are disturbed and offended by the fetus photos—not because they’re staunch defenders of a woman’s right to choose, but because they don’t think they should be subjected to horrifying images while they’re driving to work or to Wal-Mart. I’m guessing that if you show these same people the haunting absence of the heritage doll, they’re going to see their own baby or grandbaby or lost baby. If you show them a thousand heritage dolls, they’re going to see a holocaust.

Similarly, when the anti-choice movement depicts a woman who has had an abortion as a monster and a murderer, the hyperbole and lack of compassion demonstrated by such an image reflects poorly on the movement that creates it. Bazelon hints at a future in which the anti-choice movement will instead represent the woman who’s had an abortion as a grieving mother duped into killing her little angel. As Bazelon writes at the conclusion of her article, this is a very powerful trope:

At the prison the day before, I watched the inmates drink in Arias’s preaching…. Abortion-rights leaders would accuse her of manipulation, of instilling guilt in women to serve the anti-abortion movement’s political ends. But Rhonda Arias ministers from the heart; the lack of scientific support for her ideas merely underscores that she is a true believer.

Her ardor and influence is better explained, perhaps, by the theory of social contagion, which psychologists use to explain phenomena like the Salem witch trials or the wave of unfounded reports of repressed memories of sexual abuse. Reva Siegel of Yale compares South Dakota’s use of criminal law to enforce a vision of pregnant women as weak and confused to the 19th-century diagnosis of female hysteria. These ideas can make and change laws. The claim that women lacked reliable judgment was used to deny women the vote and the right to own property. Repressed-memory stories led states to extend their statutes of limitations. Women who devote themselves to abortion recovery make up for the wrong they feel they’ve done by trying to stop other women from doing it too — by preventing them from having the same choices.

And then there is the relief in seizing on a single clear explanation for a host of unwanted and overwhelming feelings, a cause for everything gone wrong. When Arias surveyed 104 of the prisoners she had counseled in 2004, two-thirds reported depression related to abortion, 32 percent reported suicide attempts related to abortion and 84 percent linked substance abuse to their abortions. They had a new key for unlocking themselves. And a way to make things right. “You have well-meaning therapists or political crusaders, paired with women who are troubled and experiencing a variety of vague symptoms,” Brenda Major, the U.C. Santa Barbara psychology professor, explained to me. “The therapists and crusaders offer a diagnosis that gives meaning to the symptoms, and that gives the women a way to repent. You can’t repent depressive symptoms. But you can repent an action.” You can repent an abortion. You can reach for a narrative of sin and atonement, of perfect imagined babies waiting in heaven.

This is a powerful narrative, then, not just for women who have had abortions, but also for the rest of us—for everyone who gets to cast a vote for or against a ballot initiative outlawing abortion, for or against an anti-choice candidate. It’s an emotional appeal with an easy-to-follow plot that absolves us from making difficult decisions about abortion, and from dealing with the complex socioeconomic realities that make abortion such a huge issue in our country.

As Bazelon points out, just about half the pregnancies in America are unplanned. One would think that honest education and access to birth control would be the first steps in any attempt—private or public—to address the demand for abortions in this country. One would, of course, be wrong. Rhonda Arias, the preacher and activist that Bazelon profiles, discovered during the course of Bazelon’s research that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant (the father was a boy she met at church). This woman who had 4 abortions herself, and who has devoted her life to stopping other women from having abortions, explained that she talked to her daughters about chastity before marriage, but she didn’t talk to them about contraception. “‘Abstinence works better than birth control, really,’ she said. ‘It’s just that people don’t do it.’” This is one point on which Arias and I agree, even if we draw different conclusions from it. She doesn’t believe in birth control. I believe that making honest family planning and safe, effective contraception available to everyone is the best way to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country.

I don’t believe in “post-abortion syndrome,” but that doesn’t mean that I believe abortion is easy. Any woman who has ever had a child—or lost a child she desperately wanted to have—can tell you that it’s disingenuous to call a fetus “a blob of tissue,” and it’s equally misleading to refuse to acknowledge the fact that—for some women, at least—an abortion is more traumatic than, say, a bikini wax. Whether or not the anti-choice movement decides to shift its focus from the aborted fetus to the woman who aborts it, I think that pro-choice advocates need to make room for more open, more honest conversation about abortion. I know that a lot of activists are afraid that such a conversation would be a gift to anti-choice forces. I’m familiar with the slippery slope argument. But I would counter that, for most Americans, abortion is already a slippery issue. Polls affirm again and again that we don’t really want it to happen, but we do want it to be legal. I don’t see a position that reflects that ambivalence as a weak position. I think it’s an honest one, and I think anything less is a tragic disservice to the very women we hope to protect.


January 22, 2007 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference “Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?”: