EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the March 22, 1999, issue of The Human Life Review. It is reprinted with permission.
“The outside world has no idea, they see us as ’selfish’ women, who just happily waltzed off to an abortion clinic, and they just have no idea of what we really went through, and what we continue to go through.” So writes 35-year-old Jill in a post on her Post Abortion Stress Syndrome (PASS) Support and Research Page; she is responding to a woman, who like most who “gather” at her website–feels, in the wake of an abortion, as though she is alone.
Far from a god-send, the post-Roe v. Wade world has not been kind to women. “The freedom of choice has twisted into something that is hurting women, instead of helping them,” one girl recovering from an abortion told me recently in an Internet chat room. In 1994, the unabashedly pro-choice Glamour magazine surveyed some 3,000 women who had undergone abortions. Overwhelmingly, respondents said that if prior to the procedure they’d had any idea of how deeply they would come to regret it, they would have never gone through with it. For many of these women who are often left alone to suffer the pain of abortion, cyberspace has become a safe haven to share, remember, and grieve–in the days, weeks, months, and in some cases, twenty or more years after they exercise their “reproductive rights.”
Jill’s is the most active of these websites. A divorced mother of 3, she has had five abortions in the past 18 years, the first of them at age sixteen. “With the first three, whenever I would start to get upset, or think about them too much, I would just shove the pain down, or use alcohol, or overeating, or casual relationships and more casual sex to push away any thoughts that the abortions bothered me,” she recalls in more than one post on her PASS Women’s Support Board, one of six bulletin boards on her site. “I insisted to myself again and again, that I was glad I had that choice, and that my life would have been miserable if I had kept the pregnancies going.”
But after her fifth abortion in February of 1998, she realized that the loving, supportive man she was dating would have made a great father. She looked at her three living children and regretted that the ones she had aborted weren’t with them. She knew she was stuck in some kind of cycle. Thinking “I can’t be the only one who’s feeling like this. I can’t be the only woman out there who’s had an abortion, and felt so upset afterwards,” she decided to put her amateur knowledge of web-site construction to use and create a site designed to “see if other women felt like I did. I was sure they were out there, just like me, afraid to speak, or having no one to talk to. And it helps now to know I’m not alone.”
Affectionately known as “Jilly” her Post Abortion Stress Syndrome Support and Research Page (www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/1362) [this website is now: www.afterabortion.com], is guided by a philosophy often repeated in her online postings: “no matter WHAT the reason, if you are having a hard time with an abortion, you need hugs!” No false advertiser, she warns on her main page that she is not a professional and advises that her site not be the only source for an individual’s outreach. Ideally, she tells me, women should “have a one-on-one counselor, in addition to the online stuff.” (And she means it. When one regular visitor to her site, in private e-mails, recently sounded suicidal, Jill intervened, coaxing her counselor’s phone number out of her.)
In her role as part-time counselor, or “goddess” to some lonely women, as one regular teases during a chat session, Jilly leaves no posting without a response. Jilly advises one sister-in-mourning: “I know it FEELS like if you get pregnant again, it will take away all that pain from the abortion. But the truth is, it won’t. You will love, and enjoy, and be kept busy all the time by the new baby, but the PASS will still be there, and will be sneaking up on you and knocking your feet out from under you more than you realize.”
Virtual hugs and healing may be her current project, but Jilly has more elaborate plans for the future. “America has NO RESPECT right now for women, unborn infants, and motherhood.” A book, day-care centers, and a lobbying group are all on a rough drawing board. Less than a year into her site, she’s already started to build a non-profit group, the PASS Foundation, to assist some of the many women who have fallen victim to abortion in a society that demeans the value of motherhood. Eventually, in addition to educational outreach programs, Jilly envisions her foundation running homes for pregnant women who have nowhere else to turn.
Jilly knows firsthand, and through the experiences of her Internet friends, that “choice” is mostly an illusion, especially for low-income, single women. In one posting Jilly implores pro-life lawmakers to visit her site and boards to “find out the real reasons women are having abortions.” As a matter of public policy, she suggests low-cost or free day care, more part-time work in “good fields” for moms, better housing assistance for mothers of small children. “Having a child does change your life, but it shouldn’t have to financially devastate you, or force you to lose your job, drop out of college, things like that.”
Nor is there enough respect for women to warn them in advance that abortion isn’t really the “no big deal” everyone makes it out to be. Jilly knows from her own Internet research (and experience), that honesty about post-abortion pain is too often foreign to those who call themselves pro-choice. An e-mail she sent to NARRAL requesting information about post-abortion stress syndrome came back with a less than useful reply: “We are not familiar with the term Post Abortion Syndrome in any context other than what we have seen in the literature of anti-choice organizations.” From the California Abortion Rights Action League, she received a similar answer: “I am unaware of the syndrome you mentioned and so do not know of any websites.”
For a group of women, the minority of whom are pro-life, Jilly’s girls express a natural animosity toward the pro-choice party line, as comments on a recent series of print ads from the National Abortion Access Project demonstrate. “Will abortion services be there when you need them?” asks a woman in one advertisement. An attractive young woman discloses: “When I got pregnant, my best friend said I should ‘pay the price’ and have the baby. But I knew that abortion was the responsible choice for me.”
Posting a wire story about the ads on her site, Jilly is outraged: “[It's] the pro-choice attitude that the ad shows, saying that the woman’s friend says she should ‘Pay the price’ and have the baby!! AS IF!! That just burns me up, that they are looking at women, and motherhood, and pregnancy and having a baby as a PRICE!!!!!!”
Knowing better, an abortion provider is the last place any of these women would expect empathy. As their post tells, ill-treatment at abortion clinics is a common experience. One woman tells the story of going to a clinic for a pregnancy test. After taking her urine sample, a clinic worker approached her and said: “We got your test here, and you are pregnant.” The worst of the shock was that the next sentence was, “When do you want to schedule the abortion?” I was horrified, and I left in tears. Devastated, she continued the story, with a sincere, somewhat obligatory, defense of the clinic:
Now, that statement was spoken to me by a woman who had fought an extremely difficult and dangerous battle to get the clinic I was sitting in open and functioning. It was a feminist endeavor of the most practical sort. But I believe that the struggle had created the paranoia that said if we let the Right know that one woman might choose to NOT have an abortion then all our work will fall apart.
Pro-lifers shouldn’t expect Jilly’s girls to join them outside abortion clinics anytime soon. Even given the unsympathetic alternative, pro-lifers don’t score many points with this crowd. Those people “who scream to us on the way into the clinic” don’t seem particularly welcoming. One woman asked me, “Do you really think any of us were happy about being there?” Twenty-seven-year-old Jen won’t go near pro-life counselors, having given one a try early on; she was left only more hurt when, she says, the woman “threw a Bible at me,” focusing on her sin, seemingly ignoring her pain.
“Really, I am pro-life in my heart, and pro-choice in my head” Jilly tells me. “I would love to see abortion used only for medical complications, or for the few cases of women who truly want no part of pregnancy, childbirth, children or adoption. But right now, I have no faith in the government to produce the necessary safety nets that women would need.” Jen, who otherwise seems suspicious of anyone or anything pro-life, tells me, as if I asked a no-brainer, “obviously it is a life… if we had done nothing, we would have children.” Although the PASS site strives to be, necessarily, apolitical (“the part about my site that is different,” Jilly says, “is that women can come, and regret their abortions, but don’t necessarily have to examine the issue of abortion and whether it should be legal or not”), the women can’t help what’s in their hearts. During an online chat session, a couple of the regulars tell me they would never have had the abortions if they felt they really had a choice. In fact, many of these women would most like to be home taking care of their children–all of them. Writes one, “I always wanted to be a stay-home mom, but could not afford it … and it still upsets me.”
Although church-sponsored post-abortion counseling isn’t particularly popular among Jilly’s crowd, there’s no aversion to spirituality. Heaven is a common topic on her bulletin boards and the majority of post-ers commonly refer to their aborted children as angels. Jilly writes: “I like to think that when I die, I’ll get to see my baby again.” Comparing her vision of the afterlife to Kate Winslet’s character in the movie Titanic, she imagines: “I think that if I can be strong, and brave, if I make the most out of what I do have here, that I’ll have the chance for my Heaven, like Rose had hers. And my Heaven will be to have my baby, hold her in my arms, and watch her grow. I hope that the life and times that I was cheated out of with her here on earth, I’ll get up there.”
An initial step in the grieving process–a prominent element of Jilly’s and a usual component of most post-abortion sites–is mothers memorializing the lives they’ve lost. An anonymous Christmas-time posting on Jilly’s support board is typical:
My Dearest Evan,
If only I could have that second chance to make everything ok. To make everything different. To fix my mistakes. To hold you in my arms and look into your sweet face. I long just to kiss your sweet face. I long just to kiss you and tell you how much I love you. I love you more than life itself. I would give my life just so you could have yours back and live the happy life that you deserve. But I was not strong enough for you and I failed at the most important job in the world–being your mother and protecting you from harm. I wanted you more than anything but allowed others to pressure me into making the worst decision of my life. I was scared and thought I couldn’t support you by myself. I was afraid to tell anyone else or ask for other people’s help because your Dad and I were not married and I thought others would look down and criticize me. I now realize that none of that seems so important–not as important as having you in my life. I am in such pain and think of you every single day. I kept thinking that as time went by, I would feel less and less hurt, but that is not happening. I kept searching for an answer or reason as to why I did what I did to you, but there is no answer and there is no reason. I just tried to run away from my problems at the time and in turn, that cost you your life.
I am so sorry and I am trying my hardest to change. I am a different person now Evan. A stronger and better person but definitely not the same person. When they took you from me on March 20th, they took away a part of my heart and soul that can never be replaced. You will always carry a piece of my heart and of my soul with you. Please don’t ever let go. Hold on to it tight and know that you will always be Mommy’s first and only Angel. I am so very sorry and am trying so hard to learn how to forgive myself. I hope that someday, both you and God will forgive me as well. I know that you are safe and at peace in heaven in God’s arms. Until we meet someday … Goodbye and never forget that I love you with all of my heart, my sweet angel baby, Evan …
All my love, Mommy
Other women, like Kay, are more representative of those who tend to call post-abortion healing groups like Project Rachel, usually at least ten years after their abortions, once they’ve worked up the courage to address their pain–or admit their mistakes.
Ten years ago today, I had an abortion. 1988. I was in high school, seems like so long ago but then again, like it was yesterday. I am sad when I think of what I did ten years ago, yet I do not regret the choice. Do you know what I mean? I just came here today on Thanksgiving Day to pay some tribute to the little spirit that is not here, a sacrifice I made when I was only 16.
A friend of mine told me about this place. I like it. Gosh, I wish it had been here a few years after my abortion when I was going through all of those feelings. I feel more settled with my choice and my life now. I hope you all do too someday, if not now. I spent many years in regret but my life has turned out good in the end.
Jilly’s pages, although among the most populated, are not alone in cyberspace. Some of the more professional sites, which are less active, are maintained by pro-life groups. Common are those run by pro-life women who have gone through the healing process themselves, seeking to help others work through their grief. Included on one such site (http://gargaro.com/regrets.html), in a section called “Abortion–and the Regrets,” is a particularly gruesome story, sent in, unsolicited, by e-mail. From Michelle” upon learning, at age 16, that she was pregnant:
I stood on my bed, and removed my curtain rods. I broke off the end and laid on my bed, and with no hesitance at all, I killed my baby, and almost myself… [after 11 days hospitalization] I went on with life as usual… seemed very proud of myself, it was cheap and quick and got the job done… in less than one year I was pregnant again. By this time I knew what to do … It was $ 350 and I would be put to sleep, and this wonderful “God-sent” Doctor would make me unpregnant! The abortion was legal and much safer than my first. I went home, had some cramping, nausea, and some bleeding and within 3 days I was again telling my friends about the wonderful “gift” of abortion.
[After four abortions in less than three years she began drinking and began using illegal drugs, becoming addicted to crack.] Drugs took away the reality and the pain of what I had done. I became very involved in spreading the pro-choice message to whomever I could and, really felt there were no regrets… [It was in drug therapy that the truth came out.] Abortion is an option to a life of Hell only! ! ! There are other ways, I only wish that little girl with her heart so heavy and scared that night 11 years ago, could have had a peek into her future, just a small peek and what a different choice she would have made.
Other sites, however, are more denial-fests than occasions for healing. At “A Heartbreaking Choice” page (www.erichad.com/ahc/ahc3.htm), there is more justification rhetoric than memorializing, grieving, and forgiving. At times, it seems less a “healing” aid than a tribute to “courageous” women who chose termination and a testament to “the grey area” of abortion. “Cody’s Mom” offers a typical posting:
I had to choose to end my child’s life. I have never regretted my decision, but I never had anyone that I could share my feelings with who knew exactly what those feelings were… I think the most misunderstood thing surrounding termination is that we chose to terminate the pregnancy because we loved our children so much that we couldn’t stand to have them live a life of pain and suffering. I am so often told that I took the “easy way out.” I couldn’t disagree more. The easy way would have been to have Cody.
Over a decade after Surgeon General C. Everett Koop told President Reagan that there was insufficient research to determine whether post-abortion stress syndrome could be considered a national health problem, acknowledgement of the reality of post-abortion emotional pain is gradually becoming more mainstream. “Something’s shifted in terms of consciousness,” observes Project Rachel’s founder, Vicki Thorn. They get three to four hundred calls a month, she says, and, increasingly, they are calls from a relatively new group: “We are getting a real influx of women who’ve just had abortions.”
Still, not everyone–certainly not the abortion industry–”gets it.” In such a climate, “cyberspace can serve a viable function” for women with this “major issue of pain in their lives,” observes David Reardon, author of Aborted Women: Silent No More and director of the Elliot Institute, a nonprofit educational group focusing on abortion’s aftermath. An overwhelmingly shame-based group of women, they often feel as if there is nowhere to turn. They avoid pro-lifers for fear of condemnation, and think that many prochoicers just don’t want to understand, leaving them feeling like “oddballs.” While, Reardon says, the Internet will never “substitute totally for human contact” it can provide some women a rare, “safe environment,” where “grief can be authenticated” and women can share and begin “to decompress.” “Still, there’s reason for caution in a non-concrete medium, where you just don’t know who you are contacting,” cautions Project Rachel’s Vicki Thorn.
Whether sites like Jilly’s will serve as a seismic catalyst toward making post-abortion healing a mainstream concern, or are merely a symptom of a trend already in progress, her “regulars” will testify to the blessing that the safety of her virtual support group has been in their lives. With over 14,000 hits to her main page and over 12,000 to her support board since June 1998, Jilly’s site seems to serve her short-term goal, a community subject to pop up in search results when a grieving woman most needs it–”one of the many more of us out there, who are just silent, because there are very few places where you can say, ‘Hey, I had an abortion, I don’t think it was the wrong thing at the time, but I am MISERABLE.’”