The Mourning After
The problem, of course, is that Post-Abortion Syndrome, as the mixture of purported symptoms has become known, does not exist. As a disease, it is the bastard child of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which officially became a psychological disorder in 1980. PAS proponents claim that many women--maybe epidemic numbers of women--who have had abortions experience guilt, shame, lowered self-esteem, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, anger toward men, sexual dysfunction, depression and even suicidal thoughts or attempts; to cope, these women often turn to alcohol or drugs or sexual promiscuity; marriages often fall apart. Activists also claim a strong association between abortion and child abuse: willingness to harm the unborn, the logic goes, leads to a willingness to harm the born.
The data to prove the existence of PAS come from a combination of deeply flawed original research--featuring tiny samples and lack of controls--and the manipulation of large samples into correlations from which pseudo-researchers claim causation. Among the most prominent forms of "data" circulating in the American political system are a few thousand PAS testimonies collected with the express purpose of being used in court to help overturn Roe v. Wade--hardly a scientific sample.
This is not to say that some people don't experience mixed emotions after abortion. Indeed, experts suggest that complex feelings after abortion are common and compare these to similar dynamics around marriage, childbearing and other major life decisions.
But PAS advocates aren't talking about everyday ambivalence or even sadness: they're talking about devastating, life-changing pathology, which mainstream research simply does not support. Post-Abortion Syndrome does not exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the widely used guide to accepted disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association convened a task force that is completing a major review of all the postabortion research; this year it is expected to offer a serious critique of those studies and the methodologies used to compose them. Indeed, studies tend to show that the biggest predictor of postabortion troubles is preabortion troubles. Of the link between abortion and postabortion psychological problems, Nada Stotland, president-elect of the APA, says "it's a dead horse."
But the weakness of PAS as a psychological disorder does not slow its spread: the syndrome has political legs.
Among the hundreds of panels at the National Right to Life Committee's annual conference last July was one on "Lost Fatherhood," focusing on the grief of "postabortive" men. Then in November, the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored the first conference on Post-Abortion Syndrome among men. Titled "Reclaiming Fatherhood," it was set up as a "safe space" for men healing from abortion. "You might need tissues," organizer Vicki Thorn, founder of the Catholic Church's postabortion counseling project, Project Rachel, and founder and head of the nonprofit National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation, told the group as the conference began. "Give yourself the time and space to unwind, because you don't want to leave here so uptight because of the pain and suffering you heard."
Held in the basement of St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, the gathering of 175 participants from nine countries was filled with gentle talk in gentle tones, typical of the conversation around men's PAS these days. Vincent Rue, an amiable psychology-professor type and the dean of PAS research, whose two presentations were the centerpieces of the conference, opened one of his talks invoking T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men" as a metaphor for postabortive men: "Remember us--if at all--not as lost/ Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men."
It was that kind of conference. The presenters who spoke included not activists or strategists but Christian-oriented counselors, men's healing gurus, a priest and two researchers, including Rue, who directs the Florida-based Institute for Pregnancy Loss. Indeed, before the event prochoice activists had talked about protesting the conference but decided it wasn't the right atmosphere for confrontation.