an After abortion

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Saturday, April 26, 2003

The idea that some women (and men) have adverse emotional reactions to abortion is not well known. People like me who abort a child and then experience a negative emotional aftermath often keep this to ourselves, thinking we are the only one.

Then again, some people deny that there is such a thing as a negative emotional reaction to one's own abortion.

On this blog I have -- rather defensively, in retrospect -- spent a fair amount of time linking to evidence that supports the claim that at least some men and women suffer after abortion. No doubt I will continue to do that.

What I haven't done is spend much time on the question of what you can do about it, if you're someone like me, although I have a bunch o' links on the left to groups that can help.

I want to start writing about the connection between what a person thinks about abortion, their feelings about their own abortion(s) and what happens in healing programs.

People, often enough, change their minds over time about what is or isn't a moral act. Education, reading, exposure to dialogue and argument, moral reflection and observations over time in our circle of friends and family lead us to re-evaluate earlier positions.

If you re-evaluate your position over time on abortion, and you've had an abortion, the emotional consequences of that re-evaluation are often excruciating. Yet the fact that in coming to recognize an earlier act as an extremely grave moral wrong--not just a grave moral wrong, but one committed on one's own child--we will suffer doesn't prevent some men and women from re-evaluating their position. The arguments and evidence about the moral status of very small children works on a part of our mind (the intellect, I suppose) that is separate from and independent of our emotions, but which then flows through to them.

For my money, cognitive-behavioral therapy is the best therapeutic approach to most psychological afflictions, including depression and anxiety. There's a massive amount of empirical research that supports its effectiveness in treating these mood disorders. David Burns is the most user-friendly CBT therapist, and his work is simultaneously entertaining, humble, charming, and seriously committed to offering an effective method to relieve mood disorders. You can get a good flavor for his approach by reading over his website, Feeling Good, especially the "Ask the Guru" section; an example of his dry humor.

The basic insight of CBT is that by and large, our mood states or emotions are a consequence of what we think. Thus, it encourages people with mood disorders to challenge and change their thoughts. However, it does not mean this in the repeat-twenty-positive-affirmations sense. Rather, CBT systematically encourages people with mood disorders to recognize that the thoughts that are causing them to experience depression and anxiety may not be true.

A very small example of this would be a person who wakes up at 3:00 a.m. and then suffers, imagining all the bad things that will happen the next day because of his lack of well-restedness. CBT therapy would help that person identify ways to cognitively challenge what are in fact a batch of false beliefs about the sure doom that will befall him if he can't get back to sleep. It is his false beliefs about that that cause him to suffer. By learning how to effectively challenge his own false beliefs, his emotional state naturally changes.

(This example makes CBT sound trite, but I'll trust my readers to read around on the suggested weblinks to get a better sense of it.)

So, CBT reminds us that our emotions most often are a direct consequence of our beliefs and it encourages us to challenge and identify false beliefs that are leading to painful emotions. This only works because our intellect can carry on a multi-layered conversation with itself wherein we can come to see that some of the beliefs with which we are torturing ourselves are false.

What it doesn't ever do is suggest that we can, or ought to, change our minds about something simply because we will feel better if we do. For example, a married man engaged in an affair may feel a lot of guilt. It's true that he would feel better if he managed to talk himself into thinking that, given the condition of his marriage, this affair is justified. Or if he decides that affairs in general are okay, regardless of the condition of one's marriage, because man did not evolve to be monogamous and shouldn't be expected to live in a way that evolution did not equip him for.

Similarly, some post-abortion counseling is based on the idea of reminding and reassuring the woman that in the circumstances she was in at the time of the abortion, she made the best possible choice. The idea is that if the woman repetitively reassures herself of this, she will naturally start to feel better.

Having tried that technique on a self-help basis myself for many years, the problem with it is that it only works if you can bring yourself to sincerely and genuinely believe it. I couldn't, in the end, because it's just not true.

While good-hearted people can disagree on the moral status of the fetus, for me it has just come to seem clear that very small babies are kids who deserve continued life and protection. So I can't comfort myself with the idea that "I made the best possible choice at the time", anymore than I would comfort myself with that thought for any other moral wrong. (If I had a terrible day, lost my temper, and socked my kid in the eye, I wouldn't try to persuade myself that I did the best thing I could, in the circumstances.)

The great majority of effective post-abortion recovery groups are designed for men and women like me. In other words, they are designed for people who have come to believe that they wilfully brought about the destruction of a child they ought to have protected and loved.

I'll leave this discussion here with a quote from David Burns of Feeling Good.

"I feel it's a huge error to believe people are 'basically nice.' I am writing a book on this subject. Certainly, I'm no real expert, any more than anyone else. However, I think people do positive, loving, creative things, and negative, hurtful, mean things. I think all human beings have the capacity for both, but that there's a huge tendency to deny or explain away the negative motives and actions.

There's a kind of liberal attitude among mental health professionals that humans are basically good, and that negative actions can be explained in terms of a thwarting of good motives, such as the desire to be loved or understood. All interpersonal therapy I have ever read about or learned about is based on this assumption. I think it is a flawed and very misleading assumption, however.

I'm more with Freud on this. He saw human nature as being dualistic. We have positive, loving motives, and devious, dark motives. Jung felt that we need to integrate the different sides of our selves to attain mental health, but that most people refuse this, because they are so afraid of their own dark side. I strongly agree with this point. I also feel that urges to reframe everything in terms of some frustrated positive motive is misguided."

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