Friday, December 23, 2005

Fountain of Sorrow

Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known the hollow sound of your own steps in flight.
You’ve had to hide sometimes,
But now you're all right.

~ Jackson Browne, “Fountain of Sorrow”

But finally Roger had had enough. He looked at her and calmly, coldly, said, “Have you ever had to kill anyone?”

~ Unidentified Vietnam Veteran

The blogger whose text I quoted in my last post has more grace than I; she had already reconsidered the choice of words that led to my angry and defensive tirade. In her defense and mine, “Faithful Blogger” is not a real person, although I used someone’s real words. “Faithful Blogger” is a composite of many voices. I came upon one sentence that summed up the attitude that was bothering me, so I pounced on the words of that individual in order to attack a mindset. It reverberated like a personal attack, though, which is where my defensiveness shows most clearly. I even considered deleting that post, but decided against it for several reasons. First, my book report on Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions stands as is. Second, my last post is a perfect illustration of what is essentially a two-word answer to the question, “How does one speak to the post-abortive?” Answer: very carefully. And I’m letting it stand because it says at least as much about my own weaknesses as it does anyone else’s. There they are, and the young blogger who took it on the chin has my gratitude. If she can hold up under my ranting, then she is probably ready to talk to the post-abortive.

But in order to talk to and about the woman who aborts, we have to understand the nature of abortion. We cannot say in one breath that abortion is both a traumatic experience and an act of selfishness; not in such general terms. The issue is complex. Yes, especially from the theological perspective, it is selfishness to deny God His will in determining who lives and dies. But in human terms, we have to remember that by definition, that which is traumatic is also threatening; many women who abort do so in response to a threat in their own lives. Is it always selfish to act in self-defense when one is threatened?

What can we know about the pregnant woman who is feeling threatened, which is echoed in the defensiveness of the post-abortive woman even decades later? We’ve discussed the fight/flight/freeze response to threat before. In his book, On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman tells us that “when we examine the responses of creatures confronted with aggression from their own species, the set of options [fight/flight] expands to include posturing and submission,” (Grossman, p. 5). The tiger on the jungle path cannot be reasoned with by his human prey because we don’t speak Tiger. Human beings, however, can communicate and negotiate, even when no words are used:

There, not more than 15 feet away, sat a Viet Cong eating a handful of rice from a pouch on his lap. We looked at each other for what seemed to be an eternity, but in fact was probably only a few seconds…After a moment, he put his pouch of rice on the floor of the tunnel beside him, turned his back to me and slowly started crawling away. I, in turn, switched off my flashlight, before slipping back into the lower tunnel and making my way back to the entrance,” (Grossman, p. 2).

Posturing is the display of our capabilities. Peacocks are posturing when they show their plumage. The "rebel yell" of the Confederacy was posturing, a non-violent act intended to convey a threat. King Kong beats his chest, saying clearly enough “Leave me alone. I'm more powerful than you.” Among creatures with a social order, in particular, submission is used to end a conflict without violence. One creature gives in and acknowledges the authority of another. Sometimes we social humans submit in response to a threat of violence from another:

I was always told I would never have children due to severe endometriosis; imagine my surprise when I discovered I was pregnant. I was so excited and couldn't wait to tell him about it. I was about 6 or 7 weeks along. I told him and he seemed very upset. He told me there was no way he was going to have a child. Being totally against abortion, I told him no way. We seemed to get into more arguments, and the abuse seemed to get worse. I was determined to have this baby. I was about 12 weeks or so when the worst came. He told me if I didn't go get an abortion he would kill me. He actually held a gun to my head. We drove to some place in New Jersey.

Sometimes we submit to the will of others, and may not know why or even how:

I can recall being awestruck as the lady told me that I was going to be a mother. I wept and I shook all at the same time. The joy was more than I can detail in mere words. When I told Edward he was pleased and we were both anxious to share our good news with his family. His family reacted with concern yet with love over our blessed news. Later that day Edward and I spoke of marriage. We spoke about our futures together. All seemed well.

It was time to tell my family, the family that had raised me in a supposed Christian environment. I was scared. I was afraid to do what had to be done. I knew in my heart that I had to tell the truth. I had to tell them. So I did. I confronted the issue alone. I attempted to explain as I sat there and heard something that I will never forget. The decision was that I was to abort my baby. I was told that this is what was best for all concerned. I didn’t know what to say. Thoughts raced through my head of Sunday sermons denouncing such a procedure. My mind raced as my mother explained to me that I had to use my own money. I was told to take the money out of my savings and to have Edward drive me to the city. I had done the damage. I had to fix it. I feared abandonment, having no home or support. I was told that I would be thrown out into the streets. So, I did what my mother demanded.

In my case, the positive pregnancy test hit me like a sledge hammer in the chest. I sank to the floor of the bathroom (where else does one do these tests?), and struggled to cry. It seemed too big to cry about. Then I started to laugh at my own stupidity, and when I did, I also wept. I thought, “Hello, Baby,” and “I don’t know if (how) I can keep us alive.” I started to lose my mind just about then. I understand in a very personal way that an unplanned pregnancy can, in and of itself, be traumatizing. I do not, however, understand abortion as the remedy.

What is happening hormonally, on a neuropsychological level, when a pregnant woman is threatened? To learn that, I started trying to find information about how hormones affect behavior in pregnant women. I didn’t find nearly as much as I hoped, so I’m going to wing it. I found quite a few sweeping and generalized statements that women who are pregnant are under the influence of hormones, but not a lot of information as to how this influence is manifested. Naomi Wolf writes that obstetric psychology as a field of study is widely known in Europe and Australia, but virtually unheard of in the United States.

So for now I’ll try to reason it through in a simplistic, but perhaps revealing, way. The goal of the species is twofold: the survival of the individual and the survival of the species. In mammals, and only in mammals, these goals become intertwined in a remarkable way when the female is pregnant with the next generation. They cannot be separated. When the survival of one threatens the survival of the other, then this is a sign that something is wrong.

It also makes sense for the pregnant mammal to be more alert while she is pregnant, because of this twofold goal to secure survival. From a neuropsychological standpoint, this is a unique time. The pregnant woman’s brain is being bathed by hormones, mainly estrogen and progesterone. According to the British Society for Neuroendocrinology, oxytocin, which will play a major role in labor, birth, and maternal bonding, is being stored up during the first and second trimesters for that purpose:

The adaptations in neural circuitry in the mother's brain are prepared by actions of pregnancy hormones. While the neural circuits for birth, maternal behaviour and lactation are ready for sudden action at term, they must be restrained until birth. So the circuits have powerful inhibitory as well as excitatory controls.

Oxytocin builds up in the posterior pituitary during pregnancy because less is released and more is produced. Oestrogen stimulates the oxytocin gene when progesterone secretion falls, though we do not yet know how the oestrogen receptor expressed in oxytocin neurones regulates this gene. Oxytocin neurones are strongly inhibited by three mechanisms which prevent them from releasing the stored oxytocin prematurely.

First, progesterone, acting through an intermediary, intensifies actions of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA on oxytocin neurones….brakes on. Second, stimulated oxytocin neurones produce nitric oxide, which diffuses from the cells and their terminals, restraining oxytocin cell activation and secretion….more braking. During pregnancy, oestrogen and progesterone increase neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) activity and also activate the third mechanism, which uses brain peptides with opiate-like activity. These opioid peptides restrain oxytocin secretion first via receptors in the posterior pituitary and later at the nerve cell bodies….safety stop?

The brakes come off….when progesterone secretion collapses near term: GABA is less effective and the nNOS gene is turned down. However, the opioid restraint remains, stopping the oxytocin neurones from running out of control, as excitation now predominates. A boost is given by oxytocin itself, breaking out from the nerve cell dendrites and driving the oxytocin neurones to operate near full power. Finally, oxytocin released in the brain acts on the circuitry for maternal behaviour, sensitised through induction of oxytocin receptors by oestrogen.

Oxytocin is being built up in storage, in the posterior pituitary of the brain of the pregnant woman. During times of stress, we know this about oxytocin: “In rats, the presence of adrenal steroids, released in response to fear and anxiety, increases the ability of oxytocin to bind with its receptors (or be put to use), but mainly in the amygdala." The amygdala will facilitate the state of hyper arousal.

What happens to the built-up oxytocin in a pregnant woman in response to the fear and anxiety associated with someone rejecting her and/or her child? Since we have reasoned that nature would benefit most from a pregnant woman who is more alert to danger than not, what can be known about the state of arousal as it is affected by the pregnant condition? Is the pregnant woman in a hypervigilant state of arousal? The estrogens and other hormones are already affecting her behaviorally:

“..only recently has it become apparent that estrogens exert many actions outside of the reproductive function, including actions on brain areas that are important for learning and memory, emotions and affective state, as well as motor coordination and pain sensitivity.”

The anterior cingulate of the brain, which is that area engaged in social bonding behaviors, will gate or inhibit the actions of the amygdala, which is stimulated in the brain under times of stress, and is facilitating the stress response. It makes sense then, that the pregnant woman would try to calm her aroused state by seeking the society of other human beings. Indeed, this may be Nature’s goal in creating the hyper aroused state to begin with: pregnant human women need assistance during labor and birth. The aroused state is created so the woman will seek that help. Finding no one willing, as is the case in more than two-thirds of all abortions, her stress will increase. She may dissociate from her emotional responses, including and especially the maternal bond, which is closely associated with the threat. In that state, she will acquiesce to the demands of others more easily; and in that state, the maternal bond can be more easily ignored, or denied, at least for as long as it can take to have an abortion.

Now, what happens to the built-up oxytocin when the pregnancy is terminated by abortion? We remember that oxytocin has opiate-like qualities:

After the abortion, I felt nothing but relief, mentally! My body went into grieving mode due to hormone realignment. That lasted a couple of weeks. I understood what it was and did not make it a obsession. It confirmed the opinions of the doctors that Post Partum Psychosis would have been the outcome had I carried to term. When that was done, my relief was TOTAL. Ever since, I have been nothing but relieved.

Sharon’s testimony is notable because she had a history of post-partum depression. It seems our best guess at this point as to the cause of this disorder is the termination of hormones once the pregnant state ends in birth. First, the answer, when we find it, will have to be much more complex than this. The cessation of high hormone levels is the natural consequence of birth; it is abnormal for it to cause illness, so there is a mechanism involved in post-partum depression that we are missing. Secondly, I note this because it is illogical to assume this same mechanism cannot cause depression if the pregnancy is terminated surgically or chemically, by abortion, instead of by natural cessation, or birth. Yet, some experts will still deny that abortion can induce clinical depression. I, at least, am going to try to develop an understanding of obstetric psychology. I don’t see how any discussion of abortion could proceed without it.


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