Honor this heroine’s story of healing after childhood

Sunday two months ago, the same day The DurangoHerald published my column, “Studies: Keeping abortion safe, legal aids women,” (March 25), I received an amazing email. Its author lives in a neighboring community. She was born when abortion was still illegal.

“My Mom ... agreed to have two children and only two. She became pregnant with me (shortly) after my brother’s birth ... A few years before her death, my Mom finally told me that she had (attempted to have the pregnancy aborted) on three occasions ... She ... tried to abort me herself by tumbling down some stairs around the eighth month. Then, as she always reminded me, I had the ‘audacity’ to arrive breach and cause her great pain. She blamed me for ruining her life and taught my siblings to resent me if they wanted her approval. She was a charming woman who could keep this part of herself hidden from public view ... pretty easy to do actually in the ... 50’s when folks didn’t ask the questions they ask today.

“Challenging childhood for sure, as she erupted in rages quite often, one of which resulted in a serious traumatic brain injury at nine months and many beatings which she made sure were hidden under clothes so Dad and others wouldn’t know. She took pleasure in sexually abusing me with enemas as well. By the time I was six years old I realized that I had to take care of myself if I was going to live. I never spoke to my Dad or anyone else as she made sure I knew what the consequences would be.

“(Many) years later (I) came to understand mental illness including personality disorders. I have been working on my own healing for many years, though I never spoke about my Mom to professionals until this time, when I knew I had the strength and needed more answers. My psychiatrist (who had diagnosed me with post traumatic stress symptoms a few months earlier) ... reviewed many letters and an audiotape I had received from her. (He) thought that she suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder.

“As I thought about the research you cited and your concern about demonstrators, it brought me full circle back to my life and my family ... I am one of the lucky ones ... somehow found good, supportive folks throughout my life who sensed the depth of the pain I carried, although most all of them never knew the specifics. They taught me that what happens to you is only a small piece of your life unless you make it define you ... what matters is what you choose to do. They taught me to take back my power.

“So the ripple effect of an unwanted pregnancy for a woman with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues spreads way beyond her and may extend to generations after.”

The email quoted above was my reason for telling a story that is often left untold – the story of unwanted children. Last month’s column was based on a large study of Czech women who requested abortions but were twice refused. Their unwanted children did not fare as well as carefully matched control kids. They were more likely to have criminal records, to not make friends, to think poorly of themselves – and to be themselves at risk of having an unplanned pregnancy.

The woman who wrote this short autobiography is unusual. Most children who have been unwanted since conception lack the emotional strength and intelligence to pull themselves out of a difficult emotional situation. As Dr. Henry David, the psychologist who investigated the Czech families, wrote: “ ... there were some unwanted-pregnancy children who were just fine – (they) had a high resilience rate.”

Unwanted pregnancies are a problem for the individual woman and also for society. There is a great deal of misinformation about abortion – perhaps our nation’s most contentious issue. My March column reviewed two recent studies. One investigated the psychological effects of abortion on the woman. It found that women with unplanned pregnancies are susceptible to psychiatric problems whether they abort or deliver. “The most reliable predictor of post-abortion mental-health problems was having a history of mental-health problems before the abortion.” The second study found that abortion is practiced all over the world. Making abortion illegal may make it even more common, and increases the maternal death rate.

Currently, unplanned pregnancies are a part of life, but they can be minimized with good contraceptive services. Until perfect contraception is available to all, access to legal abortion will benefit society as well as individuals.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2012