July 2021

by Laura Lewis MD, CCFP

If some women do not experience post-abortion loss or grief – does that mean no woman is allowed to have these feelings after an abortion?

What if a woman does have feelings of loss or grief? Do we have the right to tell her she should not feel this way?

The topic of abortion and how women should feel about it is messy and complicated. For most women, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is not made lightly, and it’s often made under pressure, fear, and uncertainty.[1] The impact of such a decision can look very different depending on the individual. Regardless of one’s political, ideological, or religious worldview, the deeply personal decision to have an abortion is complex, and some women need a unique kind of support for their post-abortion experience.

There is often no visible place for grieving the loss of a child through abortion, and as a result, a woman may feel marginalized, unseen, and unjustified in her grief. This is known as disenfranchised grief – hidden sorrow that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. It’s a kind of grief often minimized or not understood by others, which makes it particularly hard to process and work through.[2]

As a family physician, I had no idea that some of my patients were carrying unspoken sorrow from their abortion decision. It wasn’t until I took the time to ask questions and listen that their stories were shared and tears were shed.

It is important to acknowledge that just because one woman experiences grief after an abortion, not every woman does. Because of these varied post-abortion experiences, we must recognize that it is not our place to tell women what they should feel. A caring society makes room to respect each person’s experience and validates what they say they are feeling. We do this with other experiences, why not abortion?

Some deny that some women suffer and experience post-abortion grief/loss/stress,[1] but grief can follow an abortion. For more than twenty years, over 9,000 women have voluntarily sought help at our affiliated pregnancy care centres. For some, it is one visit to talk with an empathetic listener; others participate in a longer journey to work through their grief. Pregnancy care centre personnel have sat with those who are grieving, listened as women expressed their feelings, and companioned in their healing journey. Pregnancy care centres provide a safe place for women who have experienced abortion.

I was speaking with a woman recently who said that it had taken her 40 years to put words to her abortion experience and what it was like afterwards. She described it as a tornado coming to blow one little candle out, over and over again. How can we ignore or invalidate her suffering?

Denying the existence of post-abortion grief will not make it go away; it will only serve to marginalize women looking for a safe place to work through their emotions.

Just because we don’t want something to exist – because it challenges our worldview or provokes unwelcome emotions – doesn’t mean it isn’t true or valid.

Not all women experience grief after an abortion. But some women do. And for those women, we will continue to show up each day with respect and compassion.

[1] P.K. Coleman, K. Boswell, K. Etzkorn, and R. Turnwald, Women who suffered emotionally from abortion: a qualitative synthesis of their experiences, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 2017; 22(4): 112-118.

[2] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/disenfranchised-grief

[3] Reardon, DC, The abortion and mental health controversy: A comprehensive literature review of common ground agreements, disagreements, actionable recommendations, and research opportunities. SAGE Open Medicine, Volume 6: 1-38 2018