Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Abortion As a Form of Self-Abuse

Self-Injury and Abortion

“Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:5

It is difficult to write about self-injury. It is contagious behavior to those who are succeptible. That is how I learned to do it. If you have a tendency to self-injure, be extraordinarily careful of triggers you may find in this article and the accompanying links. In fact, if you self-injure and have any doubts about how this may make you feel, please skip this article. But before you go, do one thing: stop hurting yourself. It is also a choice, and one you can control.

What exactly is self-injury? Self-harm takes many forms:

• Cutting skin
• Hitting oneself
• Hair pulling
• Head banging
• Scratching to draw blood
• Biting oneself
• Burning oneself
• Interfering with the healing of wounds
• Breaking bones
• Chewing the lips, tongue, or fingers
• Eye enucleation (removal)
• Amputation of limbs, breast, digits, genitals
• Facial skinning
• Ingesting sharp or toxic objects

(Bodily Harm, Conterio, et al, p. 17)

Is abortion a form of self-abuse? Conterio et al, suggest that compulsive exercise, extreme piercings and tattooing, and even obsessive plastic surgery can be examples of self-mutilating behavior used to relieve psychological tension (pp. 36-40). Why not abortion? It is certainly a destructive act taken against a woman’s body with her consent – freely given or given in submission to some perceived authority. I believe abortion is the mutilation of self, and more. For some, it is a continuation of sexual abuse, a history of which is prevalent among those who self-injure.

An unwanted pregnancy certainly causes psychological distress. Abortion will provide temporary relief from that stress using a kind of amputation – the removal of the natural, biological consequences of procreative sex. Abortion can also repeat the trauma of sexual and physical abuse by invading the most intimate part of a woman’s anatomy at a time when she feels most helpless. The goal of abortion is destruction. The result of sexual abuse is also destruction. Often a woman who “succumbs” to coercion to abort is repeating a pattern learned earlier in life, that her body is not her own to control, and she must give to others the right to inflict pain on her. Cutting, burning, and other expressions of self-injury can often be a way for her to feel in control again. “It is MY body, and I will be the one to hurt it,” certainly seems odd, and is an echo of the pro-choice battle cry, but for the woman who learned to equate love with pain and helplessness in childhood, it makes sense.

“Self-injury is a perplexing phenomenon with many names and abbreviations—deliberate self-harm (DSH), self-harm, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence (SIV), self-cutting, parasuicide, and self-abuse to name some. Those who come across it—family members, friends, supporters—even many professionals—struggle to understand why people do it, and find the behaviour disturbing and puzzling.” (

Self-injury is more violent than suicide. Those who seek death seek an end to pain. Those who hurt themselves flirt with death, but need to live for the pain to continue. Why? Who would choose to live in physical pain?

“Having acquired no truly adaptive, internal abilities to soothe herself or control distress, the self-injurer comes to rely on action – thoughts, fantasies, or words – to gain relief from any uncomfortable feelings or thoughts. Ironically, her goal is to put an end to the pain and suffering she feels in her head, even if it means her body bears the brunt of an attack,” (Conterio, et al, p. 20 – the emphasis is mine).

Cutters love to bleed. There is often a fascination with the appearance of blood and the idea of losing this precious fluid. Read any number of stories at, and you will find sometimes poetic descriptions of how the blood wells from the wounds, what it stains, and the relief found therein. I can recall it clearly myself. As I described in my abortion testimony, I was fascinated by the blood and always disappointed that there wasn’t enough of it, even as I watched it drip with great satisfaction.

Women who self-abuse also find relief in physical pain as an expression of the emotional pain they cannot face, or try to repeat the pain of physical abuse in an attempt to come to terms with it emotionally. Without question, there is enough blood and physical pain in an abortion to satisfy the cutter’s needs. Yet, abortion clinics do no psychological testing or screening that would identify the woman who would submit to abortion to punish herself the way others use razor blades, broken glass, lit cigarettes, and any other tool that can be found.

Let’s take a casual look at the characteristics of self-abusers identified by Conterio, et al (pp. 138 – 141) and apply them to women who choose abortion.

Self-abusers have:

“Difficulties in various areas of impulse control, as manifested in problems with eating behaviors or substance abuse.”

In the experience of Dr. Theresa Burke, author of Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion, women who suffer from post-abortion regrets are overwhelmed with feelings of grief, anger, rage, and betrayal. These repressed feelings are often channeled into eating disorders (Burke, p. 189). “In the Elliott Institute survey of women who had been involved in post-abortion counseling programs, 38.6 percent of the women reported having had an eating disorder (bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating) after their abortions,” (ibid). Conterio, et al report that 40.5% of bulimics and 35.0% of anorexics will also self-injure (p. 22).

Hunger is painful. Denying one’s self comfort in nutrition is self-abusive. Inducing vomiting or otherwise removing nutrition from one’s body is another way to experience pain and inflict punishment. A struggle with the visible, body image, is often the outward expression of internal conflict about one’s self image.

Substance and alcohol abuse have long been identified with stressful events, and we know that some people have more of a tendency in this direction than others. Apparently, self-abusers share this characteristic with post-abortive women. As Dr. Burke reports, "one [study] found that among women without a prior history of substance abuse, women who aborted their first pregnancy had a 4.5 times higher risk of subsequent substance abuse compared to women who carried their first pregnancy to term," (p. 168). While these women had no prior history of substance abuse, it became their tool of choice when faced with trauma, as it often does for the cutter who abuses for many of the same reasons.

“A history of childhood illness, or severe illness or disability in a family member.”

We might ascribe this characteristic to the feelings of helplessness experienced by children who suffer from illness. A child’s expectations of security are severely challenged when an illness or other physical trauma occurs and disrupts the normalcy of the child’s life. Further, illness and disability in family members often lead to the blurring of boundaries, as children in the family are expected to take on adult roles, often becoming caregivers themselves at a time when they most need to be cared for instead.

A child battling illness learns to submit herself to painful procedures, for her own good. She becomes used to trusting and following the directions of medical personnel because of the time spent with them, and because her illness leaves her no choice. She learns that other people often know what is best for her. Many women who are coerced by loved ones into having abortions believe what they are told: the abortion, and the pain, are for their own good.

A child thrust into responsibility too early learns that her own desires and needs must be deferred to the desires and needs of other people. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with self-sacrifice, a child lacks the skills to weigh the consequences of sacrifice for others against the wrong that may be done to herself when the needs of others conflict with her own. She may not express her own basic needs because she has no expectation that anyone will be there to fulfill them, because her caregivers were absent due to illness or disability. Thus, when she is faced with an unexpected and undesirable pregnancy, she is apt to listen more to the needs of others who are important to her than she will to her own desires. Consequently, she may have an abortion in order to satisfy someone else knowing all the while that she would not choose it for herself.

A national random poll conducted by the L.A. Times seems to support the idea that women often abort against their better judgment: 74 percent of those who admitted to a past abortion personally believed it was morally wrong (Burke, p. xx). And the Elliott Institute found that eight of ten women in their survey would have opted to give birth had support for that decision been made available (Burke, p. 225).

“Low capacity to form and sustain stable relationships”

Simply stated, a stable relationship is more likely to result in birth than abortion because it offers the pregnant woman the support she will need throughout what is an undeniably vulnerable period in her life. Women often use the instability of the relationship with their partner to justify an abortion, as did this woman who says she is not sorry:

“Who knew what love was? I thought, like I'd been told, it was rational, logical, based on total kinship with the lover ... that he never made you unhappy, that you believed everything he believed ... unrealistic "stuff" told to me by my dear mother who had been driven to sadness by her passion for my father. Anyway, I couldn't see myself married to my lover, and single parenthood was not even considered.”

“Fear of change”

Listen to Awakening's fear of the unknown:

“Sometimes I entertain the possibility of keeping it. The entire process should be joyful, not so full of sadness and heaviness like it has been. Would that change, had my decision been different? I don't know. Perhaps I still have time to decide otherwise. But I suspect that if I decided to continue the pregnancy, I would be even more distracted and scared. In termination, the end result is certain. In continuation, there is no end result. It just keeps going, the changes, the surprises, the fear and uncertainty.”

“An inability or unwillingness to take adequate care of themselves.”

Pro-lifers generally discount the Alan Guttmacher Institute because they are an arm of Planned Parenthood. Consequently, there is a conflict of interest in the statistics they report. They have a deep financial interest in securing access to legal abortion. However, their own statistics are sometimes their downfall.

In their Overview of Abortion in America,, they list the most common reasons given by women seeking abortions. 21% reported they needed an abortion for financial reasons. Another 21% said they were not ready for parenthood. 11% felt they were too young and/or immature. In total, 53% of the women surveyed obtained an abortion because they felt inadequate to take care of a child, which is, after all, simply an extension of perceived inability to take care of one’s self.

Or as one young woman reports in her own words about the threats in her life, both real and perceived:

“I couldn't have this baby. Michael couldn't keep a job for more that a month, I wasn’t even old enough to work, his parents both suffered from manic depression, and did not take medication, and Michael hit me so I was afraid of that as well. My mom told me that if I wanted to have the baby that I would have to go live with Michael and his family, that I could not stay there. I told her I was pretty sure that this is what I wanted to do. I was still just a baby myself and I couldn't go through it at school.”

“Self-injurers tend to have low self-esteem, coupled with a powerful need for love and acceptance from others.”

Conterio, et al, continue, “They go to extremes to exact demonstrations of love and caring from others, including taking on too much responsibility for what happens in relationships (excessive self-blame) or adopting a “caretaking” role even when it is unhealthy or dangerous for them to do so,” (p. 139).

Listen to young Awakening, and pay particular attention to her use of pronouns (I have added italics for emphasis):

Nonetheless, I believe that there is a potential life inside of me. It is not a mere collection of cells. There is no satisfactory justification that can be made for the termination of this potential. I can only say that, weighing the welfare of us [here she refers to her baby’s father and herself], and us and an unplanned baby which I have no means to care for, I must also take into account the future children which we want to have, and the welfare of the family as a whole.”

Alone, she takes responsibility for family planning. But we don’t need an analytical view of her language – she makes it plain as day:

“As far as I saw it, I was the one who was solely responsible for this accidental pregnancy. And I was going to bear the consequences to the very end, and carry this secret with me to my grave.”

In many other parts of her on-line journal, the same young lady romanticizes her relationship as one she cannot live without. Was the abortion she obtained in accordance with his desires an expression of how much she needed his love and acceptance?

“And of course, my gratitude to my boyfriend is inexpressible. He alone knows how much his strength and presence by my side means to me in these times. I thank you, my love.”

Another view, when the love and support a woman desires from the father of her child is withdrawn, or there is no expectation of same:

“They [her pregnant friends] were opting to carry to term because their boyfriends were promising marriage and support. I was highly skeptical of this and sure enough their boyfriends vanished. My boyfriend vanished too.”

“Childhood histories replete with trauma or significant parenting deficits, which led to difficulties internalizing positive nurturing.”

There are women who abort because they fear motherhood, or do not view themselves as nurturing people. The reasons for this often stem from a lack of nurturing during their own childhoods. As Dr. Burke explains, “…our ability to parent is also shaped by all our other experiences as a child, an adolescent, and an adult. If all goes well, a woman will develop a competent and nurturing ‘mother-self’ that integrates both her childhood and adult experiences,” (p. 76).

As we can see, when a woman does not develop the “mother-self,” she is sometimes aborting the entire idea of motherhood along with her children:

“I did not want a child. I had never wanted children.”

Louise has had six abortions, and still does not want children of her own.

“Rigid, all-or-nothing thinking.”

Shades of gray are disturbing and disorderly to the rigid thinker who seeks to control her environment by strictly defining everything in it. It is easier to feel that the world is a controllable place when we can fit everything into either Box A or Box B. However, as Conterio, et al, state, “…it tends to wreak havoc on [a self-abuser’s] emotional stability when something unpredictable or stressful happens in her well-ordered universe.”

Very few events will alter a woman’s life like an unplanned pregnancy. Suddenly, everything she knows will be redefined by the arrival of another person, someone for whom she will be responsible, a variable that cannot be controlled. A woman with an all-or-nothing attitude is less able to accept the conflicts inherent in child-bearing. Yes, there will be sadness and sacrifice. But at the same time, there will be joy and the love of a child to be gained. She is unable to come to the center of the paradox as she desperately tries to make the pregnancy fit into Box A or Box B. Abortion is an all-or-nothing solution to unwanted pregnancy that gives her the illusion of control over an environment that has suddenly become unpredictable.

Listen carefully to Harriet’s reasons for having her abortion, for which she has no regrets:

“In my view - and having been an unwanted child myself this perhaps impressed itself more heavily upon me -- a child needs to be wanted. And a child needs a father. That in itself, to me, was sufficient reason to terminate. However, I thought I should consider all the options. After all, it felt kind of nice being pregnant! Although it wouldn't stay that way, I knew.

And the reality was, I was in no position to care for or support a child, either financially or emotionally. I had spent years trying to establish a career - and I had just reached the point where I felt I could begin getting somewhere with it. I had no support network. No partner, no family (I'm a migrant), no money. And I did not want a child - I had never wanted a child.”

Harriet has a clearly defined and rigid view of what the nuclear family should be, and it does not include unplanned children. She has no room in her life for surprises that would make her change her career aspirations or her strict definitions of an adequate family life.

Why is it important to identify abortion as a form of self-abuse? Because in doing so, we will identify those women who will be at risk for severe post-abortion trauma. Not every woman seeks an abortion as a way to punish or hurt herself. It is clear, however, that there are enough similarities to make it medically reasonable to insist that we determine whether it is so on a case-by-case basis as part of pre-abortion counseling. The counseling provided in abortion clinics today is most likely to involve a long conversation which does not end until the woman has agreed to the abortion. This is not counseling. This is brow-beating under the guise of therapy.

A woman who is ambivalent about child-bearing needs a safe place in which to explore her feelings. Perhaps she doesn’t want to terminate the pregnancy, but she also doesn’t want to have the child. She cannot fulfill both of these desires, and a reasonable person will see that. If however, the woman lacks a personal history that helps her see what is reasonable, it is prudent and in her best interests for a professional to assist her. If she is choosing to abort because of perceived problems instead of real ones, as soon as she comes to the understanding that her problems at the time were not insurmountable after all (as in a subsequent pregnancy she doesn’t terminate), isn’t it likely she will find sorrow and regret for her abortion decision that will overwhelm her in later years?

Further, if abortion providers want to masquerade as health-care workers, then they shirk their responsibilities when they fail to screen for psychological risk factors that will identify the abortion as an extension of self-hatred and self-punishment, or as relived trauma and abuse. That they fail to do this is obvious from records-based studies of psychiatric admission rates that compared women who had abortions to women who carried their children to term. Cougle and Reardon found “…that psychiatric admission rates subsequent to the target pregnancy event were significantly higher for women who had had an abortion compared with women who had delivered during every time period examined. The greatest difference in admission rates occurred in the first 90 days. This was a counterintuitive result, because one would expect women who experience postpartum depression to be at greatest risk of admission within the first 90 days of delivery, whereas women who have an abortion would seem most likely to experience their highest levels of relief soon after the abortion.”

Works Cited

Burke, Theresa and David C. Reardon. Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion. Springfield, Illinois: Acorn Books, 2002.

Conterio, Karen, Wendy Lader, and Jennifer Kingson Bloom. Bodily Harm. New York: Hyperion, 1998.


At 10:02 AM, Blogger Butterfly15eme said...

Julie, thank you so much for posting about this. I'm healing from two abortions and I would have to say that a big part of why I chose abortion, was out of self abuse. I appreciate knowing that we're not alone. Before the abortions was sexual abuse, eating disorder, cigarettes, alcohol, cutting my arms, drugs, sleeping around. I hated myself. After the first abortion can a suicide attempt, spiral into darkness... then two treatments for alcoholism. Quit smoking and the eating disorder came back with a vengence. One treatment for eating disorder, and sympton free... I was sober, but still continued behaviors of sleeping around (tho this was masked in relationships, no longer one night stands). Because I was afraid to be without a man, I found myself unable to leave an abusive one. I got pregnant, and I hated the baby (cause I hated the man). I didn't want any part of this guy in me, in my life. It's so sad, when I look back. If only someone would have cared enough to find out what was really going on with me.

This is another reason why abortion is frightening: some women use it to abuse themselves, a form of self hatred or to punish the guy. To me, this is not liberation, but slavery, not love, but hate.

Women deserve better than abortion. Period.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger GrannyGrump said...

1. I wish I could remember where I'd read it -- there was a study done in the UK that gave the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) to women seeking abortions. They found a WAY above average incidence of signs of a cluster of personality disorders: Narcicistic, Hystronic, and Borderline. In a nutshell, all three are associated with all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophising, inability to tolerate ambiguity, and an inability to reflect calmly in a crisis. I have GOT to get my daughter to find that for me, unless one of y'all can find it. Maybe Medline or Medscape.

At 8:37 PM, Blogger GrannyGrump said...

2. David Reardon did an excellent analysis of the actual wording of Roe, and how to use it to hold abortion practitioners responsible. Roe does indicate that the states can not stop doctors from performing abortions that, in their clinical judgment, are in the patient's best interest. Anybody see any shortcoming between what Roe says the abortionist's responsibility is, and what they do in practice?

At 8:38 PM, Blogger GrannyGrump said...

3. In "The Search for an Abortionist," Nancy Howell Lee found that women (pre-legalization) who did dangerous abortion attempts were by and large self-destructive, and seemed to see the abortion more as a way of attacking their own hated self than as a way of dislodging an unwanted fetus. Funny how we've conveniently forgoten this dynamic with legalization.

At 5:54 AM, Blogger Emily said...

Christina (aka Granny Grump), I'd love it if you found the MMPI information.

"Catastrophizing" used to be my middle name. When I was going through bouts of depression in my early 40s, I worked with a therapist and read up in a self-help way on cognitive-behavioral interventions in thought patterns that tend to lead to depression.

This is where I learned to recognize my significant catastrophizing tendencies. We tend to assume that the way our mind works is the way everyone else's mind works. It was a revelation to me to learn that catastrophizing is preventable, and lots of folks rarely do it.

The extent to which one catastrophizes has a lot to do with family themes/messages modelled in childhood.


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