The Manipulation of ‘Post-Abortion Syndrome’: Part One

Marcy Bloom

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE - El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

As the 34th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade was approaching last week, I was both intrigued and surprised by the extensive January 21st New York Times Magazine cover piece entitled "Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?" To a certain extent, the article did attempt to cover both sides of the issue on whether or not this syndrome actually exists. However, the "star" and true centerpiece of the article is a 53-year-old woman named Rhonda Arias who describes herself as an "abortion recovery counselor." Her work began fifteen years ago when she had "what she describes as a revelation from God...she decided that her own pain and unhappiness were rooted in the abortion she had...when she was 19...it was like I'd done the worst thing I could possibly do...a piece of evil had entered me."

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE – El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

As the 34th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade was approaching last week, I was both intrigued and surprised by the extensive January 21st New York Times Magazine cover piece entitled "Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?" To a certain extent, the article did attempt to cover both sides of the issue on whether or not this syndrome actually exists. However, the "star" and true centerpiece of the article is a 53-year-old woman named Rhonda Arias who describes herself as an "abortion recovery counselor." Her work began fifteen years ago when she had "what she describes as a revelation from God…she decided that her own pain and unhappiness were rooted in the abortion she had…when she was 19…it was like I'd done the worst thing I could possibly do…a piece of evil had entered me."

Wow. That is powerful stuff. I feel for this woman—I really do. She is clearly in pain and is very hurt, grief-stricken, and scarred. I worked in abortion care for 34 years and have deep, enduring compassion for women's complex struggles, pain, and conflicts. From my years of experience, I know that the overwhelming number of women who have legal abortions experience relief, adjust well, and do not encounter notable emotional, spiritual, or psychological problems. If they did, I would certainly know—as would everyone else involved in the profession of reproductive health care and abortion medicine.

Yet a debate has emerged. The American Psychological Association has concluded that "the time of greatest distress is likely to be before the abortion. Severe negative reactions after abortions are rare and can best be understood in the framework of coping with normal life stress." Other scientific evidence-based research has reached the same findings. The major proponent of the "post-abortion syndrome" movement, a subset of the anti-choice movement, is David Reardon of the Elliott Institute. He claims that his studies prove otherwise. Reardon describes his strategy to create a new anti-choice movement as one that appears pro-woman and moves away from the focus on the fetus. "The whole dynamic of the abortion debate can rapidly change with this potential of post-abortion healing…we must educate the public about how abortion hurts women…stealth healers need to offer mercy and forgiveness to ‘post-aborted women' and then use them as compelling advocates for the unborn."

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Rhonda Arias, a woman stuck in her own pain and grief who clearly has never been allowed to truly heal after her abortion, is one of these "stealth healers." According to the NY Times description, this woman's "ministry" appears dishonest, manipulative, and, ultimately, harmful. As Christian Fiala MD, PhD, an obstetrician-gynecologist, family medicine physician, abortion provider in Austria, and president of FIAPAC/International Federation of Professional Abortion and Contraception Associates wrote to me after reading this article, "She is on a personal crusade. This is the opposite of professional behavior. In health care, we need to respect the patient and act in his/her best interest. However, this woman is trying to convince others of her personal mission, which is a truly religious act."

So true. Ms. Magazine wrote about these emerging new anti-choice tactics of the last 15 years as exemplified by Ms. Arias:

"Using the allure of outward compassion, dozens of anti-choice ‘post-abortion syndrome' organizations have sprung up…these groups believe that abortion is ALWAYS (emphasis mine) a wrong choice… (and)… they often engage women in three steps toward recovery:

1. confession of their mistake/sin,

2. reconciliation, usually through a ritual…or retreat…that includes a ‘name your baby' ceremony, and

3. restitution of some sort…frequently, to speak out against abortion and lobby for anti-choice legislation."

There it is, then. I passionately want to see post-abortion healing for those women who regret their abortions and need additional help and support to heal. But I am offended and adamantly oppose seeing women used or manipulated for another type of gain. This is exactly what Reardon and Arias are doing. As William W. West, Jr., MD, an abortion provider and psychiatrist in Texas passionately expresses in an unpublished paper, "…Some women terminating an unwanted pregnancy may feel sadness and a sense of loss. It appears, however, that the overall negative social and political climate surrounding abortion has more to do with creating the psychological difficulties some women face than the abortions themselves. A lack of social support for an unplanned pregnancy, misleading anti-choice messages that are designed to inflict fear, guilt, and shame, and anti-choice groups that harass and intimidate woman at clinics have more to do with the experience of emotional distress than the actual abortion."

I can certainly attest to that. When I was the executive director at Aradia Women's Health Center, we were picketed every Friday and Saturday by such groups. Signs and verbal assaults that label women as murderers, butchers, sinners, and baby-killers are hardly healing mechanisms. As Dr. West indicates, they can only cause pain and stigma. Still, for years, I observed women having their abortions under such potentially guilt-inducing circumstances while the clinic staff tried to create a supportive and nurturing atmosphere. It was the rare woman who asked for post-abortion counseling, although we offered it to everyone after their abortion if/when they felt they needed it.

So what did we talk about in these "post-abortion counseling" sessions? I will discuss that further in Part 2 later this week.

To be continued…

News Health Systems

The Crackdown on L.A.’s Fake Clinics Is Working

Nicole Knight

"Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options," Feuer said. "And therefore every day is a day that a woman's health could be jeopardized."

Three Los Angeles area fake clinics, which were warned last month they were breaking a new state reproductive transparency law, are now in compliance, the city attorney announced Thursday.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a press briefing that two of the fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, began complying with the law after his office issued notices of violation last month. But it wasn’t until this week, when Feuer’s office threatened court action against the third facility, that it agreed to display the reproductive health information that the law requires.

“Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options,” Feuer said. “And therefore every day is a day that a woman’s health could be jeopardized.”

The facilities, two unlicensed and one licensed fake clinic, are Harbor Pregnancy Help CenterLos Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

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Feuer said the lawsuit could have carried fines of up to $2,500 each day the facility continued to break the law.

The Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care. Unlicensed centers must disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Feuer’s office in May launched a campaign to crack down on violators of the law. His action marked a sharp contrast to some jurisdictions, which are reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach as fake clinics’ challenges to the law wind through the courts.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Some 25 fake clinics operate in Los Angeles County, according to a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California, though firm numbers are hard to come by. Feuer initially issued notices to six Los Angeles area fake clinics in May. Following an investigation, his office warned three clinics last month that they’re breaking the law.

Those three clinics are now complying, Feuer told reporters Thursday. Feuer said his office is still determining whether another fake clinic, Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, is complying with the law.

Fake clinic owners and staffers have slammed the FACT Act, saying they’d rather shut down than refer clients to services they find “morally and ethically objectionable.”

“If you’re a pro-life organization, you’re offering free healthcare to women so the women have a choice other than abortion,” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents several Los Angeles fake clinics fighting the law in court.

Asked why the clinics have agreed to comply, Bowman reiterated an earlier statement, saying the FACT Act violates his clients’ free speech rights. Forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs,” Bowman said.

Reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, Googling “abortion clinic” might turn up results for a fake clinic that discourages abortion care.

“Put yourself in the position of a young woman who is going to one of these centers … and she comes into this center and she is less than fully informed … of what her choices are,” Feuer said Thursday. “In that state of mind, is she going to make the kind of choice that you’d want your loved one to make?

Rewire last month visited Lost Angeles area fake clinics that are abiding by the FACT Act. Claris Health in West Los Angeles includes the reproductive notice with patient intake forms, while Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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