Commentary Media

Abortion Didn’t Cause Robin Williams’ Death

Amanda Marcotte

It was just one anti-choice fanatic who eagerly blamed the suicide of Robin Williams on abortion, but it's indicative of the larger and incredibly sleazy tactic of linking abortion and depression, despite the lack of evidence of a connection.

Sometimes when I think we’ve hit the limit on what anti-choicers will try to link to their single-minded obsession with policing women’s sexual choices, someone will surprise me with a new low. Kevin Burke drew the card this week with a repugnant attempt to blame the suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams Monday on, you guessed it, abortion. The article was at LifeNews.com but, unsurprisingly, was taken down when the negative feedback started. Unluckily for them, Talking Points Memo has some of the details and Burke still has the same writing up at the Priests for Life blog.

In the article, Burke focuses on the fact that Williams had a girlfriend in the 1970s that had an abortion, which Williams brought up in a Playboy interview in 1992. From this information, Burke wildly speculates that pretty much every sad or bad thing that happened to Williams was because of this abortion. He starts by blaming the end of Wiliiams’ relationship on the abortion, arguing, “Few relationships survive the complex emotional pain and complicated grief that naturally follows the decision to abort one’s unborn child.” He goes on to speculate that Williams struggled with addiction and depression because of abortion.

The fact that Williams was unabashedly pro-choice is also rationalized away in a nasty manner: “The energy that would be better directed toward healing this loss is instead focused on the need to promote abortion accessibility for the poor and protecting woman’s health.” I love how he holds it out as self-evident that there’s something wrong with a person—they must be stifling their true feelings!—if they care about the well-being of women, particularly low-income women.

I’ll do Rewire readers a favor that Burke did not and actually link the interview where Williams talked about his personal experience with abortion, giving Williams the dignity of speaking for himself instead of letting some fundamentalist exploit him before his body is even cold.

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Seems like he understood perfectly well how he felt about it, and didn’t need some stranger telling him how to feel.

I’d love to write off this incident as just an example of one man whose obsessive nature has shut down all self-awareness, but the sad fact of the matter is that this willingness to distort the truth and to exploit the lack of public understanding about the realities of mental illness is endemic to the anti-choice movement. In fact, deliberately lying about the relationship of abortion and mental illness is a strategy that is employed by the anti-choice movement from top to bottom, and not only is it dangerous for abortion rights, it’s dangerous for people who have mental health issues.

Molly Redden at Mother Jones has an important piece up demonstrating how morally bankrupt the anti-choice movement is when it comes to pushing the discredited idea that abortion causes depression. She exposes how the State of Texas has paid Vincent Rue—a huge proponent of the abortion-causes-depression myth—$42,000 in the past six months to help the state defend the asinine idea that its abortion regulations aimed at shutting down most of its safe clinics are necessary. Problem is, Rue is a full-blown quack who doesn’t deserve to be trusted on the question of the sky’s color, much less on the mental health risks of abortion. As Redden writes:

But Rue, who holds a doctorate in family relations from the University of North Carolina School of Home Economics, is an odd choice for the job—”a long-discredited quack,” in the view of one state representative from Wisconsin, where Rue performed similar defense work. Although Rue testified about the harms of abortion in two landmark abortion cases in the early 1990s, the judges in those cases dismissed his testimony as personally biased and lacking expertise. Rue has pushed the medical mainstream to recognize “post-abortive syndrome”—a mental illness that supposedly results from abortion—only to have organizations such as the National Center for Health Statistics pan his research. In 1981, he claimed in a report to the US Senate that “abortion re-escalates the battle between the sexes” and “abortion increases bitterness toward men.”

Rue isn’t testifying in this case, but he has been paid to help the state put their case together, despite being an obvious charlatan. That is because anti-choicers clearly do not care one bit. Not about facts. Not about evidence. Not about women’s health. Not about integrity. Not about anything but punishing and controlling women who make sexual and reproductive decisions without their approval.

Meanwhile, the actual scientific evidence remains the same. The American Psychological Association performed a review of studies on abortion and mental health and found “no evidence that a single abortion harms a woman’s mental health.” In 2011, the American Psychiatric Association joined in a brief for Hope Clinic for Women v. Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which stated, “the Act’s [Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act of 1995] premise that abortion causes ‘serious and long-lasting’ negative ‘medical, emotional, and psychological consequences’ for minors—and that parental notice laws such as the Act protect against these consequences—is contradicted by the weight of scientific authority.”

Not that this claim about depression and abortion has anything, really, to do with science or fact. Despite all the lip-smacking poses of concern, the fact of the matter is the anti-choice movement is wielding depression like a threat, treating depression like it’s a punishment for your “sins.” Because they can’t get the “abortion means you’re going to hell” argument past basic First Amendment concerns, they just replace the word “hell” with “depression” and presto blammo! Their religious agenda looks secular enough to pass legal scrutiny.

The problem with this, of course, is positioning depression as a punishment for one’s supposed sins just encourages people with mental illness to blame themselves for their problems, even though mental illness is usually caused by a series of complex factors that are rarely up to the person suffering. Considering that one of the major symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness—which can, in some cases, lead to suicide attempts—it is beyond irresponsible to encourage people who already feel bad about themselves to feel even worse. That’s not “pro-life.” That shows such an indifference to life that it’s bordering on depraved. People suffering from depression sure as hell don’t need to be told that they have to go over their past with a fine toothed comb looking for something they did “wrong” to “deserve” this. Believe you and me, many of them are already trapped in a cycle of self-doubt and shame that usually owes more to their illness than their actual actions. People who are depressed need support and therapy, not accusations.

LifeNews.com may have taken down the original post about Robin Williams, but this issue is a lot bigger. Continuing to link abortion to depression, despite the countervailing evidence to the contrary, is exploitative and abusive. It’s not just hurtful to women who have abortions. It also treats mental illness like it’s some kind of punishment doled out to people who don’t make choices that religious fanatics want them to make. You can call that “pro-life” if you want to, but in reality, it’s just mean-spirited and cruel.

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