‘Support After Abortion’ Is Breaking New Ground

The organization’s latest research shows that women who have experienced medication abortions do not know how to find help if they need emotional healing.

‘Abortion Pill’
‘Abortion Pill’ (photo: New Africa / Shutterstock)

One of the ongoing projects for pro-life Catholics must be to continue reaching outside of Catholic faith communities to help those who are considering or have had abortions. Within Catholic parishes, resources are oftentimes readily available and advertised. Project Rachel has posters in the bathrooms; Birthright has a fill-the-bottle-with-change fund drive in the vestibule; Father announces the annual Advent giving tree every year from the pulpit.

But people who lack support outside the Catholic community may be harder to reach. It is always encouraging, then — and especially timely this year — to discover groups working to help women in the broader public sphere.

Support After Abortion (SAA) is one such nonprofit. Unlike many organizations in the pro-life world, it focuses on what happens after an abortion: as they write on their website, the group forms a network of more than 800 agencies that work “to individualize the care that a person impacted by abortion receives to find the hope and healing they deserve.”

SAA founder Janine Marrone explained that, while SAA produced an initial study that considered reproductive loss generally, the research in that area is extensive, while there is “very little on abortion loss.” Having been a pro-life advocate for many years, in 2016 Marrone “was deeply moved by a guest speaker sharing the emotional pain she suffered from abortion.” At this point, Marrone wrote, she “realized that millions of people — women and men — are hurting from abortion, and aren’t being reached by the traditional focus on the mother and baby.”

A recent pair of studies released by SAA and the accompanying white paper summarizing their findings suggest that there is indeed a need for a network like SAA to refer people for therapeutic help. The studies focus on pill abortions (mifepristone and misoprostol) rather than surgical abortions because, as Marrone explained, medication abortions have skyrocketed, and now make up more than 50% of abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The Guttmacher Institute and other prochoice organizations present medication abortions as safe and effective, and doctors and nurses may describe pill abortions as feeling like “cramping” — a term also frequently used to describe loss in miscarriage. But much as the physical and emotional pain of miscarriage is oftentimes downplayed, so too medical and advocacy organizations that encourage abortion access rarely discuss the physical and emotional pain that may accompany abortions. And the idea that women who have experienced this pain deserve healing is something that people on all sides of the abortion debate can agree on.

According to the SAA’s research, the absence of a traditional abortion experience did not mean an absence of emotional effect for the women who used pills. Asked whether their “perspective or outlook about [themselves] or [their decision] [had] changed since experiencing the medical abortion,” 39% of the women responding said there were changes, and 34% described those changes in negative terms. Of the 39%, the white notes, “three out of four — 74.6% — did not seek psychological healing. Of the women surveyed, only 18.4% were aware of organizations that provide counseling after abortion.”

Also of note, 35% of the respondents “said they could have benefited from talking to someone,” but “none of the respondents would go to a clergy person for help” — indeed, “90% said they seldom to never attend religious services,” and “78% said anonymity was important in a healing program.”

These are not people who will be at home in a traditional faith-based program, but they are people in need of healing. As Marrone describes it, this research helps to show “in a scientific way, how women are impacted emotionally, short and long-term, by what is now the most common type of abortion.”

The most obvious limit to the study — and its companion study involving men — is the self-reporting design. But, as Marrone observes, “An alternative design is to be dependent on abortion providers sharing access to their records, and administering a questionnaire or prospectively inviting certain participants into a follow-up interview. This is likely to provide extensive selection bias, like what we see in The Turnaway Study.”

That being said, Marrone emphasizes that the researchers were determined to find “a representative sample of women who experienced a medication abortion,” and “took several steps to reduce bias,” including commissioning a third-party professional research firm (Oklahoma-based Shapard Research) to design and administer the study electronically and anonymously, and to compile the results afterward.

Pro-life advocates ought not to overstate their case when it comes to women’s emotional pain. In this survey, more than half the women did not consider that their abortion experience had changed them; only about one-third of the respondents thought there was some negative change in their self-image or their ideas about abortion. But in the self-reported comments many women express dissatisfaction with the pill abortion experience, both regarding the amount of pain they experienced and the lack of warning they were given about it.

One woman said, “It was far more painful than expected — I had already undergone surgical years before.” Another described the experience as “horrific” and “100 times more painful than [she was] told.” The same woman described herself as remaining “strongly pro-choice.” These are not responders influenced by their religious or ethical beliefs to think that they had bad experiences with abortion — they are women who had bad experiences with abortions, period. And they weren’t given sufficient warning beforehand or help afterward.

For such people — people who may be at home, oftentimes alone, and struggling with a physical and emotional experience they did not expect — SAA’s care line is open.

“One client’s story that sticks with me,” Marrone wrote, “is a woman who called our Line for help the day after her medication abortion was completed. She said she couldn’t stop crying and that she and her boyfriend saw the baby’s arms and legs. She said they hadn’t realized how developed the baby would be. They were both really shaken and distraught. She said they felt so guilty and emotional and needed to talk to someone.”

That is an isolated story, yes, but it is a story that should never have happened. It’s proof that we need more caution, more empathy, and more education in the medical profession — and also that we need more diverse pro-life, pro-women groups. It’s good to know that Support After Abortion is helping to fill that gap.