Analysis Abortion

Evidenced-Based Advocacy: (Mis)-Understanding Abortion Regret

Steph Herold

When we rely on a relief/regret dichotomy to define women's emotional experiences after their abortions, we leave little room for the complexity inherent in women’s reproductive lives.

Evidenced-Based Advocacy is a new bi-monthly column that aims to bridge the gap between the research and activist communities. It will profile provocative new abortion research that activists may not otherwise be able to access. 

“I Regret My Abortion:” we’ve all seen this infamous anti-choice sign, whether at a rally or outside a clinic. As pro-choice activists, our knee-jerk reaction may be to respond, whether aloud or in our own minds, with a reference to the plethora of research that suggests that relief, not regret, is the most commonly reported feeling after abortion.  Yet our knee-jerk reaction may be as stigmatizing as the anti-choice sign itself. When we rely on a relief/regret dichotomy, we leave little room for the complexity inherent in women’s reproductive lives.

Both the pro-choice and pro-life movements create simplistic narratives about women’s attachment to pregnancy. The pro-choice movement claims that women who have abortions do not experience regret afterwards because they form no attachment to their pregnancy, while conversely, the anti-choice movement claims that women always experience regret after an abortion because of an instantaneous bond with the pregnancy. 

The competing narratives of relief or regret alienate women who have more complicated relationships to their unwanted pregnancies. In her article “(Mis)Understanding Abortion Regret,” sociologist Katrina Kimport explores what makes some abortions more difficult emotional experiences than others (for a video abstract of her paper, see here).  She argues that instead of enforcing a relief/regret binary, we need to understand the emotional circumstances in which abortion decisions occur.

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To explore what makes some abortions emotionally difficult for some women, Kimport draws on in-depth interviews with 21 women recruited through two separate secular post-abortion support talklines. She postulates that emotional difficulty related to abortion has at least three factors:

1. Social disapproval

Social disapproval encompasses stigma, personal beliefs about abortion, and expectations of certain emotional reactions. For some women, social disapproval takes the form of experiencing judgment about the abortion from friends or family. For other women, it means confronting their lack of grief about the abortion after expecting to feel sadness.

2. Romantic relationship loss

Women who fell into this category were predominantly experiencing grief over the loss of a relationship, not the loss of a pregnancy. This includes shifts in relationships, unsupportive partners, and break-ups (often as a result of the pregnancy, not the abortion). One participant elaborated on the significance of relationship loss, saying, “I don’t think abortion can be emotionally harmful. I think the people in a woman’s life who are not supportive of her can be emotionally harmful.”

 3. Emotional conflict between head and heart

Kimport defines this category as composed of women who “saw abortion as the logical choice in their current circumstances, but some significant part of them also wanted to continue the pregnancy.” This includes myriad circumstances, such as women who want to raise a child but know that they can’t realistically afford to parent, women who want to parent but not with their current partner, and even women with medical conditions that make a current pregnancy unsafe. Notably, there were no clear demographic patterns among women who fit this category, and belonging in this category often also experienced social disapproval and/or relationship loss, compounding their experience of emotional difficulty.

We know that most abortions are not emotionally difficult. So what can we learn from women who have emotional difficulty around abortion? Kimport’s goal is not to provide us with an exhaustive list of sources of emotional difficulty around abortion. Instead, she suggests a new framework that emphasizes focusing on a woman’s relationship to her pregnancy, allowing for complex, even conflicting feelings.

In our continuing efforts to speak about abortion experiences with authenticity, we need to move past a regret/relief dichotomy that debates the effects of abortion procedure. Instead, Kimport suggests ways of framing the issue that more expansively consider the woman’s experience, such as “some circumstances can make abortion emotionally difficult,” or, to put it more simply, some abortions are hard. Kimport’s study adds to the body of literature that asserts that it’s often not the abortion itself that causes emotional difficulty, but rather the circumstances surrounding the abortion.

It’s also important to note that emotional difficulty with abortion is not a reason to restrict abortion. Mandatory ultrasounds, waiting periods, TRAP laws, and other restrictions do nothing to improve the emotional experiences of women obtaining abortions—they do not make friends and family less judgmental, they do not improve relationships, and they do not help a woman overcome a head vs heart conflict.

Kimport’s article opens the door for a more nuanced discussion of supporting women who have abortions on their own terms. She also invites us to consider more complex questions: How can we change the feeling rules around abortion such that women don’t expect to feel grief afterwards?  How can we prepare women for the judgment they may face from friends, or from themselves? Kimport’s article provides more evidence that women need depoliticized support to process any complex feelings they may have after an abortion. It’s our job now to use her research to make that happen.

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