(Mis)Understanding Abortion Regret - 2012
As this analysis of women’s stories of emotional difficulty around abortion attests, some abortions are emotionally difficult. But not all abortions are difficult, nor is regret over the abortion decision always the source of any emotional difficulty. In several of the stories above, women’s emotional difficulty around abortion had nothing to do with fetal loss and instead had to do with the social circumstances and expectations they experienced.
For some women, the experience of social disapproval of abortion made the abortion experience difficult, as friends and significant others worked to enforce feeling rules that subscribe to the dominant framing that women should feel badly about their abortions.
For others, the romantic relationship loss that accompanied the abortion made the overall experience emotionally difficult. In both cases, women’s experience of emotional difficulty stemmed not from their intentions in choosing abortion but from the responses of others. Interactions about their abortions with key people in women’s lives can have potent—and negative—effects on how women attribute meaning to their abortion.
These findings highlight the value of a symbolic interactionist approach that looks beyond interpretations of emotional difficulty around abortion as grief over fetal loss to attend to subsequent interactions and observations.
Instead of saying some abortions are difficult; it would be more accurate to say that some circumstances can make abortion emotionally difficult.
The final group of women discussed in this analysis (the head versus heart category) did experience emotional difficulty related to fetal loss, but their stories challenge advocacy for restricting abortion as a solution to their distress. Although one woman who articulated a conflict between her head and her heart expressed a wish to undo her decision to have an abortion, others did not. Some of the women in this category were clear that they would have made the same decision to have an abortion if they had the chance to do it all over again.
Further, there is no evidence that restriction on abortion would have resolved their emotional difficulty; it would not remove the “head” part—a woman’s practical reasons for terminating a pregnancy—of the head/heart equation.
It is also clear that restriction of abortion would not improve the experience of women in the other two analytical categories who felt emotional difficulty that was distinct from grief over fetal loss: it would not make friends and family more supportive of a woman’s decision to have an abortion; it would not make a boyfriend stay committed.
Finally, this analysis leaves open the question of the consequences of emotional difficulty. Abortion rights opponents and advocates implicitly presume that regret is something to be avoided; the assertion that regret is harmful has not been challenged. Yet this is an important and untested assertion. This question enters the debate over the role of medication in speeding up the process of grief or mourning and avoiding depression and it engages arguments over whether or not grief is a “healthy” emotion and sadness a normal response within various circumstances. Future research should consider the social effects of so-called negative emotions like regret.
Given the complexity of how some abortions come to be emotionally difficult, together these challenges to the dominant discourses on abortion regret emphasize the importance of attention to women’s lived experience. If and when an abortion is hard, that determination comes from taking the woman’s standpoint, rather than from some external position. The same goes for other forms of fetal loss or newborn relinquishment.
In all scenarios, women need space for complex feelings and, pointedly, people in women’s lives need to make this space devoid of the feelings rules, politically inflected or otherwise, that frequently frame these discussions. The politicized debate over abortion regret has notably failed to provide space for complex feelings and, to the extent that it has contributed to social disapproval of abortion, likely contributes to the emotional difficulties some women experience.
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