“I regret my abortion.”


[Content note: abortion, partner abuse]

The use of “I regret my abortion” as an argument against legalized abortion is nothing new, but I’ve been seeing it a lot lately in pro-life protests, such as this one at the Texas Capitol. (Yes, that is a man you see there with the sign.)

There are many things that are infuriating about this tactic, such as its implication that your own emotions can be used to legislate everyone else’s reproductive rights and its blatant appeal to emotion rather than reason (“But I regret my abortion! Look how sad I am! Wouldn’t you want to keep others from being so sad?”).

An argument like this also makes it really easy for pro-choicers to look like insensitive assholes, because our position is, simplistically, that your feelings about your own abortion don’t really matter in this debate. They don’t.

Of course, I care about people’s emotions. If having an abortion is going to be something you regret deeply for the rest of your life, I agree that you, personally, should not have an abortion. If you have already had an abortion and you regret it as painfully as these protesters do, then I think you should see a counselor who can help you.

But I don’t think your regret has any relevance whatsoever in public policy, and I think the argument from regret is completely baseless. Here’s why.

1. Humans do plenty of utterly regrettable things that we nevertheless don’t legislate.

This is, of course, the really obvious point. People regret plenty of their sexual experiences, but we don’t make those illegal (well…some try). People put dumb things on the internet that they shouldn’t and that follow them around forever, but it’s not illegal to put dumb things that follow you around forever on the internet. I’m no Libertarian, but I do essentially believe that people should be free (within reason) to make this own dumb shitty choices and learn from them on their own.

There are plenty of regrettable things that we legally regulate, but not because people feel bad about them later–because they have negative consequences that extend beyond an individual person’s regret (see below).

There are also regulations that prevent businesses from keeping people from amending their poor decisions after the fact, but that’s also not the same thing.

2. In fact, conservatives make fun of liberals for this shit.

Well, for what they perceive to be this shit. Conservatives and Libertarians are always attacking things like soda bans and cigarette taxes by claiming that the Nanny State is trying to save us from ourselves. Of course, the rationale for policies like these isn’t “Yeah but but you’ll regret it later!!”; it’s the fact that soda and cigarettes and trans fats have tremendous public health consequences. I don’t know how I feel about these policies yet, but the point is that the pro-lifers are doing the exact same thing they perceive liberals to be doing (whether or not that is actually what liberals are doing).

3. The majority of women who have abortions do not regret them.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported this:

Two years postabortion, 301 (72%) of 418 women were satisfied with their decision; 306 (69%) of 441 said they would have the abortion again; 315 (72%) of 440 reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 308 (80%) of 386 were not depressed.

The researchers noted, “Most women do not experience psychological problems or regret their abortion 2 years postabortion, but some do. Those who do tend to be women with a prior history of depression.”

On the contrary, people who get abortions tend to report feeling happy or relieved. If pro-lifers could only develop some theory of mind and imagine how another person might feel, they would realize that ending a pregnancy that you didn’t want, that has health risks for you, or that is going to produce a child that you don’t have the resources of willingness to raise would be a relief.

Of course, the fact that most people who get abortions don’t regret them doesn’t mean that nobody does. (Indeed, that’s…how the word “most” works.) At that point, you get into the dicey question of what exactly the proportion of abortion patients who later regret it must be to justify banning abortion. Clearly it doesn’t need to be a majority by their reasoning. Or I’m being overly charitable and they don’t realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

4. When people do regret abortions, what actually causes that regret?

I don’t have data on this so I’m just speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stigma of abortion and of accidental pregnancy and of being a woman who does not want children (right now or ever) plays a role. The actual cost of abortion probably plays a role, too.

It could also be that you really want the baby, but realize that you’re not in a good place to raise a child right now. Someone in this situation could certainly regret their abortion a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision.

Tragically, people are sometimes pressured or coerced into getting abortions. This is more of an issue in places like China than it is in the United States, but it happens. I personally know of a few cases like this.

Forcing a partner to get an abortion is abuse. The problem here is not with the abortion itself; it’s with the fact that someone’s partner is abusing them. Abuse can, of course, go in many directions. Sometimes people’s partners prevent them from using birth control and thus force them to get pregnant; likewise, the problem here isn’t with pregnancy itself, but with the abuse that caused it.

Pro-lifers are aware of coerced abortions and use them as a pro-life argument. For instance, abortion restrictions often require having the patient sign a waiver stating that they were not coerced into getting the abortion. While this seems like a positive step to help ensure that abuse isn’t playing a part, it’s important to remember that the point of these laws is to restrict access to abortion and reduce the number of abortions, not to protect victims of abuse.

The fact that some people regret abortions and that some people are coerced into getting abortions is not an argument against abortion; it’s an argument against the factors that contribute to that regret, such as stigma, financial consequences, and abuse.

Here’s the thing. For some people, getting an abortion is a difficult, painful decision that will lead to regret and doubt no matter what they choose. It’s a big decision! Sometimes people get pregnant accidentally and find themselves sort of wanting to have the baby but they just can’t support a child and they need to finish school and there’s just no way.

But for other people–possibly the majority of people, it seems–an abortion is just a medical procedure like any other. It’s unpleasant and unavoidable and they’re just glad to get it over with, but it’s necessary, just like the vast majority of medical procedures you’re going to have in your life.

You can’t use the emotions of a minority of people to legislate the rights of everyone else, no matter how legitimate, strong, and real those emotions are.

Comments

  1. adam.b says

    I realize that man in the picture is more than likely a cis-man but still some men can get pregnant, otherwise great write up like always.

    • says

      Yeah, that was my comment on the original Pandagon post.

      It’s also why I try to remove gendered language when writing about abortions, unless I’m talking about research, which basically always focuses on women specifically.

    • John Horstman says

      I usually use gendered language and throw an asterisk or parenthetical statement on my first use of “woman”/”women” to note that some men can become pregnant and thus abort pregnancies, though the overwhelming majority are women. Eliding the gendered language means the link to the gendered nature of the oppression enacted through abortion restrictions is less clear, which is bad because the gendered nature of the control/restrictions is the primary (if not the only) reason for them.

  2. Onamission5 says

    Also a matter for consideration is the question of whether the rate at which people who have had abortions tend to experience depression afterward is comparable to the rate of PPD for those who carry a pregnancy to term. Post partum depression is a thing, post miscarriage depression is a thing, hormonal fluxuations that accompany pregnancy can do a number on a person’s mental health, why can’t post abortion depression be as much of a thing as PPD, with the same attributions? Hormone levels go up, then they go down again but not all at the same rate, end result is similar in any case.

    I know that after my miscarriage I was grieving, but even after the pain of grief had passed I still had this familiar sense of disconnectedness and imbalance. Familiar because it was also what I experienced after my other four pregnancies, all live births. There are social structures in place to support people who’ve got a bad case of the “baby blues” or who have had a miscarriage (insufficient, IME, but existing) but AFAIK there’s not really anything comparable for someone who is experiencing PP related/type depression following an abortion.

    It takes me about two years to get back to what I consider normal after a pregnancy. It took me a little less than that long to level out after my miscarriage. I don’t see any reason to believe it would be different for me after an abortion. I’ve long thought that it’s entirely possible for what the anti-choicers point to as abortion regret to more likely be cases of undx’ed and untreated PPD. Not saying that regret doesn’t happen, but how much of the regret is influenced by biological and sociological effects? There were times after each of my kids were born when if someone had asked me to honestly answer was me being a mom was a good choice for either me or baby, I’d have given a resounding “Fuck No this was a terrible mistake.” Does that mean I ought to not have had my kids, or that no one else should have kids either? Of course not. Does that mean I had untreated PPD? Probably.

  3. thascius says

    There are women who give babies up for adoption and later regret that. By the conservatives’ logic (and I use the term loosely) we should obviously outlaw anyone ever giving up a baby for adoption.

    • badgersdaughter says

      I gave a baby up for adoption and suffered lasting harm, depression, and abuse. I regret NOT getting an abortion.

      • thascius says

        I’m sorry you went through that. It’s always struck me as odd the way anti-abortionists portray giving a child up for adoption as something pain free. It’s not.

        • badgersdaughter says

          Well, specifically there were medical and social repercussions. Pregnancy is difficult on the body and it played havoc with my urinary tract specifically, leading to surgery years later, and with my metabolism, leading to diabetes. My self-esteem issues because of having had to give up the baby after a not-easy delivery made it more likely (according to my therapist) that I began a relationship with someone who played out the abuse I felt I deserved. My family, disgusted with me for having given the baby up, basically wrote me off and I had zero support. If I had gotten a quiet abortion in the second month with the help of a friend who offered me the money to get one, I might have still had the self-esteem issues, or not, but I’d still have had my friend, my family, my blood sugar control, and my right kidney.

  4. says

    Another possible reason to be depressed after an abortion would be that you wanted the baby, but had to have an abortion because of a serious medical problem (yours or the baby’s). I’d have through that would be very depressing, but it wouldn’t mean that the abortion was a mistake.

  5. gwen says

    I deeply regretted my last marriage. But I don’t plan to try to pass legislation to prevent YOU from marrying, but I sure as hell will make a better choice next time! :)

  6. Pen says

    Of the women I know who admit they’ve had abortions a fair proportion had them because the viability of the foetus was compromised, not because of an unwanted pregnancy. I can’t imagine them describing the experience in positive terms, although I doubt they regret their decision. On the other hand, I feel quite positively about my abortion because I would have made a very poor parent then, and made an excellent* one ten years later. If I’d been forced into parenthood before I was ready, that would never have happened.

    * I’ve got an adolescent who’ll corroborate this assessment on request, so I feel quite proud.

  7. smrnda says

    I think a reason why conservatives want to leap in and protect people from bad decisions *in this case* is that the people whose choices are being restricted are women. They don’t want to ban super-sized sodas since that might interfere with the free choices of a white Christian male, who would then feel emasculated by the Nanny state, hurting his delicate feelings.

  8. cotton says

    This desire by conservatives to “protect” women from the pain and complications of making their own decisions enrages me. Just…who do they think they are? I know at my worst I can be arrogant, but the people who view themselves as saving women by taking away their ability to choose what they do with their own bodies just blows my mind.

    Also, major thx to onamission5: She answered a question I was wondering about comparing levels of post-birth and post-abortion depression while also shedding some light with her personal experience. Maybe their should be some group that not only counsels people who are considering / engaging in abortion, but also follows up with services afterward or at least encourages women who feel they might benefit from some.

  9. hoary puccoon says

    Did the sample include women who had to have an abortion for medical reasons? Because when my step-daughter had to abort an ectopic pregnancy after she and her husband had been trying for two years to have a child, you’d better believe she was depressed. And guilt over the abortion had nothing to do with it.

  10. smhll says

    I am toying with a short story idea in which a counter protester is seen, off to the side somewhere, with a sign stating “I REGRET MY BIRTH”. (Obviously a sad story!)

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