There are three available options for all women facing unwanted pregnancies: 1) carrying a pregnancy to term with the intention of keeping the child, 2) placing the child for adoption, 3) aborting the child. We believe that many women choose abortion as the quick-fix solution to unwanted pregnancy, without investigating the other alternatives in depth. Oftentimes the only counseling women receive before abortion takes place is at abortion clinics. In many cases, the counselors hired by such facilities do not encourage the options of keeping the child or placing the child for adoption, but rather they market abortion as the desirable alternative. So the responsibility for lack of knowledge and investigation does not fall entirely on aborting women’s shoulders, but also on those counseling women just before abortion takes place.
We also believe that many women are unaware of the potential negative consequences and effects of abortion. We are interested in finding practical ways in which more women may be more effectively counseled and well-informed prior to making the decision to abort. The Church needs to be present to pregnant women before they decide that abortion is the best possible solution. Pastoral counselors must be aware of the services the Church currently offers women both pre- and post-abortion, and must also be willing to proactively take steps to enhance existing programs and implement new ones.
Reasons for Seeking Abortion
On average, women report more than three reasons that lead them to choose abortion: 75% say that having a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; about 66% say they cannot afford to have a child; and 50% say they do not want to be a single parent or have problems in their relationship with their husband or partner (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1995).
Based on these percentages, it is fair to conclude that society has created a social climate in which personal goals, achievement and financial status are of utmost importance. It is one thing to strive for success but quite another when human life is compromised and subordinated to these kinds of successes.
In addition to these reasons, about 1% of women who abort have been told that their child has an impairment, 12% fear that the child may have been harmed by medicine or other conditions, and about 15,000 women have abortions as a result of rape or incest (ibid.). Although 13% of women who abort do so because of the fact that their child is defective in some way, 12% of these women are not even certain if the child has some kind of impairment. The “fear” that a child has been harmed implies that it is actually an unknown factor in this decision making process.
Pressure from others, spoken or unspoken, seems to be a primary concern for most women in unwanted pregnancies who ultimately decide to abort. Some of this derives from friends and/or the male partner, some from parents, as in the case of women who cannot even tell their parents about their pregnancy because of fear. Other reasons are practical in nature. Economic concerns are great for women who are unmarried and pregnant. The burden of supporting the child alone is sometimes enough to convince a woman to abort. Other practical concerns include the completion of education and the existing or potential career which the woman would like to maintain or obtain.
The influence of the law must also be mentioned as a deciding factor for many women who choose abortion. According to David Reardon, “Given their doubts about the morality of abortion, most aborted women are strongly influenced by the legal status of the abortion option” [Aborted Women Silent No More (1987), 13]. When women were asked, “Did the knowledge that abortion is legal influence your opinion about the morality of choosing abortion?,” 70% said that the law played a major role in their moral perception. Reardon concludes that “... while most aborting women have a negative moral view of abortion, they find comfort and grounds for rationalization in the sociolegal view of abortion. Some even doubt their own moral values, thinking, ‘If it’s legal, then it must be alright’” (ibid.).
Women facing unwanted pregnancies often need a moral, emotional, spiritual, financial and medical support system and sometimes do not find it at home with family or with friends. Oftentimes when women decide to carry their pregnancies to term, parents and/or friends fail to assist and support them. Therefore they need to seek other sources for help.
Role of Pastoral Counseling
By and large, women seek the advice of a pastoral counselor or Church representative when they are quite sure that they want to follow the pregnancy to term and have the baby. In contrast, women considering abortion usually do not seek advice from a Church representative. This is a key challenge and a paradox for the Church and for pastoral ministers to face.
Many women already have a fairly clear understanding of what the Church teaches about abortion and therefore know up-front the general counsel/advice they will receive.
A second reason why women seriously considering abortion do not seek pastoral counseling is that their level of moral and spiritual maturity is somewhat underdeveloped. Thus the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s 1995 data show that 52% of abortions take place within the first eight weeks of pregnancy. This means that between two and four weeks of discovering their pregnancies, most women take action and have abortions.
In addition to this, Reardon indicates that “... during the time between discovering they were pregnant and having the abortion, there was such a high level of emotional trauma that they were unable to thoughtfully and cautiously consider their alternatives. Abortion was simply the most obvious and fastest way to escape from their dilemma” (ibid., 10). Therefore, seeking advice from a pastoral counselor or any counselor at this point is not in the forefront of many women’s minds. Eliminating the “problem” seems to be the primary task.
The decision to abort is based on a combination of emotional, relational and practical factors. It takes care of the immediate pressures and concerns of parents, friends, finances, etc. What is usually not factored into a woman’s decision to have an abortion is the possible consequences and after-effects that she may experience.
In contrast to those who have described the negative effects that abortion has on women, an article in the October 1992 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “The Myth of the Abortion Trauma Syndrome” begins, “This is an article about a medical syndrome that does not exist” (Stotland, 2078). The article asserts that there are no scientifically documented studies which support the existence of an after abortion trauma syndrome.
In her argument, Stotland points out that “trauma ... is borrowed from posttraumatic stress disorder” a psychiatric syndrome defined “as a disabling condition characterized by nightmares and flashbacks, precipitated by a traumatic event outside the range of usual human experience” (ibid.). It is unclear from her article whether she is suggesting that women who have had abortions do not experience such a syndrome, or if she is simply aggravated that people in antiabortion circles are using terminology which may be misleading to those outside of the medical profession.
We are convinced from personal interviews with pastoral counselors, psychologists, and other counselors who assist women after abortion, however, that there are in fact severe consequences and after-effects of abortion for some. As to whether a vast majority of women are experiencing severe after-effects, we are not certain. What we have learned is that a significant number of women are suffering both short- and long-term effects of abortion, which in many instances require both professional help and pastoral care.
Pastoral counselors must become well-educated on the issue of abortion and the services that the Church is currently offering; for example, the Diocesan free counseling services to women and men facing unplanned pregnancies and groups like Project Rachel which assist women after abortion.
1. Encourage a positive view of adoption in high schools, college campuses and within society in general.
2. Collect and publicize information about pregnancy-related services already available within the Church to local parishes, college communities, and community centers.
3. Actively support legislation such as the “Women’s Right to Know” bill, which requires abortion-providers to give details of the procedure and alternatives and requires a waiting period of usually 24 hours.
4. Establish programs whose purpose is to encourage women facing unplanned pregnancies to realize that they are not alone in their situation and to help them seek assistance prior to making the decision to abort.
Laura Serfilippi Hoeing, M.A.
Admission, ProvidenceCollege Providence, Rhode Island
Kathi Healy, M.A.
Co-Manager for The Little Flower Home Tiverton, Rhode Island