The Disenfranchised Grief of Abortion - Celia Ryan 2003
Disenfranchised Grief: “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported” (Doka)
Whatever your politics or your religious or moral take on abortion I would like to challenge you to revisit this issue as a hidden, secret grief. Abortion is a classic “disenfranchised grief”
However, on the issue of abortion there is so much polarized and hostile rhetoric it seems there is no place for a reasonable dialogue between differing viewpoints. Without this forum for discussion, how is one to arrive at an informed decision?
Whose voice should inform us? Who can speak credibly to the after-effects of abortion, when the most important voices are silent? Decades have gone by and we hear loudly and often from the providers of service and the providers of opinion but we hear very little from the consumers of abortion services. Why is that? Interesting isn’t it that a lawful act, abortion, has a consumer, silenced by fear, shame and stigma. Studies show that most people disapprove of abortion for themselves but do not want women in crisis pregnancies to have to resort to desperate measures. So we vote our compassion, not necessarily our values, and think we are helping women.
I would like to offer a personal glimpse into the aftermath of an abortion experience for some women and men. I have run post abortion support groups for decades now, ever since I realized that abortion is a classic disenfranchised grief in our society and there is little or no support, validation or healing for the experience that, for some men and women, is incredibly traumatic and destructive.
In the privacy and safety of my office, my clients have taught me that abortion deeply hurts women and can be a traumatic event with serious long-lasting effects. While some men and women find a way to weave this experience into their lives in a non-destructive way, many others live with years of hidden pain. Whether one understands what has been lost to be a “child” or the “opportunity” to have a child, there is a loss that needs to be grieved appropriately. “Abortion …involves the loss of a child, or the opportunity to have a child. In either case, this loss must be confronted, processed and grieved in order for the woman to resolve her experience.” (Burke)
Abortion is a disenfranchised grief, meaning it is a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported in the usual way that would allow for a normal processing of a loss. Yes, there is initial relief and the “problem” is solved for the moment, but make no mistake, it is a life-changing event and no one is quite the same afterwards.
Women and men are traumatized by their experience, yet are given no permission to explore what has happened and instead are abandoned and silenced by us in their confusion, despair and pain. Every single person I have counseled has said if only one person had offered real support they might have made a different decision. Studies have shown that most persons entering an abortion clinic do not want to have an abortion. Why are they there? We all want to be persons of compassion and helpful to women in a crisis pregnancy but society offers no viable alternatives and, worse, we shame and stigmatize those who decide to continue the pregnancy. Ironically, it becomes the ultimate “unchoice” as one young man said to his girlfriend “we have to do this, we have no choice”.
While there are multiple research studies supporting often conflicting sides of this issue, I am not a researcher, and the hurting men and women who come to my office for counseling, or to my groups, are not interested in statistics or expectable outcomes. They are interested in having a language, structure and a framework for their abortion experience and an opportunity to use that information in a helpful and healing way. They are grateful and relieved to finally be able to name and explore an issue that society says does not exist. They are no longer disenfranchised from their appropriate grief.
Any change can bring loss and loss is often accompanied by grief - to deny that something has changed is to deny reality. How that reality is experienced is obviously affected by numerous factors but in no other area of a person's life does society so totally deny an individual's reported experience.
As a clinical social worker and specialized grief therapist I can try to set aside my own politics and judgments to offer my understanding of traumatic grief to a hurting person so they can begin to understand that they have had a life-changing experience and to find a way to accommodate this which does not disable or destroy them. Denial disables, validation empowers; until society is able to recognize and validate the hurt and pain of an abortion experience, for some people, we will disenfranchise them and we will all have to accommodate the "walking wounded".
How is abortion grief disenfranchised?
Society – dismisses it as “no big deal”, or excuses it, “you did the best you could”, or rationalizes it as we don’t need any more abused children?
Culture – secret grief, the “Hallmark” test, no card for this experience! “It’s your body, your choice”
Religion – there seems to be no support in either camp, either you killed a baby and are condemned to Hell or it's just a bunch of cells, why are you bothered?
Personal – I don’t deserve to grieve, I should be relieved. Why do I have confused feelings, everyone else is ok? it's my secret forever…
Survivor guilt – I should die too, as well as or making 'expiation" by overfunctioning, deciding I am unworthy so I trash myself - (die inside) with drugs, sex, eating, "failing"
How might a helping person/agency inadvertently add to the problem?
Incomplete or inaccurate information – “secret”, protecting
Paternalistic attitudes - minimizing or fixing
Personal discomfort – at least treat the grief,
Collusion with secrecy, silence – “get over it” “no-one needs to know”
Discounting/Isolation – “it just doesn’t happen” (negative outcomes)
How can a helping person/agency be more effective
Ask the questions, gently no judgement, be curious
Validate, recognize the loss
Educate – self & client
Identify PTSD or other psychological problems
Facilitate the grief process
Be a good resource
Reading Burke, T. (2002) Forbidden Grief: The unspoken pain of abortion. Springfield, Ill: Acorn
Coyle, C.T. (1999) Men and Abortion: A path to healing. Life Cycle Books, Canada
Doka, K.J. (Ed.) (2002). Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies for Practice. Champaign, Ill: Research Press.
Rando,T. A. (1993). Treatment of Complicated Mourning. Champaign, Ill.: Research Press.