Post Abortion Stress Syndrome (PASS)
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Caught up in politics and used by pro-lifers to justify their position on terminations, Post-Abortion Stress System is not currently a recognised psychological disorder, but is a reality for some women, writes Sarah Hannah Fisher.
Ashley* is 25, works in advertising and lives in Sydney’s inner west. She is a typical 20-something girl who loves to shop, sleep in on weekends and chat on the phone to her friends.
Along with roughly 21% of Australia’s population (according to Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 data), Ashley has had an abortion. But unlike the overall majority of women who have had abortions, Ashley found it extremely difficult to continue with her day-to-day life.
“I found out I was pregnant when I was 19, with my boyfriend of two months.” she says. “I knew I was unable to look after a baby; I was just out of high school and had no idea where I wanted my life to go. I’ve always wanted kids, but the timing wasn’t right. I wanted to have children when I had a long-term committed partner and was emotionally and financially stable.”
In Ashley’s mind, it was an easy choice. But she wasn’t prepared for the after-effects. “After the termination, I couldn’t shake the feelings of loss and grief,’ she says. “I became withdrawn and depressed. My boyfriend couldn’t handle it. I would get panic attacks whenever I saw pregnant women, or a mother with a baby. I was constantly thinking ‘my baby would be that age now’ whenever I saw small children.”
The effects on a woman’s emotional and psychological wellbeing following an abortion will differ between each woman. Some women will feel relieved or peaceful after the procedure. Other women will experience normal emotions such as loss, guilt or grief.
If these feelings are severe or persist for a long period of time, it may be possible that she is suffering from Post Abortion Stress Syndrome, or PASS.
What is Post Abortion Stress Syndrome (PASS)?
PASS (sometimes referred to as post-abortion syndrome) is a collective term used to describe a disorder that some women will experience following the termination of a pregnancy.
For Ashley, and thousands of women like her, what she was experiencing was real and frightening. But she felt too embarrassed to seek any kind of treatment. After all, the abortion was her choice.
“I remember speaking to my older sister, who previously had a miscarriage, about my feelings of loss and she got so angry at me. I know that it was my choice to end the pregnancy but I was still really upset, even though I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. I was still grieving the loss of a potential child and no one would take me seriously. I started to believe it was all my fault and whatever I was feeling was some sort of just punishment.”
PASS is not currently a recognised psychological disorder and there have been several debates regarding its existence. For women like Ashley, it is a real disorder that had dire consequences on her life.
Dr. Lisa Kline is a clinical psychologist who specialises in trauma. “It is a real problem that PASS is not a recognised condition and that it is not spoken about.” She says. “I have seen many women struggle with the after effects of abortion and they feel ostracised by society.”
Why is PASS not recognised as a real disorder?
If there are women who have spoken out about their emotional distress following an abortion, why isn’t it a proper, diagnosed medical condition?
“It’s a hard issue to define," says Dr Kline. “A lot of it has to do with the politics involving abortion. It is still somewhat of a taboo subject. I have seen and read things by those who are vehemently pro-life claim the existence of PASS as a way to use it as a ‘scare tactic’ for women considering abortion.
“They say that all women will suffer following an abortion, using it as a reason to push for laws to make abortions illegal. It’s preposterous. Not all women will suffer emotionally after an abortion. But there are those who do.”
A lot has been said about the comparisons between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and PASS but there is still a huge discrepancy.
“If a man goes to war, for example, and returns suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) we support him,” says Dr Kline. “We don’t belittle his experience or blame him. We allow his experience a name and we provide treatment for him to recover.
“Yet if a woman is traumatised by her abortion, society is quick to blame the woman and the procedure itself. Her ordeal is turned into a battle of opinion regarding the legalities of abortion and she is often left alone to suffer with her emotional distress.”
Where can you go for help?
There is currently no clear reason as to why some women will experience PASS and why some women will not. There have been numerous studies regarding the psychological effects following an abortion yet most of the data has been inconclusive.
Some studies have shown a correlation between abortion and pre-existing mental conditions. The American Psychological Association has found common links between socio-economic status, personal conservative views on abortion and lack of support for the pregnancy and that of PASS. Yet there are women who suffer from PASS who do not fit into either study.
Feelings of guilt or loss are common side effects of an abortion; it is when these feelings persist and begin to take control of a woman’s life that PASS may come into effect. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone and there is help available.
“Any good psychologist or counsellor will be able to help you work through your emotions, regardless of their opinion of PASS or abortion” says Dr. Kline. “If your agony is real it is able to be treated.”
*name has been changed for privacy
For more information on PASS, visit the After Abortion website.
Sarah Hannah Fisher is a 25-year-old writer from Sydney. A passionate animal rights activist, she also loves writing about the relationships between fashion, pop culture, body image, mental illness and the media. She has worked for beauty website Primped and her work has appeared in various publications. You are most likely to find her asleep under her doona covers dreaming about Wonderland or voicing her opinions through her blog, Death Wears Diamond Jewellery.