Woefully Deficient Data: Why Post-Abortive Women Cannot be Defined by Current Research Methods
“About one in three women in America will experience abortion…”[i]
Imagine receiving a call from a survey company who asks, “Has anyone in your home experienced abortion?”
If you were a post-abortive person, would you answer affirmatively? Likely not! Women are typically hesitant to reveal they have made this choice to friends and family, let alone answering truthfully to a complete stranger who made a random call to obtain survey information!
Abortion is likely the most difficult choice to admit publicly. Even at a personal level, post-abortive women often work very hard to forget their past abortion decision. Emotions change over time as well. Those who come to regret this decision later can be fearful of public rejection should their secret ever be revealed. As a result, few identify themselves as post-abortive.
Honesty about this choice is clearly not common practice among the tens of millions of American post-abortive women alive today. Vocal post-abortive individuals are typically on either the far left or far right of the abortion debate.
What about the millions of silent women in the middle? Does their silence mean they feel wonderful about their abortions? Or does their silence speak volumes about the shame and guilt that often accompanies this choice in later years.
If abortion is so common that one in three American women have chosen it, why aren’t more sharing about their experience? The fact that women do not share does not mean that abortion hasn’t impacted them. Their silence on this topic speaks volumes.
One of the few articles on the problems researching post-abortion impact can be found on the Alan Guttmacher web site, “Measuring the Extent of Abortion Underreporting In the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).” The authors conclude the following: “… We still have a very tenuous grasp on the measurement of induced abortion and of unintended pregnancy through surveys, the main tools available for collecting such information. . . . Although the self-report procedure . . . yielded better overall reporting than the standard interview. . . , it did not eliminate the problem of abortion underreporting.”
This study went on to outline that one of the reasons for underreporting was that not all the responses were assured of confidentiality. Privacy also could have been a factor. In addition, because many work to forget about this choice, they forget many details like dates and locations.
Since these elements are difficult to resolve, current statistical information is woefully deficient when it comes to outlining the long term impact of abortion.
Reasons for Deficiency of Information on Post-Abortive People
Below is a brief synopsis of some of the various explanations as to why the post-abortive demographic is unattainable at a survey level:
Changeable – There is an old saying – How you feel today may not be the same as how you feel tomorrow. Post-abortive people, depending upon the amount of time passed, can be unpredictable and changeable. Additional abortions increase this impact as do other “life” events like a death of family member or loved one, subsequent pregnancies, etc.
Too Broad – It is difficult to identify a segment of American society accurately when it comes to a past abortion. Yet this segment includes one third of all American women over EVERY possible demographic. How a poor woman feels about her abortion can be vastly different compared to a wealthy woman. Each group is likely impacted differently. Women of faith may experience deeper levels of regret than secular women with no faith background. Generalizing information about all women clearly cannot provide an accurate portrait of abortion’s impact.
Practiced Innocence — Numbness or emotional distancing helps these individuals remain calm when abortion is discussed in their presence. It’s typical for women to plan and practice ways to remain calm when the abortion topic is mentioned. They can be oddly “practiced” in the art of never admitting they had an abortion. If they are rehearsing their silence, they will likely never reveal their truthful feelings on a survey instrument.
Recovery Impact — Some women can initially cope well but later find themselves in an emotional upheaval. Others who initially are overwhelmed with regret and grief find emotional healing and go on to live in peace. Those who have found healing present vastly different survey information than those who are coping well with their decision and don’t need emotional support.
Procedure – Women who endure surgical abortions have a different experiences and emotions than those who utilize the medication option. Surgical abortions are immediate while medication takes time. With medication abortions, women take a pill in a clinic and then go home to take another pill 24 hours later. The second pill begins their abortion. It can take 1-4 days for the lemon-sized placenta to be expelled. They are then faced with very human looking tiny child that they often flush down the toilet. During first-trimester surgical procedures, women do not face the humanity of their lost children. Sadly, late term abortions can be vastly more difficult at an emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical level. Many are forced to give birth to fully developed human infants. The resulting trauma from each procedure can be quite different as well as long-term reactions.
Delayed Emotions – Many women feel different over the years about this choice – particularly when they reach other life milestones (i.e., death of a loved one, infertility, subsequent pregnancies, etc.). As a result, emotional pain and grief can be delayed and/or denied. Some are afraid to face these memories, fearing doing so could lead to a suicide decision. Others spend great amounts of emotional energy over the years working to forget they ever made such a choice.
Research Methods – Research methods (standardized surveys) are inadequate in uncovering entrenched emotional reactions for this “difficult to discuss” procedure. Women are rarely truthful about their abortion EVEN on medical intake forms! If they are lying regarding their health, they likely are not going to be truthful on a generic form or with a strange interviewer who asks troubling questions.
Cultural Impact – Let’s just talk American women. Since America is a nation of immigrants, it is a “melting pot” of cultures that have different perspectives on unplanned pregnancy and abortion. First-generation Americans are more impacted by an outside culture than those whose ancestors have lived here for 100 years. Within many Arab cultures, the loss of virginity is a reason to expel or kill women, even if they have been raped. Women literal abort to remain alive. Within Christian cultures, where the sanctity of life is embraced, women abort to avoid bringing shame or judgment on their families. Religious views often follow families and remain strongly observed in subsequent generations.
Which Symptom to Study? – There is no agreement among researchers about which PTSD (relief, depression, grieving, self-destructive behaviors, etc.) symptoms they should attempt to survey as it relates to abortion, nor what level of symptoms should be considered substantial.
If society is ever to gain any clear understanding of how abortion impacts individuals at a long-term level, tools need to be developed to elicit more accurate reporting, which involves trusted assurances of confidentiality and secrecy. Research methods must include several approaches due to the fact that various subgroups of post-abortive women will be slow to admit to this choice. The characteristics of women must also be taken into account in defining the overall impact of abortion at a long-term level as well as the procedure they endured.
At this time, the best statistically significant information about post-abortive people comes from sources reporting general abortion statistics. This is raw data about those making this choice currently. It neglects any detailed data about the long term impact.
Until we have a practical surveying method in place, information related to PTSD after abortion will remain unavailable at a statistically significant level. That doesn’t mean post-abortion pain or regret does not exist. Sadly, our silence simply allows abortion providers to outline that abortion is “good for women.” We aren’t complaining loud enough to be identified!
Pregnancy centers are one of the few locations where women are interviewed and asked about a past abortion experience, particularly if they are in a subsequent unplanned pregnancy situation. While they may not outline their abortion on the intake forms, they typically are more honest when interviewed by a compassionate pregnancy center advocate where confidentiality is assured. So next time you are wondering how abortion impacts women, visit your local pregnancy center and ask for their insights!
Sydna A. Masse, President & Founder, Ramah International, Inc., [email protected]
 Planned Parenthood Video – Time marker 4:20 on this link – .
 Jones, E.F. & Forrest, J.D., “Underreporting of Abortion in Surveys of U.S. Women: 1976 to 1988,” Demography, 29(1):113-126 (1992), https://www.guttmacher.org/journals/psrh/1998/05/measuring-extent-abortion-underreporting-1995-national-survey-family-growth.