Abortion and Maternal Bonding
In the last two segments, I have been describing the effects of trauma on the autonomic nervous system that lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have also discussed at length why abortion is always and intrinsically traumatic, well demonstrated by traumatized abortion clinic workers whose dreams are haunted:
“In my nightmares, I would deliver a healthy newborn baby. And I would take that healthy newborn baby, and I would hold it up. And I would face a jury of faceless people and ask them to tell me what to do with this baby. They were to go thumbs up or thumbs down, and if they made a thumbs down indication, then I was to drop the baby into a bucket of water which was present. I never did reach the point of dropping the baby into the bucket, because I'd always wake up at that point.”
~ Former abortion doctor, McArthur Hill
"She drew me aside and talked in a decidedly agitated manner of the increasingly frequent nightmares her husband [an abortion provider] had been having. He had confessed to her that the dreams were filled with blood and children, and that he had latterly become obsessed with the notion that some terrible justice would soon be inflicted upon his own children in payment for what he was doing."
~ Bernard Nathanson, Abortion Clinic Pioneer
I promised earlier to discuss the effect of abortion on maternal bonding in this third segment of a series on abortion and trauma. It may seem unrelated at first, but for one very technical and to me, puzzling line in The Body Bears the Burden, by Dr. Robert Scaer, referring to the neurological dysfunction of post-traumatic stress disorder: “The anterior cingulate serves an inhibitory gating function on fear conditioning by the amygdala, and also plays a role in generation of maternal behavior and social bonding,” (Scaer, p. 65, emphasis mine). I’m not a neurologist, or any other –ologist for that matter, so I have had to research and puzzle this out. I will do my best to describe my understanding of it.
The amygdala is a region of the brain that processes sensory input from the body: smell, taste, vision, hearing, and vestibular sensation (the position of the body as it relates to the environment). With this input, “…the amygdala evaluates the emotional meaning of the incoming information, and integrates the memory image of the event with the emotional experience,” (Scaer, p. 36). The sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory input we receive during times of trauma can become highly-charged cues for the emotions that accompany a life-threatening situation, such as fear or anger. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has published a paper on the internet at http://www.trauma-pages.com/vanderk4.htm, entitled “The Body Keeps the Score.” In his example of this physiological phenomenon, which is psychologically expressed as conditioned learning, “a rape victim may respond to conditioned stimuli, such as the approach by an unknown man, as if she were about to be raped again, and experience panic.” He goes on to say that “there are persistent and profound alterations in stress hormones secretion and memory processing in people with PTSD.” One of these hormones is oxytocin, which will be discussed again.
I briefly mentioned in the first segment on PTSD the fact that there is memory in our “primal” brain. We have two basic kinds of memory – declarative, or explicit, and non-declarative. Declarative memory comes from the higher brain functions, is conscious, intentional, and the type of memory we use to acquire information and formal education. It develops after an event complete with all of our perceptions, relevant past events, emotions, and well-developed impressions. It is the story we would tell to others. Non-declarative memory, on the other hand, also called implicit memory, cannot be expressed in words, but it is hard-coded. The body remembers what the mind cannot express. Dr. Scaer describes declarative memory as “knowing that,” and non-declarative memory as “knowing how,” because it is responsible for storing acquired skills, conditioned responses, and emotional associations. “All of the motor skills that we learn and never forget, such as musical, artistic, and athletic talents are stored in procedural memory,” a part of non-declarative memory. “Procedural memories are readily acquired without intention, and retained forever without awareness, especially if they are linked to a coincident emotional event. They are acquired and stored without the necessary involvement of conscious memory centers serving declarative memory,” (Scaer, p. 37, emphasis mine). The body does not need the conscious mind in order to remember.
The amygdala processes the emotions surrounding trauma and builds those memories. It also facilitates the state of arousal required of us in a life-threatening situation. The anterior cingulate, which Dr. Scaer describes as exerting a “braking action” on the activation of the amygdala “therefore provid[ing] a gating mechanism on the development of fear conditioning in traumatic stress,” (p. 110), is a region of the brain associated with “higher level input.” It is also where we develop social behaviors like the maternal bond and a sense of self.
In PTSD patients, PET scans show the failure of the anterior cingulate to activate. Since the anterior cingulate acts to inhibit the amygdala, we can conclude that its malfunction results in the PTSD patient being more likely to reach a heightened state of fear and arousal, and we see this confirmed in the research. Dr. van der Kolk cites the work of Grinker and Spiegel who “…noted the similarity between many of these symptoms [of autonomic nervous system arousal] and those of diseases of the extrapyramidal motor system…Contemporary research on the biology of PTSD…confirms that there are persistent and profound alterations in stress hormones secretion and memory processing in people with PTSD.” One of these hormones is, again, oxytocin.
According to Andrea Robertson, in her article entitled “The Pain of Labour: A Feminist Issue,” at http://www.acegraphics.com.au/articles/painlabour.html, “oxytocin is the central hormone in all aspects of reproductive behaviour. In each area of reproduction (sexual intercourse, labour and birth, lactation) it works in the same way and is affected by the same inhibiting factors.” Ms. Robertson explains all of oxytocin’s actions in her article, and they include the initiation of care-taking behaviors in both men and women, and an increase in maternal nurturing behaviors.
Oxytocin is a stress hormone, also released in response to the pain of labor, acting accordingly in the anterior cingulate of the brain to facilitate maternal bonding. The research tells us that chronic and persistent stress inhibits the release of stress-responsive neurohormones like oxytocin. Those who suffer from PTSD are suffering from chronic and persistent stress, and they do not secrete the proper levels of stress hormones. As stated above, there are PET scans that show the anterior cingulate fails to act in those with PTSD, visibly demonstrating insufficient levels of oxytocin, the hormone required to activate the region of the brain responsible for maternal bonding. [Author's Note, 9/27/2005: Further research has led me to conclude that it is not the amount of oxytocin that is significant, but rather where in the brain it is utilized. In rats, the presence of adrenal steroids released in response to fear and anxiety makes oxytocin bind to its receptors (go to work) more readily, but mainly in the amygdala. If the anterior cingulate is not utilizing the oxytocin due to PTSD, the amygdala apparently is. Oxytocin is an endorphin, which has the same qualities in the brain as do opiates. We have all heard of "adrenalin junkies," but what they may actually be addicted to is not adrenalin, but the oxytocin and other neuropeptides that are released simultaneously. This opiod action on the amygdala also explains the roots of trauma reenactment, which can then be seen as unconscious self-rewarding behavior that is as difficult to control as opiate addiction.]
But what exactly is the relationship between maternal bonding and stress hormones? Pain. Pain is normally a warning sign. Something is wrong. Chronic pain like that manifested in fibromyalgia and its cousins is a malfunction of this normal neurological response, and we feel pain in the absence of painful stimuli. There is a time, though, when acute pain is normal, and not a warning that something is wrong. When a pregnant woman goes into labor, pain, a natural part of childbirth, tells her that something important is imminent.
Ms. Robertson says “the primary need for pain in labour centres around the need for a woman to know that the birth has started so she can retire to a safe place…[which is] crucial to the well being of both mother and baby, since both are immobilised and vulnerable during the event and immediately afterwards.” But pain is usually a warning sign, and it is unpleasant. We would not reproduce more than once if pain was all there was. The memory of it would cause normal women to shy away from repeating the experience, except for one thing: the unpleasant emotions surrounding pain are processed by the amygdala as described above. But in normal labor, the anterior cingulate is inhibiting the action of the amygdala, because it is being stimulated and activated by oxytocin. Oxytocin is released in response to the pain of labour. It stimulates contractions, reduces the risk of hemorrhage after birth, and increases maternal nurturing behaviors. No oxytocin in the anterior cingulate – no blocking the fearful memories being formed in the amygdala of our brains without our will or conscious thought – no bonding with the child, a warm experience that protects both mother and infant from the trauma of birth.
How does any of this relate to abortion? According to Dr. Philip Ney, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, http://www.priestsforlife.org/media/interviewney.htm, “…statistically speaking women who have had abortions are less likely to bond to their children.”
In 2002 the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reported that “the children of women who have had abortions have less supportive home environments and more behavioral problems than the children of women without a history of abortion. This finding supports the view that abortion may negatively affect bonding with subsequent children, disturb mothering skills, and otherwise impact a woman’s psychological stability.” The Elliott Institute reports further that “abortion is linked with increased violent behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, replacement pregnancies, depression, and poor maternal bonding with later children. These factors are closely associated with child abuse and would appear to confirm a link between unresolved post-abortion trauma and subsequent child abuse.” Traumatized women cannot produce enough oxytocin during labor to develop a proper maternal bond, and the results range along the same continuum as do post-traumatic stress symptoms themselves. Some women seem to treat their children as little adults, responsible for fulfilling their adult emotional needs (“Why don’t they understand me?”). This has been called “emotional incest,” and is a sign that something went wrong with the maternal bond that would otherwise stimulate the woman to take the nurturing role. It’s not as obvious as physical abuse, but quite psychologically damaging to the child. The other end of the extreme is child abuse and neglect.
Even if we didn’t now understand the physiology behind the degradation of maternal bonding between aborted mothers and their children, we could see this with common sense. As she prepares for, thinks about, and dreams of the wanted and convenient child, the aborted mother reaches into the box for loving, maternal emotions and finds instead fear, anxiety, panic, anger, and all of the negative sensations surrounding the aborted child. Thanks to the trauma of unwanted pregnancy, and the trauma of abortion, these memories have been thoughtfully stored by the amygdala without her conscious will or awareness, associated to all things “Baby.”