Women who experience post-abortion grief say it’s a pain often not recognised and a hard thing to talk about



Jessie O’Brien had a 10-month-old baby at home and was weeks into a new job when she became pregnant for the second time.

“Going from one to two so soon was very daunting. I didn’t have a great birth experience with my first either so that was still lingering in my mind,” Ms O’Brien said.

She spoke about it with her partner at the time and, at seven weeks into the pregnancy, decided to have a medical termination in June 2013.

“It’s quite a physical process, you’re still very aware that your body is aborting a fetus. It’s a period on steroids essentially.”

While Ms O’Brien still views the decision as a positive one eight years later, a “tinge of sadness” stays with her.

“When the physical symptoms subside you’re still left with wondering [about] the what ifs,” Ms O’Brien said.

She said the conversation and language around abortion had made her termination — and the grief that followed — a hard thing to talk about.

A women holder her pregnant belly
Sarah* experienced grief soon after she had her abortion.(Pexels)

24-year-old Sarah* is less settled with her decision to terminate her pregnancy in 2018.

“[I felt] relieved at first just because the morning sickness and the nausea was gone,” Sarah said.

“[But] ever since then [it’s been] a lot of regret and so many emotions.

Pregnancy support counsellor Narelle* has received calls from people days, weeks, and sometimes years after having an abortion.

She said the calls were more common than most people would realise.

“It’s like anything in life, other traumas. Whether it’s bushfires or floods, some people cope better than others for whatever reason,” Narelle said.

“It’s definitely something we’re not aware of enough. [Post-abortion grief] is definitely real.”

A row of empty seats.
Women undergoing abortion are no more likely to suffer from mental health problems, research indicates.(Supplied: Greg Rosenke via Unsplash)

No evidence of adverse impact on mental health

University of Sydney gynaecologist Kirsten Black said while some women did feel grief or guilt after abortion, most studies did not show serious links to mental health issues.

Referring to the Turnaway Study — a 10-year study examining the effects of abortion on 1,000 women in America — Professor Black said the majority of women experienced lasting relief.

“There is going to be a small group of women who do really feel grief and always there is follow up, and women are provided with counselling support should they require it,” Professor Black said.

“[But there’s] absolutely no evidence that abortion, statistically speaking, will impact adversely on mental health.

“You can always find exceptions but basically the evidence shows that there is no difference in mental health outcomes.

“I’m not denying it happens but it’s rare and for most women that is not the experience.”

In a 2018 opinion piece, Professor Black cited an article from the Turnaway study, which followed women who had terminated their pregnancies over three years.

It concluded that “women had experienced decreasing emotional intensity over time” and found 95 per cent of women reported that having an abortion was the right decision for them.

‘It’s just not really spoken about’

Sarah* said it could be a challenging thing to realise or talk about when it actually happened to you.

She felt that the focus on her when she was weighing up abortion fell away after she had gone through with it.

“People are so set in their views that they can be quite close-minded too with pro-life and pro-choice, there’s not really that support for someone who’s been through it.

Two kids play on a swing.
Some people experience post-abortion grief down the track after having children.(Supplied: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash)

In New Zealand, researchers from the University of Otago found a lot of existing research on the topic had been exacerbated by pro-life or pro-choice advocates, making it hard to determine the true effect of abortion on mental health.

The university released a 25-year longitudinal study in 2006 on the link between having an abortion and mental health outcomes for women aged between 15 and 25.

Part of the study examined the effectiveness of previous research on the same topic, which the researchers found to be “controversial and inconsistent”.

“A number of studies [report] adverse effects associated with abortion but others [find] no association,” the study said.

“[There has been] an unfortunate tendency in the literature on this topic for study findings to coincide with the ideological views of authors about the desirability of abortion.

Narelle believes there are more women grieving out there — and needing support — than studies suggest.

When grief surfaces

Buying baby clothes for other expectant parents was something Amanda* used to enjoy, until 2015.

“I’m just there looking at products and all of a sudden my chest started to get really tight, my face started burning,” Amanda said.

Pregnancy has never been easy for Amanda. Her first one many years earlier ended in a miscarriage.

Soon after, her first daughter was born at 28 weeks, weighing just 900 grams and with a 50 per cent chance of survival. Against the doctor’s predictions, she came through fine.

“From that experience I had postnatal depression and I was very fearful of being pregnant and having another baby,” Amanda said.

A year after her daughter was born, Amanda became pregnant again and had her first of four abortions at 26 years old.

“I felt an emptiness from that first time and you just push it down, you think, ‘It’s for the best,'” Amanda said.

Amanda’s grief surfaced when she had other children.

61-year-old Marie* had her first and last pregnancy in 1979.

Four decades after her abortion, she is coming to terms with the fact she will never be a mother.

This has all surfaced in hindsight. At the time — and for many years after — she did not think twice about her abortion.

Amanda and Marie both attended a retreat in Adelaide, operated by a not-for-profit Christian organisation, for women of any or no faith experiencing post-abortion grief.

While the Adelaide retreat has a faith element to it, the organisation counsellor Narelle works for is secular and deals with mostly women who are not religious.

A woman stands looking out over a beach with her back to the camera.
“I didn’t care what I had to go through [on retreat] because I’d already lived it, it just had no name,” Marie said.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Dealing with the grief

While Amanda does not believe knowing about post-abortion grief would have changed her mind about having her abortions, she may have sought help earlier.

“There needs to be information and transparency about what this can lead to … this is what can happen afterwards, this is what you can feel, this is how it can affect you,” Amanda said.

“Some people … go through ups and downs of depression and despair not really knowing [there’s] any underlying issue.”

Marie is learning to be maternal in other ways.

For Marie, revisiting her abortion has not been about changing the past but making her future a little easier.

“Talk left, talk right, talk what you like,” Marie said.

“Judge me for having an abortion or having an abortion and then regretting it … but you can’t take away my story.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.


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