“Women are hard-wired for relationships—and a woman’s relationship to her baby is one of the most powerful of all, whether she realizes it or not. The hard-wiring of the brain may explain many women’s disturbing post-abortion feelings,” write Evelyn Birge Vitz and Paul C. Vitz in an article published in the September 20 issue of Public Discourse.
Evelyn Vitz is Professor of French and Affiliated Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. Paul C. Vitz is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at New York University and Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
In the article the authors relate spending a semester with students studying the stories of women who shared their experiences after an abortion.
The authors found that “many of these women are in acute pain; some are almost totally incapacitated” by their post-abortion feelings.
“What is particularly striking is that most of the women who have these powerful emotional reactions to their abortion are stunned by them. They were not opposed to abortion; many were actively pro-choice. They were blind-sided by their own reaction. One woman lamented—and thousands of others echo her mystified anguish—‘If this was the right decision, why do I feel so terrible?’”
Noting that “this disturbing phenomenon is so widespread, and found among women from varied backgrounds and different parts of the world,” the authors postulate that “it seems likely that the brain itself—in particular, the nature of women’s brains—may shed some particularly useful light on this unexpected negative emotional reaction.”
The authors cite research into the differences between women’s and men’s brains, especially as these differences relate to the realms of emotion, stress, and memory.
“A few of these differences can make a very large difference with regard to decision-making and its emotional consequences,” the authors say, pointing out that “the part of the brain that processes emotion, generally called the limbic system, of women functions differently than that of men.
“Women experience emotions largely in relation to other people: what moves women most is relationships. Females are more personal and interpersonal than men.”
On the handling of stress, the authors note that research has found that “men’s behavior under stress is generally characterized by what is called “fight or flight,” whereas women respond to stress by turning toward nurturing behavior, nicknamed “tend and befriend.”
In post-abortion stress disorder this “tend and befriend” response may manifest itself as depression and anxiety due to the lack of a focal point for the response.
“When responding to the stress of the abortion, she may well be drawn to nurturing, to ‘tending and befriending’ behavior: this is, we saw, characteristic of women. But one of the key persons she might have tended and befriended—her unborn child—she has just terminated. She therefore has no ready outlet to cope with this significant stress.”
“Add to this already toxic mix the very power of the memories involved in most unwanted pregnancies and abortion experiences,” the authors write, “such as the nausea or other physical symptoms, often exacerbated by hormonal instability and mood swings; the anxiety over the unwanted pregnancy; the drama of the pregnancy test; often, the difficulty of making the decision, then the waiting before the abortion can take place; perhaps protesters in front of the clinic; the abortion clinic waiting room, crowded perhaps with other emotional women and men; the abortion itself—the doctors and nurses, the stirrups, the vacuum or other machinery—then the recovery room; the pain and bleeding afterward.
“All these dramatic experiences are likely to provide her with indelible memories. A woman may return to them and relive them over and over.”
The authors conclude that “though a woman can decide rationally to have an abortion … a terrible and shocking reaction sets in after their abortion. Often what lasts is not the relief or the power of the logical arguments: these may prove very short-lived. It is, rather, the failed, betrayed relationship between the woman and her fetus—now, in her mind, her dead baby—that has staying power.”
The authors call for a greater honesty from the medical profession toward women contemplating abortion “to prevent at least some women from having to experience this painful surprise.”
“Women need to be told the truth. They need to be prepared for what may be the consequences of this major life decision. This is what informed choice means.”
The full text of Vitz’s article, titled, “Women, Abortion, and the Brain” is available here. (http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/09/1657)