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Abortion:
Its Effects on Teen
Moms and Dads

by Lynn Marie-Ittner Klammer

"My mother was very abusive. So when I got pregnant at age 15, I knew I couldn't depend on her for help. I had nowhere else to turn. The abortion made life simpler for me—until now. After the birth of my second child, I find that the memories and dreams of my past childhood abuse and abortion have become more frequent. I realize now that I haven't yet put the past behind me."

Jan's story is matched by countless other stories of women who in adulthood are coming face-to-face with a decision they made as teenagers.

The professional community is only recently beginning to realize the lasting effects of abortion on both the women and men whose lives have been touched by it. While it's certainly true that not all women who have abortions experience lasting consequences, some do suffer, and continue to suffer for many years.

The difficulty of the circumstances that surround the abortion determines the likelihood of later emotional problems Because of the special difficulties of teenage pregnancy and abortion, teenagers run a very high risk of developing post-abortion problems.

Young women often have limited life experience to draw upon, which can make it difficult to decide what to do about their pregnancy. They may be affected by the opinions of others (as we all are), especially the opinions of their peers and family. When the advice the young woman receives is contradictory, it can create an overwhelming and sometimes debilitating situation.

Lea, a 16-year-old facing the many decisions regarding her pregnancy, describes these feelings well: "I don't know what to do. My boyfriend says one thing, my friends another, and my parents—well, they're always telling me what I should do. I feel like I'm going crazy."

Mourning a Loss

These overwhelming stresses often lead teenage mothers to the decision to abort their babies. How do the consequences of such a decision play out in their lives?

An initial reaction after having an abortion is often one of relief. The stress of an unwanted pregnancy and the following decisionmaking process can be an upsetting experience. Abortion itself puts an end to the pain of indecision. Relief comes as a result of what the woman feels is the end of her problems.

Such relief, however, is often short-lived. "I felt great after the abortion," says 18-year-old Debra, "like a giant weight had been lifted off me. It wasn't until a couple months later that I started to wonder if I did the right thing."

Memories of the abortion plus feelings of guilt and remorse are among the more common reactions experienced by women. Even when the woman feels certain she is making the right decision, feelings of guilt are not uncommon. Women who feel the abortion was the "best" thing to do rather than the "right" thing to do experience a great sense of guilt.

In addition to feelings of guilt, some degree of post-abortion depression is common. This usually lessens within a few months. For some women, however, this initial depression can become more serious and last longer. It has been six years since Carol had her abortion. Now, at 25, she is experiencing deep depression. "Nothing means anything to me anymore. I can't eat or sleep. I just feel like crying all the time, but I can't even do that. I just can't get the abortion out of my mind."

As with guilt and depression, the feeling of loss is not uncommon for years following an abortion. Many women sometimes imagine what their aborted baby might have been like, or wonder how their life would have been different if they had decided to give birth to their child.

Janet was 15 when she had her abortion. Now, at 19, she thinks about what her child might have been like: "I see pictures of kids and wonder if mine would have looked like that. Would the baby have had my eyes or Tim's nose or what? I wonder if keeping the baby would have really been such a big deal. I mean, my parents would have helped me, and maybe it would have been O.K. I could have still finished school and everything, and still had my baby besides."

Painful memories and upsetting dreams can affect a woman's ability to sleep following an abortion, adding further stress to her life. Flashbacks are also possible. These vivid recollections of the abortion can happen during waking hours and are certainly terrifying. "It was like it was happening all over again," Janet says. "I was so scared. I could see the pattern on the floor and smell the smell of the clinic. It was just like I was there and it was happening again just like it did before. At night even the dreams were bad. I guess I just couldn't get it out of my head."

Each individual woman reacts to stress in her own way. It is not uncommon for either avoidance or fixation to be present. Those who avoid their feelings may engage in a type of amnesia, conveniently forgetting particular aspects of the abortion. This effort to cover their feelings may make them appear tense and irritable. While some avoid their feelings, others may—tend to fixate on them. For such a woman, the abortion may be constantly on her mind. She may tend to react strongly to anything that is even similar to the abortion.——————————————————————————————

Brenda is a 17-year-old who had her abortion when she was 16. "Everyone says to just forget about it, to put the past behind me, but I can't. Sounds, smells, even just the sight of white sheets can make me crazy."

Does Dad Mourn?

Relationship difficulties between the child's mother and father are another possible consequence of abortion. What may have seemed to be a strong, lasting and loving relationship before the unintended pregnancy may now seem less certain. While an abortion is often seen as a means by which to eliminate the strain on a relationship, it often serves as an additional stress on that bond. The child's father may feel confusion or resentment. Questions of commitment and doubt can also take their toll on what may already be an unstable relationship.

Janet remembers her relationship with Tim: "I thought we were so in love, and I guess we were for a while but, after I got rid of the baby, things just seemed to fall apart. Neither one of us could talk about it, and I just felt bad whenever we were together."

There is little research regarding post-abortion trauma as it affects women, and there is even less about men. While he is often overlooked, the father of the aborted child is not free from similar emotional difficulties to those experienced by the woman. Vickie Gravila-Retich, a Michigan clinical psychologist, has helped many young men work through their feelings about abortion. When asked her professional opinion regarding the male perspective, she stated, "It depends on the male. Some believe that they have no attachment to that 'thing' and are very cold...some are supportive and go through the same symptoms as the woman....I've seen guys be traumatized...to say that they don't go through the same things that the woman does is wrong. They just hide it better."

Men often have more difficulty expressing their feelings. Gravila-Retich says, "They tend to deny and repress...they tell you they want to cry but they can't because they don't know how....Then there are the ones who cry for weeks....There's one thing I'd say to teenagers: If you feel like crying for whatever reason, you need to go through with that. Men need to be open to what they're feeling inside if they're going to be able to deal with those feelings in a healthy manner."

Did I Have a Choice?

An unexpected pregnancy carries with it a certain amount of stress regardless of whether the decision is to abort the baby, keep the child, or have the baby and give it up for adoption.

Abortion may at first seem the perfect answer, but its aftereffects can be terrible, and abortion does not solve all the problems. There is no perfect answer. Once the pregnancy has occurred, life will never again be the same. An abortion cannot truly erase what has happened, so considering abortion as a means of escape is a mistake. It is also important to realize the possibility that this child may be the only one that will ever be conceived by the woman.

Cathy Young, director of Abortion Alternatives, located in Saginaw, Michigan, points out, "About 25 percent of women have trouble getting pregnant. Just because you got pregnant once, when you didn't want to, doesn't mean that you're not one of them. This 'unwanted' baby may be your only one."

The choice to have a child is not free of stress, but does not appear to cause the same painful long-term effects as abortion. It may even turn out to be one of the most wonderful experiences in one's life.

Kathy had her baby at 18, and although it's been difficult to raise her son (now three years old) as a single mother, she feels she made the right decision: "I've never been sorry. Oh sure, there have been moments here and there when I've been frustrated, just like any mother, but I've never wished that I made a different decision."

Not every picture of a teenage mother, however, is as rosy. Becky had her baby at 18 also, but soon found that life as a single mother was more than she was able to deal with: "I had to give my baby up for adoption. It seemed like the baby cried all the time, I didn't have any money, and my family had practically disowned me. I felt like I was going crazy. I gave the baby to relatives who didn't have any kids. They were so happy. I know I made the right decision. Now I know my baby has a good life."

Becky was unaware of the many community resources that are available to help young mothers, such as organizations that assist with finances, religious groups for moral and emotional support, and others. For many women like Becky, adoption is the option they choose.

Karen is another such woman: "I know I wasn't ready to have a baby, so I gave the baby up without even seeing her. It was the right choice for me at the time. I think about her sometimes, wonder what she's like, and that sort of thing, but I know that if I'd have kept her, neither of our lives would have been any good. Now she's with a family who loves her and wanted her, and I can always feel good about myself for making the best decision I could for both of us."

How Does God Fit In?

Many young women are concerned about their relationship to God and the Church as a result of choosing an abortion. Sister Leona Sullivan, director of Christian service for the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, addresses this issue well. She understands that a young woman's self-esteem can be damaged after having an abortion and the pain of guilt can be enormous. "Underneath, the person may fear punishment from God or the loss of God's friendship. [She] may be angry at God or the Church, not able to enjoy life," says Sister Leona. She tells women who feel this way that they are not "condemned" and forgiveness is possible.

"You are...crushed because you feel like God must reject you. I also hear you saying you feel condemned by the Church or Christians when they call you a murderer," Sister Leona says. Abortion is sinful, she says, and many people are tempted to judge. God alone knows the human heart and the complications and complexities that might have led to such a choice.

"I am sorry in the name of the Church and those of us who call ourselves Christians for the harshness and judgment which have added to your burden. In this, we have not been like Jesus who tells us God is like a father who waits to welcome his prodigal son back home and shower him with gifts. Our God is a God of forgiveness and love."

What is important in dealing with the pain and guilt is growing from it. Even negative experiences like abortion can have a positive result. "I would want to ask the person what [she has] learned from this experience that will be profitable for the future. Everyone who has come to acceptance has grown in [her] capacity for compassion and each can extend that compassion according to [her] situation," affirms Sister Leona.

Whether it's the woman who has had the abortion or the man who has had to deal with feelings of guilt and helplessness, those who have gone through this experience can give support to others in a way she or he perhaps did not receive. "I would want them [all] to realize that they could be a blessing for others," Sister Leona says.

The decision of whether or not to have an abortion can be heart-wrenching and very difficult. It can also carry with it many emotional aftereffects that reach into later adulthood, as we have seen in the lives of Jan, Carol and other young women.

While the apparent finality of abortion may seem the end to the worries surrounding pregnancy, it can inflict new wounds. Looking at this now can help you to see that all choices have consequences, what some of those consequences are and how to weigh your choices.


If You Need to Talk
 

If you or someone you love is pregnant or has been pregnant, you may need to talk. It may seem impossible to bring up the subject with people you know. You may feel that they will judge you. You may suspect that your family and friends won't look at all the possibilities. You may not want to worry anyone unnecessarily. You may simply want help thinking how to deal with your situation yourself.

Life Center, Inc. has a pregnancy hotline, 1-800-848-LOVE, to help you. Funded by private donations, this number is free and confidential. The compassionate people who answer can listen well and assist you in making local connections to assist you with pregnancy testing, adoption and other alternatives to abortion, finances, health care, the aftereffects of abortion. Their underlying credo is to support life—your own and that of your child.


Q.

What rights, if any, does the father of the baby have? Can he have any influence on the mother’s decision to abort the baby?

A.

While it's certainly true that the father of the baby may be able to affect the mother's decision to abort the baby, he does not have any legal rights in the matter. The mother does not need the father's consent to have an abortion, whether or not they are married. Regardless of the lack of legal rights, it's important that the father make his feelings known. He should be honest and very clear about how he feels. Offers of support, both emotional and financial, will help the woman feel more secure and better able to make a rational decision. In recent years more and more men have become verbal about their lack of rights, and although I am unaware of any formal organizations at this time, I'm sure we will hear more about this issue in the future.

Q.

What should a young woman consider when trying to decide future plans for her baby?

A.

I posed this question to Kim Bruce, M.S.W., pregnancy counselor at Catholic Family Service in Bay City, Michigan. She says, "Get in contact with a neutral pregnancy counselor rather than an attorney because pregnancy counselors can provide support and guidance....They should think about what's in the baby's and the mom's best interest—not what others want them to do, but what will give the baby and the mom the best future. They should consider things like support and financial systems, family relations, school goals and many other issues. A pregnancy counselor will help parents get reality-based in their plans for a child." Abortion is never the right nor the best thing to do for anyone involved—mother, father or child.

Q.

What about adoption?

A.

If the decision is made to give the baby up for adoption, there are many different choices. The types of adoption vary greatly from state to state, with various forms of "open" vs. "private" adoptions. In an open adoption the mother may be able to select the couple who will adopt her baby and may also have the choice of having later contacts with her child. In private adoptions an attorney or agency may facilitate the match between the baby and the adoptive couple. The adoptive couple may pay the adoption fees and perhaps the expenses of the mother. All of the particulars involved in the adoption process vary from state to state.

Lynn Morie-Ittner Klammer is a licensed clinical psychologist, college educator and freelance writer. She is currently the coordinator of a Catholic-sponsored referral line in Saginaw, Michigan (Care-Line), which provides referral for those suffering trauma from a past experience of abortion or any kind of abuse.

Tony Brunswick, 18; Amy Lange, 15; Mary Seger, 15; and Gary Thieman, 16, of St. Henry Parish in St. Henry, Ohio, met to critique this issue. They suggested changes to avoid stereotyping and asked that an 800 number be included as a resource, in addition to other helpful fine-tuning. Linda Thieman, youth minister at St. Henry Parish, also assisted.

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