Abortion is a topic that’s steeped in a lot of myths, even when you remove it from political debate.
You might have heard, for example, that abortion can increase breast cancer risk and make it difficult to get pregnant in the future or carry a pregnancy to term.
Existing medical research, however, doesn’t support these claims.
Plenty of debate also surrounds the idea of a link between abortion and severe emotional symptoms. Some people suggest abortion is a traumatic experience that can result in “post-abortion syndrome,” which refers to intense distress that has a lasting impact on mental health.
Some argue that it’s a legitimate medical condition, while others suggest it’s a made-up phenomenon intended to dissuade people from seeking abortions.
To clear things up, here’s a closer look at what we do and don’t know about abortion and mental health.
Those who support the existence of post-abortion syndrome have compared it to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suggesting it shares many of the same symptoms.
The symptoms commonly associated with post-abortion syndrome include:
- mood changes, including anger, sadness, grief, or numbness
- guilt, regret, or denial of the abortion
- nightmares and disrupted sleep
- thoughts of suicide
- substance use
- relationship issues
- decreased self-esteem
- fear of future pregnancy
Some also argue that post-abortion syndrome can play a role in relationship problems and changes in sexual behavior or interests, such as:
- withdrawing from a romantic partner
- losing interest in sex
- experiencing an increased interest in sex
Some connect this change in sexual interest to another suggested symptom: the urge to get pregnant again quickly to “make up for” the abortion.
These symptoms are said to appear shortly after the abortion takes place and sometimes linger for months, even years.
People often do experience intense emotions just before and immediately after having an abortion. But experts haven’t found any evidence to suggest these emotions linger or have a lasting impact on mental health.
In addition, there’s no official diagnosis of post-abortion syndrome in either the International Classification of Diseases or the recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
On the contrary, research overwhelmingly suggests abortion does not, in most cases, cause a trauma response or contribute to any lingering distress.
A few of the many medical organizations that have spoken out in support of this conclusion include:
- American Psychological Association
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- Center for Reproductive Rights
We reached out to Rachel Gabrielle, a licensed mental health counselor and women’s mental health specialist practicing in Seattle, to get some insight on the connection between abortion and mental health.
She emphasizes that, while people certainly can experience complex emotions related to abortion, “attempting to pathologize their experiences doesn’t help.”
In her practice, she’s observed that “everyone’s response to abortion is different, ranging from complicated to quite simple.”
While mental health experts don’t recognize an actual diagnosis of post-abortion syndrome, they do agree emotional experiences following abortion can vary widely from person to person.
“Pregnancy loss for any reason can disrupt your hormone cycle, potentially causing negative feelings,” Gabrielle explains. “It’s possible to feel both profoundly impacted and relieved at the same time. An entire spectrum of feelings, from relief to traumatic stress, is normal.”
More specifically, research from 2018 and 2013 suggests that the following feelings are among the most common.
The results of studies exploring emotions after abortion consistently suggest the most common feeling after abortion is one of relief.
Whether you knew right away you wanted to have an abortion or needed some time to decide, you knew continuing the pregnancy wasn’t the right choice for you in that moment.
The ability to end the pregnancy with a safe abortion gave you the option to continue with life as you planned.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling relief after an abortion. This feeling is very normal. It reinforces your knowledge that you made the best decision for yourself going forward.
Emotions are complex, especially those relating to significant or difficult life decisions. Even if you mostly feel relieved, you might also experience some sadness or grief once you decide to have an abortion or shortly after the procedure.
Perhaps you want children in the future but didn’t feel financially or otherwise capable of raising a child. Maybe other circumstances led you to decide abortion was your best option.
Even if you feel no regret whatsoever, you still might have some grief around the loss of the pregnancy.
You may not notice any sadness, either. That’s also totally normal.
Some people do experience guilt after having an abortion. This guilt may relate more to the pregnancy itself: Some people might wish they’d taken more care with their chosen birth control method, for example, than the actual abortion.
But guilt can also stem from your personal feelings about abortion. Maybe you never imagined yourself having an abortion and struggled with the decision before concluding it was the best choice.
It’s fairly common to experience some conflicting emotions. These feelings of guilt can come up right along with feelings of relief.
Yes, some folks do feel some regret following an abortion. And it’s not uncommon for that regret to be combined with a confusing sense of relief.
Maybe you knew right away you’d have an abortion for whatever reason or combination of reasons. Regardless, it’s still absolutely understandable to experience some measure of regret.
You might regret becoming pregnant or the need for an abortion. Perhaps you feel regretful that you haven’t reached a place in life where you could raise a child, or that your current partner isn’t the right co-parent.
In spite of complex or mixed emotions like regret, most people who have abortions still feel confident they made the right decision years after the procedure.
Occasionally, some people do experience more serious emotional symptoms or lingering distress after abortion.
However, these symptoms often relate to preexisting concerns, or issues experienced before becoming pregnant or deciding to have an abortion.
A few things could increase someone’s chance of experiencing stress, emotional turmoil, and other difficult feelings in relation to abortion.
Lack of support
Even if you don’t have any reservations about your choice, you might still need some emotional support from your partner, family, or friends. Talking over significant decisions can often help you sort through your thoughts and come to terms with all of your feelings around the issue.
When you don’t have any trusted loved ones to confide in, however, you might feel alone and isolated.
If you’re in a relationship but your partner doesn’t seem to care much about your decision one way or the other, for example, you might feel hurt, or as if you need to go it alone.
Alternatively, if your partner tries to pressure you into a different decision, you might feel conflicted and stressed.
Uncertainty about getting an abortion
A lot of factors often play into the decision to have an abortion. You might weigh your options and decide, in the end, that abortion makes the most sense. But at the same time, you might still feel a little unsure.
Maybe you want to start a family and wish your current circumstances would allow you to continue the pregnancy and raise a child without hardship. Or perhaps you never thought you’d choose abortion for yourself, but find yourself in a situation where you can’t see any other option.
If you struggled with your decision, you may be more likely to continue thinking about it afterward.
Exposure to stigma and anti-abortion protests
Even if you view abortion as a safe medical procedure and know you have every right to make your own decisions about your body, anti-abortion messages can still have a negative impact.
Though more people now speak openly about their experiences with abortion, there’s still a lot of stigma.
Personal values or beliefs
Pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean pro-abortion. Pro-choice means you believe everyone has the right to make their own reproductive decisions. It’s absolutely possible to hold a pro-choice position and still not want to have an abortion yourself.
But if circumstances led you to choose abortion in spite of your personal beliefs, you might experience a lot of distress around your decision and continue to experience guilt and regret long after the procedure, even if you still feel relieved at the same time.
Existing health concerns
Living with a medical or mental health condition isn’t always easy, even when everything in your life is proceeding smoothly. Facing an unplanned pregnancy — another medical situation that requires a decision on your part — doesn’t help things.
Even if you don’t feel conflicted or experience any emotional tension around your decision to end the pregnancy, simply experiencing a stressful situation can sometimes trigger feelings of anxiety, panic, or depression.
This doesn’t necessarily mean abortion caused those feelings, though. Any situation that adds to your stress might have the same effect.
If your physical health prevents you from continuing a pregnancy or giving birth safely, you may need to have an abortion to safeguard your own health.
If that’s the case, you might experience grief and other distress around possibilities that aren’t open to you.
If you’re considering abortion or experiencing some emotional distress after having an abortion, don’t feel afraid to reach out for support.
Start with your local abortion clinic or healthcare provider. Clinics and healthcare providers offering abortion, such as Planned Parenthood, provide scientifically supported, accurate information about your options and can help you access resources to make the right decision for yourself.
They won’t pressure you into an abortion if you don’t feel ready. They also won’t try to change your mind once you decide on abortion.
You can also access free, confidential support over a talkline:
- All-Options offers compassionate guidance and support to people trying to make a decision about abortion as well as those who have had an abortion. Reach them at 888-493-0092.
- Exhale offers post-abortion support by text or telephone. Call 866-439-4253 or text 617-749-2948.
There’s no right or wrong way to feel after abortion. You might, in fact, have a lot of different feelings — some neutral, some negative, some positive.
But no matter what kind of emotions you experience, they’re entirely valid.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.