The main points
- Most women who have had an abortion are no more likely to experience long-term psychological or emotional problems than women who have not had an abortion.
- Not all women who have an abortion experience guilt, grief or shame as a result of the procedure.
- Studies show most women who have an abortion feel they made the right decision.
- Counselling ideally offers a woman a non-judgemental opportunity to work through her feelings about her pregnancy. It includes advice, information, support, education and therapy.
Many international studies show that women who have had an abortion are no more likely to experience long-term psychological or emotional problems than women who have not had an abortion. While many women undergoing abortion experience negative emotions, including guilt, the majority feel abortion was the right decision.
Most women reach a decision about an abortion without professional support. However, for some women, professional counselling offers a valuable and much-needed resource.
Deciding whether to have an abortion
Most women deciding whether to have an abortion consider many of the same factors as women contemplating motherhood, including:
- their relationship with their partner
- the wellbeing of the foetus
- their readiness to take on a parenting role
- the needs of children they may already have
- their career and financial situation
- their mental and physical health
- the level of support they are likely to receive from their extended family
- their moral, emotional and religious beliefs about pregnancy, abortion and motherhood.
Australian women who have had an abortion have reported that their emotional reactions were affected by a range of factors, including:
- being able to make the final decision to have the abortion
- having access to supportive, confidential and non-judgmental services
- having access to unbiased counselling, when needed
- the reporting of the true experiences of women who have had an abortion.
Emotional issues around abortion
Although most Australians support safe and legal abortion, there is still social stigma surrounding the procedure and an under-reporting of women’s experiences.
Research shows most women who have had an abortion feel they made the right decision. In most cases, emotional distress peaks before the procedure and resolves soon after. After having the procedure, most women experience relief and the return of a feeling of control.
A small proportion of women experience ongoing guilt and regret after having an abortion. Factors that can contribute to this include:
- having low self-esteem
- feeling unable to cope
- belonging to a culture or group that views abortion negatively
- feeling there is little support
- feeling stigmatised or unable to tell others
- having originally committed to the pregnancy
- seeing the foetus as having human characteristics.
Abortion and planned pregnancy
During pregnancy, a woman may be told there are problems with her health or the health of the foetus. When this happens, she may be faced with the decision of whether to have an abortion.
Although having an abortion in this circumstance is likely to cause a great deal of emotional distress, studies show most women feel they made the right decision. Genetic and pregnancy counselling is available to support the woman in making her decision.
In other circumstances, a woman may reconsider her plans and terminate (end) a pregnancy that she had originally wanted because of a relationship ending, financial problems, medical conditions or family issues.
Emotional difficulties after denial of abortion
Women who are denied abortion and keep their child are likely to experience more emotional distress than those who have the procedure. In one study, more than half of the women who were denied an abortion reported long periods of mental disturbance and emotional strain after the birth of the child.
While many women have made their decision to have an abortion before attending a clinic, some will need more information to help in making their decision. This may include information about alternatives (such as adoption and foster care), including support services that are available if a woman wishes to continue with the pregnancy.
All women should be given information about the procedure itself, anaesthesia options for surgical termination and pre and post-abortion care. Part of the decision-making process includes being fully informed of the risks involved.
Some women may need counselling from a trained professional. Medicare-rebated pregnancy support counselling services are provided by some doctors, social workers, mental health nurses and psychologists. For a woman who is considering abortion and is having difficulties making a decision, counselling can offer an unbiased, non-judgemental and non-directional opportunity to work through her feelings and thoughts. In some cases, the woman’s partner or parent also requests access to counselling.
Follow-up counselling after abortion
After the abortion, some women want to talk about their experiences with a doctor, nurse or professional counsellor. Issues such as physical and emotional recovery, and contraceptive options are usually discussed.
Counselling to reduce harm
For a very small number of women, the experience of an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion is highly traumatic. Feelings of grief, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety need to be handled by a highly trained and skilled counsellor. Appropriate counselling can minimise the risk of long-term psychological harm.
If your experience of abortion is affecting your health, you should speak with a health professional.
Not all abortion counselling is unbiased
Some organisations that claim to offer family planning services do not discuss all options with women. They tend to have a particular point of view, which is all they offer to women. It is helpful to ask the organisation you are contacting what their position is regarding abortions.