Commentary Abortion

Sorry, Anti-Choicers, But Women Aren’t Mentally Ill Just Because You Want Them To Be

Amanda Marcotte

Louisiana is threatening to pass a bill that would require doctors to lie to women and tell them abortion causes mental health damage. This is bad news not just for abortion doctors, but for the mental health industry as well.

Trying to scare women by touting the risks of abortion—while studiously ignoring the much greater risks of carrying a pregnancy to term—is one of the anti-choice movement’s favorite tactics. (And, as is par for the course with anti-choicers, they can’t help but exaggerate or just plain make up risks in order to up the ante.) The latest in a long string of state bills requiring doctors to provide such misleading literature to women seeking abortion has popped up in Louisiana. But unlike many of these bills, which require doctors to provide literature with lies claiming abortion causes breast cancer and other physical ailments, this bill is focused strictly on false mental health claims.

Under House Bill 1262, which passed the Louisiana House of Representatives on Monday, abortion providers would be required to distribute a pamphlet that includes information about the “alleged psychological effects of abortion,” and lists names of mental health resources for women who are seeking assistance. Patients would be required to sign a form confirming that they received the pamphlet, and then wait at least 24 hours before returning for abortion care.

The committee that’s been assigned the task of writing the pamphlet is made up of anti-choice activists and politicians. Actual mental health professionals were barred from being on the panel, continuing in the grand right-wing tradition of extreme hostility to actual science and evidence. It’s no wonder in this case, since the research on abortion and mental health demonstrates that having an abortion has no impact on later mental health outcomes, meaning that actual mental health professionals might do something unpleasant, like object to flagrant lying to women in an attempt to scare them out of abortion. The sleaziness of this entire operation is hard to overstate.

It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going on here. As with issues, like climate change or evolutionary theory, Christian conservatives have decided that they can ignore scientists, with their “facts” and their “evidence,” and instead choose to believe lies because they sound better to them. For anti-choicers, the logic is straightforward: Women are supposed to be asexual beings who are more interested in having babies than having sex. Since abortion often means a woman was having sex for the enjoyment of it, without being interested in having a baby, that must mean she is malfunctioning. So she’s assigned the label of “crazy,” which is prettied up with faux concerned language about “mental health.”

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In other words, these pamphlets are just a gussied up version of trolls on Twitter yelling at women that they are “crazy” if they don’t adhere strictly to the troll’s model of how women should be.

Using feigned concerns about women’s mental health as a cover for efforts to control and oppress them has a long and disturbing history, often involving “treatments” that are clearly just punishments. Charlotte Perkins Gilman famously called this out for what it was in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” her fictionalized depiction of one of these punishment-treatments that was popular in the late 19th century, involving forced isolation under the guise of treatment for “hysteria.” (Nowadays, psychologists rightfully point out that social isolation is actually the cause for mental health damage, so much so that many human rights activists consider the use of solitary confinement in prisons to be a form of torture.)

The use of “mental health” as a cover to punish and shame women for resisting strict gender roles continued on after that, as was documented in the 1978 classic For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English. As with anti-choicers who are so “concerned” about women’s mental health now, Ehrenreich and English found that for two centuries now misogynists have been keen on classifying women as deviant and crazy if they ever showed symptoms of wanting to have more out of life than being a wife and mother, or if they ever had sexual desires that weren’t geared strictly toward procreative purposes.

What’s frustrating is that recent decades have shown a strong move in the medical and psychological world away from that, and toward supporting women’s actual mental health needs, regardless of how closely they’re adhering to female gender roles at any point in time. Respectable mental health professionals these days wouldn’t dare suggest there’s something wrong with a woman who wants to have non-procreative sex or who has a strong desire to control when and if she gives birth. On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence suggests that unintended childbearing has adverse health effects, including mental health effects.

And yet, here we have a bunch of science-rejecting conservatives still clinging to outdated and wholly disproven theories that women are “crazy” for wanting things like non-procreative sex and control over when they give birth. This not only poses a danger to women who are seeking abortion and might feel unnecessary fear about their decisions. By perpetuating the notion that women are “crazy” if they don’t adhere to extremely narrowly prescribed gender roles, anti-choicers are perpetuating mental health stigma and discouraging women who might actually need mental health care from getting it.

The fear of having the misogynist stereotype of the “crazy woman” applied to them surely keeps a lot of women who actually need mental health treatment from reaching out, instead opting to hide their mental health issues and hope that no one notices them. This goes double if you threaten them with mental health damage if they dare get an abortion. Should these women have mental health issues later—which some will, for reasons unrelated to the abortion, and just because a certain percentage of all people have mental health problems—the shaming and fear they got from the state may cause them to fear reaching out, lest they confirm that ugly stereotype.

This is why attacks on abortion have to be understood as being about more than just abortion itself. They inevitably end up having ripple effects that damage seemingly unrelated arenas, such as mental health care. The mental health industry has worked really hard to overturn decades of misogyny disguised as medical concern. Now the anti-choice movement is working to reverse some of the effects of all that hard work.

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