On Abortion, Murder, and “Post-Abortion Trauma”

On Abortion, Murder, and “Post-Abortion Trauma” January 24, 2012

Have you noticed the emphasis anti-abortion advocates place on the horrible after effects women supposedly suffer after having an abortion? Growing up in the anti-abortion movement, I heard stories of women who had had abortions who couldn’t sleep for months, because they kept imagining they could hear a baby crying, their baby. I heard stories of women plummeting into depression and dropping out of school because they couldn’t bear up under the knowledge that they had murdered their own children. This argument that abortion was not only taking an innocent life, but was actually likely to ruin the woman’s life too, helps buttress the campaign to end legal abortion. But today I realized one eensy teensy problem with this line of reasoning.

I was reading this article about Rick Santorum’s views on abortion, and this section struck me:

Asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan what he would do if his own daughter approached him, begging for an abortion after having been raped, Santorum explained that he would counsel her to “accept this horribly created” baby, because it was still a gift from God, even if given in a “broken” way.

“Well, you can make the argument that if she doesn’t have this baby, if she kills her child, that that, too, could ruin her life. And this is not an easy choice, I understand that. As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child. And whether she has that child or she doesn’t, it will always be her child, and she will always know that,” Santorum said.

My parents always taught me the same thing, and for the longest time I believed it. Then in college I was reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, desperate to learn about my own anatomy and understand my own biology, and I came upon an article in it by a woman talking about how grateful she was that she had an abortion, and how having an abortion had allowed her to continue on her studies and toward a rich and fulfilling life. And then I realized something. This woman suffered literally none of the post-abortion trauma I’d always been told she would, and why?  Because she honestly didn’t believe the pregnancy she terminated involved murdering a person.

When does personhood begin?

The truth is, those after affects Santorum speaks of are only suffered if you’ve spent your life believing that personhood begins at conception. If you honestly don’t believe a first trimester fetus is a person, then having an abortion won’t bother you at all. No trauma. No depression. No ruined life through the constant rememberence of the “child” you killed. Nada. You didn’t murder a human child, you simply ended a pregnancy that would have eventually resulted in the birth of a human child.

In the middle ages, even according to the church’s official teaching, abortion was legal until the moment of quickening, which occurs between 15 and 17 weeks. Before quickening, the church taught and society believed, it wasn’t a person at all. At quickening, it became a person, and after that you couldn’t kill it. Throughout human existence, abortion has been a fairly common practice, and for most of that time, people haven’t seen abortion during the early stages of pregnancy as problematic in the least. Women used a variety of methods – many of them dangerous – to “restore their monthly cycles,” and didn’t see that as out of the ordinary or problematic in the least. In fact, abortion was not made universally illegal in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century as part of a campaign to keep birth rates up.

Spreading the Trauma

What is my point in saying all this? My point is that this believe that even a first trimester abortion is “murder” is a relatively new one, as is the idea that personhood begins at conception which it is predicated on. It is also not an idea shared by most Americans today, or most Americans in the past. It is an idea, though, that the anti-abortion movement has worked hard to spread. And it is an idea that is necessary for all their talk of post-abortion trauma to prove true, for that trauma only occurs if a woman honestly believes she has committed murder.

And you know what? If they can get their message out loud and clear enough, maybe they can induce those women who don’t believe first trimester abortion is murder at all to feel guilty. Their claims of “post abortion trauma” are vindicated if they can put pictures of bloody fetuses in front of women on their way into abortion clinics, force those women to watch ultrasounds as doctors describe the body parts of the fetus, and require the doctor to inform the woman that she is about to end a human life (an actual requirement in my state). Anti-abortion activists aren’t stupid. They know that in order for their claim that abortion ruin women’s lives to be true, they have to make it ruin women’s lives. And that, quite simply, is what they are busily trying to do.

Why do I call it “personhood”?

First, I want to distinguish between saying something is “alive” and saying it is a “person.” No one disputes that an embryo and a fetus are “alive.” The thing is, so is cancer, so is bacteria, so are viruses, so is moss, and so on. Lots of things are alive that we don’t have problems terminating. The question revolves not around whether an embryo or a fetus is “alive” but rather around whether or not an embryo or a fetus is a “person.” This is the whole point behind the recent failed Mississippi personhood amendment attempt. If an embryo or a fetus is a “person,” it is entitled to the same rights of every other “person” in the country – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and of course, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The thing is, as I pointed out above, the point at which “personhood” begins has been disputed. Catholics in the middle ages believed it was at the moment of quickening, an idea shared by the Navajos. Jews have always believed that it’s at the moment of birth (with the entering of the “breath of life”). Ancient Romans believed that it was at the moment when the father picked up the newborn infant laid at his feet, accepting it into the family (he could instead choose to have it left outside to die if he refused to accept it).

Anyway, the point is that the moment when “personhood” begins is disputed, and that rather than yelling about how “it has a beating heart” we should actually be discussing when personhood begins, not as a given but as an open question. Currently, legally, personhood begins at birth. And that, quite simply, is what the Personhood Amendment people want to change.

Ending “legal” abortion or ending abortion?

Second, anti-abortion policy today seems more aimed toward ending “legal” abortion than toward ending abortion itself. After all, that’s what all the “personhood amendment” and “heartbeat bill” stuff would do. They add restrictions to how women can obtain abortions, wanting to make legal abortion as difficult as possible to get, with the final goal being making it illegal. The thing is, abortion was illegal in almost every state from the mid-nineteenth century until Roe v. Wade. And do you know what? It was still extremely widespread, though much more dangerous (thousands of women died – and still die in parts of the world where abortion is currently illegal – from unsafe abortions). The thing is, making abortion illegal doesn’t end abortion, it just makes it illegal. Do you know what really brings the abortion rate down? Comprehensive sex education and widespread use of birth control, two things the anti-abortion movement is against. Trying to make abortion illegal is like treating the symptom – women wanting abortions – rather than the cause – unintended and unwanted pregnancies. And this, quite simply, is why I say that anti-abortion policy today seems to be aimed at ending legal abortion, not at ending abortion itself.


The real point of this post when I started it was that in order for Santorum’s words to be true – in order for post abortion trauma to exist – the anti-abortion movement has to create it, either through raising its children to believe abortion is murder from the beginning or by convincing women who weren’t raised that way and have just had abortions that they’re murderers. This post abortion trauma stuff – this idea that having an abortion will ruin your life – is not simply the natural results of having an abortion. It is only the result of having an abortion if you believe that abortion is murder. And you know what? Most women throughout history, and most women today, don’t believe that abortion, or more especially first trimester abortion, is murder. It’s not about lying to yourself to justify murder. It’s about honestly and truly not believing it to be murder.

When I was growing up in the anti-abortion movement, I didn’t understand this. I thought that the idea that abortion was murder was natural – how could anyone not think abortion was murder? And so now, on the other side of the rabbit hole, I can look back down and say that yes, Santorum honestly means the words he says, and he honestly doesn’t realize how crazy he sounds to those not on his side of the rabbit hole.

Note: I use the term “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life” because I believe it better represents the views of the movement. After all, most supposedly “pro-life” advocates also strongly support the death penalty and are very supportive of the military. What they oppose is not any ending of life, but rather abortion. Hence my calling them “anti-abortion,” which, quite simply, is what they are.

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