The Most Traumatic Thing About Abortions Is the Judgment
Cynthia was 20 when she got pregnant. She wasn’t allowed to go out with anybody, let alone have sex. Breaking the news to her parents was an unimaginable act. The apprehension that came with the pregnancy was so intense for her, Cynthia says it never even crossed her mind to keep the child.
“It was like I was not pregnant, and I had to get the abortion to ensure I continue to be not pregnant,” Cynthia says. “It wasn’t even a child I aborted — more like a cold that had to be cured.”
Cynthia’s account, like countless other people who have gotten abortions, doesn’t fit the majority rhetoric surrounding abortions. Borne out of a perceived religious and moral turpitude of modern times, antiabortion activists allege that abortions are not only morally abhorrent and akin to murder but also severely harmful to the mental health of people who get them. They decry abortions because it leads to “postabortion traumatic stress syndrome” — a supposedly traumatic response to getting an abortion that can result in suicide — the existence of which scientists have been unable to prove so far. Even in pop culture, abortions are always treated as a milestone in a person’s life, a source of sadness, trauma, and often regret. If you’ve had an abortion, you’re marked as the kind of person who’s had an abortion, as though it’s a defining personality trait.
Cynthia’s first abortion was a breeze, despite the dangers of hiding it from a family that could be depended upon to go berserk at the news. The second abortion she had, however, was a “massive fuck up” and included a mean, unhelpful gynaecologist who prescribed pain meds that didn’t suit her. Looking back, Cynthia says it’s a “weird space” to be in. “The most difficult issue with it is that you fall into this section where you barely have rights. You do have access to abortions and you can go get one, but nobody is going to support you, and if something goes wrong, you won’t get justice.”
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Herein lies the crux of a lot of bad memories people associate with abortions. They don’t necessarily stem from the abortion procedure itself — or the seemingly formidable, blasphemous choice of getting rid of a bunch of cells that could one day become a baby — but instead arise from the impossible difficulties society has lined up for those seeking to exercise their reproductive rights.
For M.S., 26, the external hurdles arrived in the form of societal stigma the first time around — at the age of 20, she, like Cynthia, had to hide her pregnancy from her parents. While her partner was in a different city, she had to track down a doctor far away from her neighborhood and endure judgment from nurses, who interrogated her about her marital status and berated her for having sex. The second time around, M.S. encountered a similar situation with a radiology lab technician, who tried to convince her to keep the child, coaxing her to look at the image of the cells and feel empathy for it. “I couldn’t even be rude to the guy while he had a rod inside me,” she says, adding, “I was helpless. It was so uncomfortable.”
Looking back, M.S. says the many traumatic connotations attached to her memory of getting abortions were “more to do with societal behavior than how I felt about it at the time.” She adds, “That’s where the trauma lies — let women make these choices; they know what’s best for their bodies. You don’t know anything about their body, their mental health. My hormones were all over the fucking place; I was so vulnerable to what people were throwing at me.” M.S. says she’s incredibly thankful she took the decision to get an abortion: “It was a selfless decision for me to take. I wasn’t prepared to take care of a child. I’d be dooming it for life if I had kept it.” For now, M.S. says she’s focusing on her personal growth and has no plans for a kid. “I’m staunch on the fact that’s not on the table. It’s not even in the room.”
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Shourya, 22, says finding a non-judgmental gynecologist that would do the procedure, no questions asked, is a monumental task that makes getting an abortion even more challenging. “When I went to the clinic I had found from an Economic Times article on feminist doctors, there were no posters on the walls that showed it was okay to abort,” she said, having gotten an abortion earlier this year. “There is hardly ever any narrative about not wanting children — especially for women, it’s not okay.” Shourya says her feminist upbringing, coupled with the fact that she had resources to pay for her abortion, had friends and a partner who supported her, made the process much easier. Even then, the societal shame attached to abortions got to her in the end. “If this process had been easy to get through, if it was normalized, all this would have been so much easier.” She adds, “I was hiding my file at home, debating whether I should burn it. Why did I have to care about that? This should not be a concern. It becomes harder to accept the abortion as part of your past.”
In many cases, this normalization of getting an abortion also depends on how much value society places on motherhood. In patriarchal societies such as India’s, women are often taught motherhood is their life’s main calling, and therefore any choice that detracts from the path is automatically one to denounce. But for those who have shunned these norms, getting an abortion, and feeling relatively unburdened after it, becomes an easier reality to achieve.
“The holier than thou idea of motherhood, that without children you’re incomplete, that’s where the trauma stems from, rather than the actual process,” Bushra, 33, who had an abortion almost 10 years ago, says. “I’ve never put this divinity to motherhood, it was never a question of ‘Am I sinning?’ Sometimes you’re just not ready.”
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For Bushra, who also had excellent medical care and supportive friends during her abortion, “it has ended up as something that simply happened. Just get on with life, let’s just move on,” she says. “Ultimately, it ends up in what we give importance to.”
The severe lack of comprehensive research surrounding abortions invisibilizes experiences such as Bushra’s, which are often considered deviant. Existing research that alleges severe mental health detriment post-abortions has already been criticized for having methodological flaws. For example, it has only surveyed women who wanted a baby and had to get an abortion. This narrows the scope of abortion-related research, as it does not account for the variety of experiences and feelings of those having had abortions. Furthermore, these studies also draw direct and causative connections between a person’s mental health and their abortion, which scientists have long debunked as flawed practice.
B., for example, at the age of 34, had an unplanned pregnancy that she decided to carry to term. Between 14 and 15 weeks of her pregnancy — quite late to have an abortion — B.’s doctor informed her there was only a 50% chance her baby would be born healthy; the other 50% could result in her baby being born with a congenital defect. For B., making the choice to get an abortion was the hardest part of the whole process. “I had just gotten used to the idea that I was pregnant way before I wanted to be and then suddenly there was this reversal,” B. says. “The medical uncertainty made it all the more difficult. If the doctor had said there is no way the baby would survive, that would be very obvious, but the only part that was difficult was that it was a baby that could be perfectly healthy.” B. adds, “Once I made the decision, that I was not willing to accept the risk, once I made that choice, then everything after it, the practical thing of going through the procedure was not difficult — I had already reckoned with the difficult part.”
B. eventually had another child when she wanted to, which almost erased the memory of the abortion she had gotten. “The abortion doesn’t represent the end or the loss of something for me,” she says. Looking back, she adds, “There’s no emotion — to me, it was a thing that happened like I went to the grocery store. I barely remember it.”
B.’s experience indicates that the trauma related to the memory of getting an abortion is largely based on a host of external factors that accompany abortions rather than the act of getting the procedure itself. For B., good doctors, a supportive family, and her going on to fulfill some of her personal goals meant the abortion became but a blip despite the difficult choice she had to make.
Her experience shows the fallacy of not only published research but also the trauma narratives surrounding abortions — if the structures in place are encouraging and supportive, abortions don’t inherently have to be traumatic, or even a big deal. However, the unfortunate reality for most people seeking abortions in India is replete with societal stigma and a lack of access to safe medical services. Grappling with the idea of getting abortions, then, seems to be barely even related to the possibility of having a child, and more focused on getting through the difficult process. As long as the practice itself stays stigmatized, the legal right to get an abortion stays mired in sorrow and trauma. Cynthia sums it up: “If you’re assuming it’s bad for me, then why would you make it worse?”