Turning the Darkest Tragedy Into Something Beautiful

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By Cullen Herout, Crisis Magazine, January 19, 2018

Last month, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons published the qualitative results of a survey that sought to increase understanding of the emotional toll of abortion. The survey was lead by Dr. Priscilla Coleman, one of the world’s foremost researchers on post-abortion sequelae, and included responses from almost one thousand women.

The survey was unique in that it attempted to study the post-abortion experience on a more qualitative level than any previously conducted studies. By asking open-ended questions and then categorizing responses, Dr. Coleman allowed the respondents to openly discuss their experience after abortion in a way that was not limited by quantitative outcome measures and in a way that allowed them to describe their experience in their own words.

This methodology was employed in order to combat some of the difficulties of conducting post-abortion research. In her book Forbidden Grief, Theresa Burke notes several of these difficulties that are worth mentioning. The first difficulty is that abortion reactions vary over time, so depending on when a quantitative study was conducted, the breadth of the woman’s experience might not be accurately reflected. The second difficulty is that longitudinal studies tend to have a high drop-out over time and often lack the follow-through necessary for a valid and reliable study. The last difficulty, and easily the most important, is that quantitative outcome measures tend to be overly simplistic and simply do not have the ability to grasp the complexity of a woman’s experience after abortion.

In my years working with the post-abortion ministry Rachel’s Vineyard, I have found that last point to be particularly relevant. The women that I have spoken to and worked with have unique and complicated life stories. Their experience after abortion is complex, vast, and full of twists and turns. Oftentimes, the women (and men) are not even able to fully verbalize their emotional response to abortion until they have a chance to talk it out with a professional or with others who have gone through similar emotional responses. Even still, many times those emotions continue to be jumbled and confusing. In other words, their experiences do not fit nicely into a box that one can checkmark on a questionnaire. Yet that is what many post-abortion studies attempt to do.

For example, a study published late in 2016 purported to show that women faced with unwanted pregnancy do not experience any adverse mental health symptoms after abortion. Upon glancing at the methodology, the observer notes that outcome measures include nothing more than depression inventories, anxiety inventories, and a couple of questions about self-esteem and life satisfaction. These measures were employed at six-month intervals for five years after the abortion in an attempt to address the lack of longitudinal studies on the post-abortion experience.

But any sensible person would acknowledge that depression and anxiety inventories are simply not in-depth enough to capture the wide range of possible responses to something like abortion. The emotional responses that individuals experience after abortion are simply too complex. Further, six-month intervals might be satisfactory if attempting to measure markers along one’s journey to physical health, but cannot be considered even remotely satisfactory when considering something as fluid as a person’s mental health.

In addition, five years is not a satisfactory length of time to gauge all the ways in which a past abortion will affect a person moving forward in life. In at least one survey, conducted by Dr. David Reardon, it was demonstrated that among women who will eventually experience negative responses or feelings toward their abortion, a strong majority did not experience the negative responses within five years of the abortion. Indeed, a five-year study will not be long enough to identify many of the individuals who will eventually come to regret or feel negatively about their abortion.

This is why allowing women to use their own words to describe their responses over time is thus far the best way to gather an accurate picture of what the women have experienced, especially as it pertains to their psyche. It is a delicate process, but it is this that makes Dr. Coleman’s survey so valuable to those who are interested in gaining an understanding of the post-abortion experience.

Critics will rightly note that this is a select sample, and Dr. Coleman acknowledges as much. The survey participants were gathered primarily from clients of CareNet pregnancy centers who had attended post-abortion programs. Thus, while the participants in the survey did not constitute a representative sample of post-abortive women, there were a wide variety of ages, races, and demographics represented among the respondents. The survey does, however, give us an accurate profile of those women who do experience negative emotional reactions after choosing abortion. This alone is quite valuable, and despite the lack of a representative sample, there are some noteworthy takeaways from the survey as well as ideas that are reinforced by the categorized results.

The first takeaway is that almost one-third of the respondents indicated that there were no positives that have come from their decision to abort their unborn child. Dr. Coleman summarizes, “Women generally did not speak of empowerment, the ability to control their reproductive destinies, liberation from abusive partners, the need for abortion in order to be competitive in the workplace, etc.” There was no mention of the ability to finish school or to simply wait until one was ready to have a child.

This is significant because the aforementioned catchphrases are typically the reasons given as to why abortion is needed in a progressive world. The results indicate that, for many women these catchphrases are far more rhetoric to be used in public dialogue than they are accurate reflections of what women experience after choosing abortion. Conversely, by far the most commonly cited negative to come from the abortion was the loss of a human life. Generally, the women in the survey did not have their lives “go back to normal,” a visual that is often used to sell abortion to a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. They knew that a grave evil had been committed and were able to identify this as the worst part of their abortion experience.

The second takeaway is perhaps the most important of all, and underscores a truth that really cannot be overstated. That truth is that God has the power to bring beauty out of the darkest tragedies. This truth is borne out in the numbers.

Seventeen percent of the respondents indicated that they have a deepened spiritual life as the result of grief suffered after abortion. Thirteen percent of the women have gone on to become workers or volunteers committed to crisis pregnancy work. Nine percent have been able to share their story verbally or in writing in order to help others facing similar situations. Eight percent share that they are committed to helping other women recover after abortion by sharing God’s forgiveness and love. Another eight percent converted to Christianity as a result of their suffering after abortion, while over six percent became active in the pro-life movement. These are all positives that developed directly as a result of the women’s negative abortion experiences.

Abortion is an intrinsic evil, and it should always be rejected as such. There is no justification for abortion, and these results should not be interpreted in a way that suggests that the death of a preborn child was nothing more than a means to an end. Every abortion is a tragedy of inestimable magnitude. To wit, during an interview I did recently with Dr. Coleman, she noted that many of the women wished that God had brought them closer to him in some other way that did not involve abortion.

The fact remains, however, that the past cannot be changed. For those who have chosen abortion, God has the power to take that tragedy and turn it into something beautiful. He alone has the power to make all things new again, and he alone can transform hearts in ways that we cannot imagine. I’ve seen these transformations happen in women and men who have abortion in their past, and the results of Coleman’s survey bear out this truth.

These results never would have shown up during a quantitative study, and no symptom inventory would have been able to grasp what the women in this survey verbalized. Not only were women able to identify that they had experienced a negative emotional response after abortion, but they were able to discuss it in detail and describe how it impacted other areas of their lives. They were able to explain how their abortion was not an isolated incident or a compartmentalized aspect of their lives, but rather a decision that affected their emotional well-being for many years after the decision had been made.

Dr. Coleman should be applauded for her efforts to gather qualitative data on the experiences of women after choosing abortion. While her survey lacks a representative sample, the select sample is sufficient for providing a valuable insight into the complexity of the emotional turmoil caused by abortion. Hopefully, her quest for qualitative data on the post-abortion experience will spur further inquiry on this topic as researchers recognize the value of this particular method of gathering information.

We, for our part, should remember that God has the power to turn even the darkest tragedy into something beautiful for those who seek his forgiveness and mercy.