Context for the Development of 'Post-Abortion Syndrome'
By Ellie Lee
Prepared for the Symposium 'The psychological sequelae of
abortion - myths and facts',
Berne, Switzerland, 31/5/01
*Thanks to Dr David
Paintin for his help in the preparation of this paper
As a sociologist, my research interest lies in the study of the
construction of social problems. My research investigates the
social processes through which certain activities, actions and
other social phenomenon come to be perceived by members of society,
in particular by law and policy makers, as problems that require
laws to be passed or policies to be made.
The abortion issue is particularly fascinating. This is because
the extent to which abortion is perceived as a problem, why it
is considered to be a problem, and by whom it is perceived in
this way, has changed so much over time, and varies so much between
In pre-modern societies abortion was certainly widely practiced,
and there is little evidence to suggest that abortion was considered
a social problem. Legal regulation of abortion in the Roman Empire,
for example, was almost non-existent, and law held that 'a child
in the belly of its mother' was not a person, and hence abortion
was not murder (Luker 1984: 12). Even under early Catholic law,
early abortions were legally ignored, and only late abortions
could be prosecuted (ibid: 13-14)
Abortion, in the US and Britain, was not considered a social problem,
that required a legal response, until the early 19th century.
The common law of England prohibited abortion after quickening
but this did not become a statute law felony until Lord Ellenborough's
Maiming and Wounding Act of 1803. The same act also made abortion
before quickening a misdemeanour for the first time. It has been
suggested that among the underlying reasons for including abortion
in this comprehensive revision of the criminal law were policing
the behavior of single women and moving control over early pregnancy
from midwives and handy women to the medical profession (McLaren
Thus, when abortion was originally outlawed in Britain (and North
America) the most influential advocates of prohibitive laws were
in fact not religious or legal organisations, but doctors. It
was doctors who argued that abortion was a problem, and that women
should not be allowed to abort pregnancies at will. There was
no significant political and church-based anti-abortion movement
that we are now so familiar with.
The anti-abortion movement as we know it today emerged much more
recently, following the re-legalisation of abortion, and the emergence
in the 1970s of the modern movement for women's rights. The debate
on the rights of the fetus on the one hand and the rights of women
on the other has been specific to quite recent history.
The nature of the abortion debate, and the way in which abortion
is presented as a problem, has thus varied quite considerably
over time. As the title of this paper indicates, it has in recent
years come to be the case that abortion opponents have argued
that law and policy makers should consider abortion a problem
in a different way again. Abortion, they have argued, can lead
to a serious psychiatric condition, termed 'Post -Abortion Syndrome'.
They have attempted to suggest this is so frequent and so severe
that abortion that should be legally prohibited or, at the very
least, women should be discouraged from having abortions, and
warned through counselling that they are likely to suffer psychologically
if they do so.
In this paper, my aim is to consider why this particular construction
of the abortion 'problem' has emerged. It is important to note
that the claim that abortion can lead to PAS has now emerged in
a number of societies, including the US, the UK, Australia, and
now Switzerland. Its origin, however, is in the US, and thus I
will restrict my comments to events that have happened there.
But opponents of abortion have cross-national links, and arguments
developed by the most powerful anti-abortion movement in the world,
that in the US, are often used in other societies after a period
The emergence of Post Abortion Syndrome (PAS)
By the mid-1980s in the US, the major anti-abortion organisations
had begun to make reference to PAS in their publications and in
their comments in the press. A particular individual, Dr Vincent
Rue, has however been credited with developing the argument for
PAS, and its diagnostic criteria. In the early 1980s Rue gave
a number of papers at conferences organised by anti-abortion organisations
where he put forward his argument that abortion can lead to PAS.
Since that time he, together with Anne Speckhard, has published
a number of book chapters and journal articles about this issue.
In their writings on abortion, Rue and Speckhard emphasise that
the psychological effects of terminating pregnancy should not
be underestimated; rather, it is 'possible that the decision to
elect abortion can generate significant resulting psychosocial
distress' (Speckhard and Rue 1992: 96). In 'Post-abortion Syndrome:
A Variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder', a contribution to
a collection of essays about PAS, Rue argues that:
while abortion may indeed function as a 'stress reliever' by eliminating
an unwanted pregnancy, other evidence suggests that it may also
simultaneously or subsequently be experienced by some individuals
as a psychosocial stressor, capable of causing posttraumatic stress
disorder (PTSD)......We suggest that this constellation of dysfunctional
behaviors and emotional reactions should be termed "Postabortion
syndrome (PAS)" (Rue 1995:20).
The argument made is therefore that abortion is sufficiently stressful
to lead to post traumatic stress disorder, and that the particular
form of PTSD that results from abortion should be 'named' as a
specific psychological disorder, called PAS.
A noteworthy feature of this argument is the representation of
the 'symptoms' of PAS. Rue explicitly compares the 'symptoms'
of PAS and those which are said to be characteristic of PTSD,
a condition first 'named' by psychiatrists following the return
of soldiers from the Vietnam war (Scott 1990, Young 1995). He
argues 'the symptoms are the same: flashbacks, denial, lost memory
of the event, avoidance of the subject' (Rourke 1995: E-1). He
has also developed 'diagnostic criteria' for PAS, along the lines
of the criteria for PTSD given in the American Manual of Psychiatric
Disorders, the DSM. According to these criteria, the abortion
experience is defined as a stressor, sufficiently traumatic so
as to cause the symptoms of re-experience, avoidance and impacted
grieving. Thus, PAS is presented as a form of a specific psychiatric
However, it is important to bear in mind that often the diagnostic
criteria given shift from a definition of the 'symptoms' of PAS
where the proposed comparison with PTSD is made clear, to a much
broader collection of 'symptoms' that could perhaps more accurately
be described as negative feelings.
In the same chapter where the above 'diagnostic criteria' for
PAS are given, Rue lists a wide range of feelings, and forms of
behavior that he argues might be evident in women who have had
an abortion. These include feelings of helplessness, hopelessness,
sadness, sorrow, lowered self-esteem, distrust, regret, relationship
disruption, communication impairment and/or restriction and self
condemnation (Rue 1995: 20).
Associating this broad range of 'symptoms' with a diagnosis of
PAS is a significant aspect of the argument, since it lets its
proponents argue that large numbers of women may suffer from the
syndrome. To put it simply, as the 'diagnostic criteria' for PAS
becomes broader, it is easier to claim that many women may suffer
from the 'syndrome'.
PAS and the 'moral stalemate'
How and why did this argument emerge? I suggest there are three
main factors that explain its development. The first factor can
be termed the 'moral stalemate' in the abortion debate in the
US. As I noted earlier, abortion has, since the 1970s at least,
been construed a problem because it 'takes a life'. Abortion has
therefore be presented by its opponents as a moral question, with
those who support its availability as morally wrong.
But this argument has had limited success in convincing those
involved in law and policy making, and the general public, that
they should oppose abortion. It had become evident by the early
1980s, a decade after abortion was made legal in the US, that
the moralised focus of anti-abortion argument had succeeded in
generating much debate about the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe
v. Wade, that legalised abortion, but no consensus in favour of
overturning this law. It was the case, and remains the case today,
that whilst many might believe abortion to be a morally difficult
issue, or even morally wrong, they do not believe it should be
By the early 1980s it had become evident that there was a degree
of frustration amongst anti-abortion activists that they had not
managed to overturn Roe v Wade. Arguably this led to a diversification
of their arguments and tactics. The aim became not simply to reverse
Roe v. Wade on the grounds of the right to life of the fetus,
but also to find other ways of arguing for restricting access
to abortion. The argument that abortion should be restricted because
it leads to PAS develops as part of this strategy.
The argument for PAS had its greatest influence in the U.S. between
1987 and 1989. It was during this time that the then Surgeon General
of the US, Everett C. Koop undertook, at the behest of President
Ronald Reagan, an enquiry into the health effects of abortion.
It has been suggested by those who have studied the events of
this time that the context for the Koop enquiry was a 'stalemate'
on the abortion issue in the U.S., where, according to Wilmoth,
'pro-life advocates were unable to expand their political goals
beyond the successes of the early 1980s' (Wilmoth 1992:2). According
to Brian Wilcox of the American Psychological Association (APA),
who contributed a literature review on the psychological effects
of abortion to the Koop enquiry, anti-abortion movement leaders
had concluded that it would in fact be impossible to muster an
anti-abortion consensus on moral grounds, so they decided to follow
the model supplied by the antismoking campaign and develop a case
on public health grounds (Holden 1989).
The turn to health-based claims against abortion thus reflects
the limited success of morally based claims. To put in bluntly,
the anti-abortion movement has come to frame its arguments in
terms of health because it has failed to convince others that
abortion should be made illegal on moral grounds alone.
It is important to note that the development of health-based arguments
against abortion do not concern only mental health. For example,
abortion has been construed as a problem on the grounds that it
leads to infertility, and more recently that it causes breast
cancer. This last claim is currently perhaps the most visible
in the US and the UK at the present time.
PAS is therefore firstly a response to the failure of the anti-abortion
argument based on morality. There are, however, further issues
which explain why abortion is specifically presented as a cause
of a psychiatric syndrome, as I will discuss next.
Abortion and its relationship to mental health
The argument that abortion has a negative effect for women's
mental health did not begin with the anti-abortion movement in
the 1980s. For most of the 20th century, many psychiatrists, psychologists
and sociologists construed childbearing as positive psychologically,
and abortion as negative.
As British feminist psychologist Mary Boyle (1997) has pointed
out, there are powerful ideas at work in society about maternity
and its alternatives that can fly in the face of scientific evidence
to the contrary. Boyle cites research by Brewer, who found a five
to six times greater risk of psychosis after childbirth than abortion.
Other research has shown that fairly serious psychological distress
has been reported in around 20 per cent of women in the first
year following childbirth. Yet public discussion often highlights
the 'trauma' associated with abortion, rather than the psychological
effects of maternity. Boyle argues that the strength of the perception
that abortion is psychologically problematic for women rests on
powerful ideas concerning the desirability and 'naturalness' of
motherhood for women that have a long and complex history. In
her account of the debates about abortion in Britain, and the
US, she argues that maternity has over many years been powerfully
represented by the law, the medical profession and the media as
the desirable, natural outcome of pregnancy. The perception that
abortion will generate emotional or psychological problems therefore
rests on a construction of abortion as against women's nature.
The argument that abortion leads to psychological problems because
it represents a rejection of motherhood was made most directly
in the years before legal abortion. Taking attitudes to abortion
in the medical profession as their example, researchers Sarvis
and Rodman have shown that a perceived connection between the
psychological risks of abortion and the naturalness of motherhood
was dominant in the 1950s and 1960s. They suggest the view of
the American doctor Galdston was typical of medical opinion at
the time; he argued in the 1958 that '..woman's main role here
on earth is to conceive, deliver, and raise children...When this
function is interfered with, we see all sorts of emotional disorders...This
is not just textbook theory, as all who practice psychiatry very
well know'. (Sarvis and Rodman1973:109). Such views about abortion
were based on a perception that the woman seeking abortion was
Following the legalisation of abortion in the US, and other countries,
it became more difficult in the face of new research findings
to sustain the argument that psychiatric illness would result
in women who aborted unwanted pregnancies. In the last 20 years
in particular the notion that abortion leads inevitably to mental
ill-health has been questioned, and the possible negative effects
of unwanted motherhood highlighted. Nevertheless, the idea that
abortion is in some way traumatic has retained visibility and
resonance. It is against this background that the claim emanating
from anti-abortion groups, that women suffer from serious psychological
problems after abortion, emerged. The argument for PAS is an attempt
to draw on existing perceptions and assumptions about the negative
emotional effects of abortion, and the positive effects of motherhood.
However, it is very important to reiterate that the PAS claim
does not simply draw attention to the possibility that a woman
can experience negative feelings after abortion (which is uncontentious).
Rather, as I noted earlier, the PAS claim frames the psychological
effects of abortion in terms of a 'syndrome' or specific psychiatric
disorder resulting from abortion, which as I have suggested earlier,
it presented as a form of PTSD.
PTSD and PAS
I will therefore, comment briefly on why, in particular, PAS
is presented as a form of PTSD. The category PTSD was first specified
as a category of psychiatric disorder in the US, in 1981. Its
development as a category has a long a complicated history, but
is a response to the problems faced by American soldiers returning
from the Vietnam War. Many soldiers after this war did undoubtedly
experience mental health problems, but in addition they returned
to a society that did not teat them as heroes, but as something
of an embarrassment. A collection of anti-war psychiatrists, social
workers, and others working with veterans, were angry that society
in general, and military psychiatry in particular, was ignoring
the needs of the soldiers. They lobbied for compensation and for
treatment for the soldiers, and after a hard campaign over the
1970s, were successful in forcing American psychiatry to accept
that the soldiers suffered from a psychological illness, which
they named PTSD, and should be treated as a result.
Sociologists who have studied the history of PTSD have noted that
once it was accepted in 1981 by official American psychiatry,
it became what Eric Dean has called a 'disorder du jour' (Dean
1997: 201). It became common place to accept those who had experienced
difficult events would get PTSD. More and more groups of people,
who had experienced such events, such as domestic violence, rape,
or child abuse, came to be represented by their advocates as victims,
suffering from PTSD. Their claim for treatment and compensation
came to rest in part on the argument that others should recognise
their suffering on this basis.
By the mid 1980s, PTSD was part of the psychiatric and social
vocabulary in the US and had become widely accepted as a psychiatric
disease that follows negative experiences. This concept was central
to the arguments made by groups claiming victim status for those
they represent. I suggest the anti-abortion movement sought to
co-opt and use the same approach and vocabulary in relation to
women who have had an abortion. Those who argue for PAS compare
the psychological experience of women who have had abortion directly
to that of Vietnam veterans, women who have been raped and those
who suffer domestic violence. Women who terminate pregnancy are
thus represented as victims of their experience, who have been
traumatised by their abortions. Through utilising this approach,
anti-abortion movement activists attempt to present themselves
as 'on the side' of such victims, lobbying for their needs and
interests. Their claim is that they not only concerned about the
fetus, but also about the woman.
PAS could only have emerged in the 1980s, because its origin
lies not in the practice of abortion, or a change in its likely
psychological effects, but rather, in the politics of the anti-abortion
movement. Its context is a time when moral claims against abortion
had reached a stalemate, and when a new category of psychiatric
illness, PTSD, was being widely discussed in American society.
It is significant for the well being of women that PAS has not
enable the opponents of abortion to achieve their aims. In no
country have law and policy makers accepted that abortion leads
to PAS. Abortion has not been outlawed anywhere on this basis,
although in some American states, dominated by anti-abortion politicians,
women do receive legally enforced counselling that warns them
about PAS. In Britain it has had no effect on law and policy.
The reason for this is that in the US in particular, the medical
profession - the American Psychological Association (APA), the
American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association
- have all vigorously refuted the claim. They have, very publicly
and visibly, made it clear that they do not agree that abortion
leads to severe psychological damage, and that there is no evidence
For example, Brian Wilcox of the APA, who contributed a literature
review to the Koop study, argued in the prestigious journal Science
: 'although we searched and searched and searched, there was no
evidence at all for the existence of the "postabortion syndrome"
claimed by some right-to-life groups' (Holden 1989). Nancy Adler
from the APA was quoted in Time magazine, stating that '..abortion
inflicts no particular psychological damage on women' (Thompson
1989). A study carried out by the APA, reported on in 1990, found
that 'severe negative reactions after abortions are rare and can
best be understood in the framework of coping with a normal life
stress' (Brotman 1990). In an often quoted article, psychologists
associated with the American Psychological Association and other
influential scientific bodies argued in Science that: 'A review
of methodologically sound studies of the psychological responses
of U.S. women after they obtained legal, nonrestrictive abortions
indicates that distress is generally greatest before abortion
and that the incidence of severe negative responses is low'. In
May 1990, a panel at the American Psychiatric Association conference
argued that government restrictions on abortion are far more likely
to cause women lasting harm than the procedure itself would, and
that Association officials absolutely reject the definition [PAS],
on the basis there is no evidence at all to support it (Specter
1990). Nada Stotland of the American Psychiatric Association ,
wrote an article in 1992 for the American Medical Association
journal, entitled 'The Myth of the Abortion Trauma Syndrome',
which begins: 'This is an article about a medical syndrome that
does not exist,' and suggests that the only evidence is support
of the claim that there is such a syndrome is to be found in a
'...small number of papers and books based on anecdotal evidence
and stressing negative effects have been presented and published
under religious auspices and in the nonspeciality literature'.
Stotland argued that while women may experience abortion as a
loss, and thus feel sad afterwards, a feeling is 'not equivalent
to a disease', and that negative feelings should always be distinguished
from psychiatric illness (Stotland 1992).
The role of such medical experts in the American debate has been
very significant. Without the support of the medical profession,
it is very difficult indeed for opponents of abortion to convince
law and policy makers of their arguments. I would suggest that,
given the high profile of such respected medical organisations
in the US in this debate, and the extensive discussion it has
received in the medical press, it is unlikely that PAS will become
recognised anywhere in the world as a real psychological illness.
However, the invention of the concept of PAS has made women considering
abortion feel more anxious and worried than they might otherwise
be. It is important for the well being of women that they and
the health professionals they consult should know that there is
no sound evidence for the existence of PAS.
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