A Growing Awareness: Post-Abortion Syndrome among Men

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You were one of the presenters at the conference “Reclaiming Fatherhood: A Multifaceted Examination of Men Dealing with Abortion” sponsored by the Knights and the Archdiocese of San Francisco last fall. How did that go?

Rue: It was amazing to me to feel the overwhelming support for this topic. The whole area of men and abortion has been relegated to the basement for decades. This conference gave voice to the real pain, the continuing legal duplicities and injustices, and the isolation that men have felt for too long..

Why did it take so long for this first-ever international conference to come about?

Abortion is loaded with guilt and shame. For men — because they are both discouraged from communicating about this “woman’s issue” and encouraged to be strong and silent — disclosure or help-seeking behavior is even more unlikely. Research on men’s health issues typically generate minimal interest and are marginalized in scholarly agendas relative to the amount of energy put into women’s health research. There have only been some 28 studies on abortion and men since 1973.

How did you get started in this area?

I first began treating men whose girlfriends or wives had abortions back in the late 1970s. In the ’80s, I began writing about it and by then had treated many more men and women. The truth is that men become fathers at conception and it follows that the intentionally caused death of their unborn child can seriously impact them as well as their partners.

What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for men who have been involved with an abortion?

The symptoms are essentially the same for men and women: unwanted re-experiencing or intrusion of the abortion trauma in their life — dreams, flashbacks, dissociation, distress from emotional “triggers” identified with the abortion. This is followed by unsuccessful attempts to avoid or deny any memory of the abortion. Symptoms include emotional numbing, diminished interest, detachment from others, reduced communication, limited range of feelings, and a sense of a foreshortened future. Other symptoms are difficulty sleeping, anger, an inability to concentrate, hyper-vigilance and suicidal thoughts. Sexual impairment, substance-abuse disorders, and eating disorders are also common. The symptoms can be acute (less than three months), chronic (three months or more) and delayed (six months or years later).

What should a man do if his girlfriend or wife wants to get an abortion and there is still time to discuss the matter?

Both partners should stay engaged, explore all alternatives, communicate the strength of their beliefs honestly and accurately, examine core beliefs and values associated with all decisions, and commit to further dialogue until the crisis is resolved to each other’s satisfaction. When abortion is considered, it is urgent to take the time, talk more…and tell the truth.

How does reaching out to men differ from approaches to women?

The symptoms transcend gender and age. We are still learning what are the best ways to help men and women resolve their emotional pain from an abortion. As a general rule two factors distinguish the different approaches to treatment: (1) Women seem to benefit from group discussions in ways that are more effective for them than men; (2) men must overcome cultural and psychological hang-ups about communicating feelings.

What is it like to counsel these men?

I have learned from my patients. Listening and accepting the patient…serves as the cornerstone of counseling. It was impossible to listen for countless hours about the suffering these men and women experienced without being affected. Men need safe places to talk about their issues. While not everyone will be able to seek therapy, self-help groups, Internet chat rooms, e-mail support, friends, and pastoral care can also be safe places to begin the process of healing.

In 1981 you provided the first clinical evidence of post-abortion trauma, identifying this psychological condition as “Post-Abortion Syndrome” in testimony before the U.S. Congress. Can you talk about that?

To my knowledge, this was the first time the traumatic effects of abortion on women were presented in some detail before Congress. Later, I presented similar information before Britain’s Parliament. There was a great deal of opposition and heckling. I had a conviction to present this information.

Your work has been criticized as biased, agenda-driven science? How do you respond?

If “biased” means sensitized and informed by my patients and wanting mental health for individuals, couples and families, then I am proud to be biased. All science is driven by interests and hunches, and my research is no different.

Are there any new areas for your work?

We are working on Internet-based research on the after-effects of abortion on women and men, which makes it easier to collect data anonymously. That Web site is: www.abortionresearch.net. I am also involved in several court cases involving surrogacy and maternal grief, informed consent and abortion decision-making.

How can Catholics and the Knights play a role in promoting this ministry?

As Catholics we are all called to pray for those who suffer, remembering that Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted. Men and women facing crisis pregnancies need our prayers and our resources. They need to know this community of believers will stand behind them, not condemn them. Tangible support for individuals and couples with a crisis pregnancy would go a long way in preventing abortions. Knights of Columbus have been tremendous in sharing their financial resources on highlighting abortion and the injuries it can produce. More education materials, conferences, research and promotion on the mental-health risks of abortion for men and women though are needed.