Crisis Pregnancy Centers and the Myth of “Post-Abortion Syndrome”

Protest outside a health center in Los Angeles that provides inaccurate information about abortion
Protest outside a health center in Los Angeles that provides inaccurate information about abortion / Photo: NoHoDamon (cc)
By Rachel Walden |

“Post-abortion syndrome” — the idea that abortion causes significant mental health damage — is not a real, evidence-based diagnosis.

While individuals who have abortions may have a wide variety of positive and negative feelings afterward (as do women who continue their pregnancies), there is no sound evidence that having an abortion itself leads to psychological harm. Studies that anti-abortion activists claim support the notion are often methodologically flawed, or have been misinterpreted.

How, then, did the notion that a “post-abortion syndrome” exists spread?

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In an article published earlier this year in the journal Social Science and Medicine, sociologist Kimberly Kelly explores the role of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in spreading the post-abortion syndrome (PAS) myth. She writes:

Post abortion counseling programs originated in CPCs in the early 1970s, long before PAS came to national attention in the 1980s and even before the formal moniker ‘Post Abortion Syndrome’ was coined. CPC activists initially approached professional counselors about post abortion counseling in the early 1970s but were rebuffed when professionals rejected their claims about abortion.

Undeterred, centers developed Biblically-based counseling programs and began promoting them through client contacts and local churches. These efforts have continued through the present day, with PAS claims made by CPC activists growing more sophisticated and garnering more influence.

The purpose of spreading false information about health consequences is to scare women away from exercising their legal rights. This is much like what we see with Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws: Legislators who support requiring abortion providers to have local hospital admitting privileges, or requiring health clinics to meet ambulatory surgical center standards, say they just want to protect women, but these laws are not developed based on real medical or safety problems stemming from abortion.

The goal of these laws has nothing to do with women’s health — and everything to do with preventing or discouraging women from being able to obtain a legal abortion.

Kelly explains how the tactics involved in spreading misinformation are intended to undermine not only medical evidence but also women’s confidence:

Within local centers, PAS rhetoric serves as a warning to pregnant CPC clients considering abortion. CPCs present clients with pamphlets, films, and lay counseling practices designed to promote a very specific vision of the effects of abortion on women. While it seems likely that some clients would reject these warnings as unrealistic or exaggerated, CPC movement leaders instruct lay counselors to dispel the clients’ doubts by undermining any notions that such complications are rare.

If the client seems to disbelieve such things could happen to her, the counselor is instructed to ask her if she also thought the chances of becoming pregnant were small as well. Such a strategy seeks to undermine a client’s self-knowledge and plant doubt in her mind as to whether she actually understands her own needs concerning pregnancy and mental health.

Kelly also notes that proponents of PAS ignore the real harms possible from pregnancy and childbirth:

In order to make PAS credible, advocates must claim abortion is uniquely damaging to women while implying childbirth is automatically beneficial. In order to do so, PAS advocates rely on implicit social ideas regarding women’s maternity as natural, healthy, and positive, and anything preventing this maternity as unnatural and damaging. PAS discourse must ignore other relevant evidence in order to make these claims and invoke narrowly defined gender roles stressing women’s reproductive roles to make their claims. For example, childbirth is statistically riskier than first trimester abortion, both physically and psychologically, yet PAS proponents argue it is abortion that inflicts the most predictable damage upon women.

After tracing the history of PAS claims, Kelly comes to the following conclusion about this socially promoted “syndrome”:

Social criteria outweighing scientific evidence in debates over medical conditions is not new. However, in the case of PAS, social claims and gender stereotypes outweighed scientific research that directly contradicted its existence. The conclusions of credible professional organizations were circumvented by evangelical anti-abortion activists. Claims about women’s innate natures that draw upon gender stereotypes still resonate powerfully enough with the American public that PAS claims appear legitimate. PAS claims, to the extent they are taken seriously by policymakers, are solutions to the abortion ‘problem’ decried by antiabortion activists and justify policies that seek to enforce traditional gender roles.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Humans are flawed individuals. Unplanned pregnancies happen. Living with the lifelong consequence of a momentary lapse of judgment (or other condition that leads to pregnancy, ie, force) should not be forced on a woman. I’m sure there are some who regret that an abortion was necessary, but as someone who has been there…if I’d been forced to go thru with my unplanned pregnancy, my life and many others would have been ruined. Going thru with the pregnancy & giving it up for adoption was not an option. No PAS for me. Ever. I know I made the right decision for myself and those closest to me.

  2. Nicola says:

    I can see that maybe the idea of a ‘syndrome’ is a bit far-fetched, but I wish someone had made me aware before I went through (over 30 years ago) it that it was something that is was possible to regret. Nobody even warned me, and I couldn’t understand how I could be so upset by something that was – supposedly – my own choice. I think grief and regret describe it better than the word ‘syndrome’, and it was the biggest mistake of my life. Yes, not everyone feels this way, but women should be warned that some people do.

  3. Barb says:

    As someone who experienced PAS and has now recovered from it, I can tell you it is VERY real. I don’t need a study to tell me it isn’t or it is. I experienced it. I don’t need “anti-choice” people confirming it and I don’t need “pro-choice” people denying it.

    I have counseled women for over two decades now who needed help from past abortions. Some just needed a little support to understand their emotions. Most suffered from PAS. There is a difference, I’ve seen it.

    Since this has been a focus of mine for decades, I do consider myself a bit of an expert. I’ve read studies on both sides of the issue. None of that matters when I’m working with someone who is in a pit of despair.

    I’m not saying ALL women who have abortion will experience PAS. But believe me, MANY do. I base this opinion on facts I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, not on theory or someone’s opinion based on their position regarding abortion.