Trapped In The Noise

26 March 2010

It's hard to think of an issue that creates as much division and furore as post-abortion grief (or post-abortion stress syndrome - PASS), nor one that deserves such lack of compassion less.

Recently I was enjoying reading Princesses and Pornstars, Emily Maguire's exploration of modern female culture and how feminism has lost it's way, replaced by meaningless "empowerment" that sees women thinking they gain esteem by pole dancing. I've written about this myself, so the book was really singing to the choir. Until that is, I reached the following passages, which I read with a heavy sigh of familiar disappointment:

"In 2005, Liberal backbencher Danna Vale, calling for a national enquiry into abortion, said that while she believed 'in a woman's right to choice', she worried that women don't understand 'the tragedy of post-abortion depression'. This sounds like she is concerned with women's well-being. If so, she can rest easy: a sizable body of research exists to show that abortion in no more prevalent in women who have had abortions than in the general population. And perhaps one of the reasons there isn't endemic post-abortion depression is that every woman in Australia who requests an abortion receives counselling about her choices and their respective risks."

All you need to know about the debate surrounding PASS is right there. Right-wingers use PASS in an attempt to restrict women's access to abortion; the left and feminists, fearing any such restrictions, hotly deny that such a thing exists. In the middle are a lot of grieving, hurt women who are made to feel like they don't exist.

It's hard to trust Danna Vale's motives in these statements. This is after all the woman who said Australians are in danger of aborting themselves out of existence, leading to a Muslim majority population here. It's hard in fact to trust anyone who speaks out about PASS, because moderates are too scared to do so, for fear of being shouted down by the pro-choice movement. PASS ends up being used as a weapon by those who seek to curtail women's sexual freedom. Sadly, it's these fears that lead some feminists to equal levels of shrill rhetoric. Emily Maguire is just plain wrong in some of her assertions. If levels of depression are no higher in women who have had abortions than the population at large - is that not just to dismiss the pain of those women who suffer from both? There is evidence that women who suffer from pre-existing depression are more likely to suffer post abortion depression.

And the statement that "every woman in Australia who requests an abortion receives counselling about her choices and their respective risks" would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic. Most abortions in Australia are carried out in privately clinics. Abortion is a business to them. The counsellors are there to sell abortions. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it's true. Anecdotal evidence abounds of stories of women who arrived at the clinic unsure what to do, and felt pressured into abortion from the moment they arrived.

As for the depression - whilst it is illegal in this country to coerce someone into intercourse, there are no laws against forcing someone to have an abortion. From the 14 year old girl whose parents force her to have an abortion or they will kick her out, to the married woman whose husband says he will leave if she doesn't abort, these women are trapped and helpless with no legal recourse. We speak of a right to choose - but there is no legal right to not choose an abortion for many women. The grief experienced by a woman forced to abort a pregnancy she wanted is scarcely imaginable.

I really don't want to pick on Ms Maguire here - she has only spoken out on the truth as she sees it. Because the voices of women who are suffering from PASS are unheard, lost in the din from the opposing forces of the abortion war. I would urge her, or anyone else seeking to learn who PASS really means, to read Giving Sorrow Words, which without opinion or politics tells the stories of 18 Australian women who have suffered from PASS. Some underwent recent abortions; for others, their terminations were many years ago. All are deeply moving and would hopefully change thinking on this issue. Also, please read the FAQ here at the PASS site - written with medical advice by women who hve suffered from PASS, it's an objective, factual look at PASS itself and many of this issues that have led to the silence surrounding women with the condition.

For it would be my greatest wish to see feminists take up the cause of PASS; that without restricting a women's right to choose, to give women the right to choose not to abort by making coercing someone to do so illegal. To provide more societal support to mothers so women didn't feel pressured by society to abort if they did not want that. And above all to acknowledge and provide support for those suffering from PASS, so we don't have to suffer in fearful silence anymore.


  1. I work in a pregnancy counselling service that is not attached to a clinic. We are independent and work from a feminist framework, meaning the woman who comes to us is our primary concern and we support her through any decision or process she chooses.

    In our experience, most women do not require counselling after an abortion. The percentage of post-abortion counselling that we provide to women as a percentage of all the counselling we do is a small percentage. Those who make the decision for themselves to terminate a pregnancy often cope with the decision well and do not have any ongoing problems such as 'PASS'. Women who are railroaded into making a choice they do not want to make - like the women you mentioned who are threatened or coerced by parents or partners - are the ones who have problems coping afterwards, for understandable reasons - and most feminist pro choice groups find it absolutely repulsive that women can forced into aborting a pregnancy they wish to keep, just as they find it repulsive when women are forced to continue with a pregnancy they do not want or have decided they cannot care for. These women deserve as much support and respect as they can possibly get. NO woman should be forced to make a decision with a pregnancy that she is not 100% comfortable with.

    As for 'Giving Sorrow Words', not long after the book was published we were contacted by one of the women whose story is featured in the book. She had chosen to terminate a pregnancy a few years earlier and coped well with her decision. She had agreed to give the interview for the book after being told it was documenting women's experiences of abortion. Imagine her surprise when she read the doctored version of her interview in the final printed book expressing her sadness over the abortion and describing PAS symptoms she didn't have. If there was one case like this the book has to be questioned - if PAS is such a widespread problem then why was it necessary to invent stories or twist people's words?

    In the main i agree with a lot of what you've posted, but i think claims that there are a great number of women who are forced into abortion disregards women as decision makers in their own right. Women can, and do, make this decision for themselves - just like women can and do decide to parent, in the face of what can be extreme opposition from people around them. The point is that they should always be able to, regardless of what those around them think.

  2. PS - i also meant to say that i agree 100% that there should be laws preventing people to force women to abort! What an indescribably sickening act.

  3. Thanks for your sensitive comments. I'm sorry to hear about the woman whose words were used against her wishes - that must have been an awful and violating experience.

    It's hard to know how many women have an abortion each year in Australia. Even if only 1% suffer from PASS, that is hundreds, possibly a thousand or more, of women who are suffering following abortion. Some of these women will have made their decision independently, but then suffer unexpected grief after. Women do have the right to make up their own minds yes, but if any other surgical procedure carried a 1% risk of serious complications this would be mentioned prior to the patient signing consent forms. PAS is never mentioned ahead of abortion.

    That is why I am not really surprised that few women seek counselling after the event, if they are suffering symptoms of PAS - it is because they are not told this might happen and are unsure what is happening. Clinics sometimes mention "hormonal changes may cause you to feel a bit sad, it will pass in a few days" - but that is all. You are led to believe that there is something wrong with you, and you are alone on this.

    I just wish the right of women to seek abortion if that is what they wish could be balanced with the acknowledgement of PASS as real suffering, which right now seems so difficult.

  4. Emily Maguire26/03/2010, 13:38

    Thanks for your email alerting me to your post. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

    I admire your courage in speaking out about your experiences. As I write in my book, the telling of women's stories - especially those that complicate the mainstream narrative - has always been a vital part of the feminist movement. However, I do feel that in this particular post you have mischaracterised my views.

    I absolutely don’t deny (neither hotly, nor coolly) that some women suffer from depression after an abortion. I do say - as you’ve quoted above - that it is no more prevalent in women who’ve had abortions than in the general population. There is substantial, long-term, transnational research to back-up this assertion. Note that neither the research, nor my references to it, claim that no women experience depression after abortion. Post-abortion depression and post-natal depression are both real and both can be devastating. Neither is a reason to restrict women’s rights to have an abortion or a baby.

    Saying that levels of depression are no higher in women who’ve had abortions than in the general population in no way dismisses the pain of women who’ve suffered either or both. It’s simply pointing out that depression is not a reason to restrict access to abortion. It is a reason to fight to ensure all women have access to proper pre-abortion, or pre-decision-about-unwanted-pregnancy counselling which includes information about all of the potential side-effects and risks.

    I do agree, by the way, that I have no way of knowing if all women have pre counselling. I should have written that the law - which is what Vale was arguing about, and so what the discussion centred around - requires that all women have such counselling.

    I have read Giving Sorrow Words, and I don't deny or discount the experiences of those women. My book questions the information provided by, and the motives of, those who use post-abortion depression as a political tactic and it does so in the context of a wider discussion about the tactics of those who would restrict women’s choices.

    Finally, my book is about fighting for the rights of women to control their own bodies and lives. In the chapter you’re referencing I don’t talk only about abortion, but about the many and various ways governments try to limit the choices women can make about their own bodies. For example, the case in the US where a woman was forced to have a c-section against her will. So when you write about the right not to choose abortion, I can only say that I agree and that, in fact, a great deal of my feminist writing and work is about ensuring that women are economically, socially and legally supported in making decisions that are best for them.


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