Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
How do you get over the guilt of an abortion?
Although abortion under carefully stipulated conditions is legal in the United States, there is obviously great controversy over its morality. In the highly politicized climate of extreme opinions, the polemical discourse that divides right to life and freedom of choice proponents can produce as a side effect a startling lack of compassion for the woman who chooses–commonly after a difficult period of reflection and discussion with relevant others–to end a pregnancy. From one vantage point she can be seen as committing an unforgivable sin, while from the other she is merely exercising her right to self-determination. Neither view affords an empathetic understanding of her possible conflict and ambivalence about what felt like a necessary decision, or the possible grief and guilt that can follow in its wake.
So how might you deal with residual guilt about this difficult decision, and perhaps the grief over the loss of mothering the child who might have been? One response would be to seek the counsel of others, whether professionals or personal friends, who are able to hear the pain without shifting toward their own moral or political agenda of condemning or celebrating your decision. The emotional truth you inhabit is more complex than either of these polariz ed positions, and you need and deserve someone who can sift through your doubts and questions without taking them as the opportunity to enforce their own answers.
A second response could be to honor the life unborn. If you understood the being that had begun to grow in your womb as a person, then it would be appropriate to treat him or her as such, as someone who might have grown to comprehend life’s complexity and the circumstances that led to his or her not entering the world, whether these reasons were medical, social, or psychological. What might you say to him or her, perhaps in an AfterTalk letter, about what was happening in you and around you at the time that led to this hard choice? And might there be a ritual of release or remembrance that you might now perform that would acknowledge his or her brief existence? For example, it is a common practice in Japan for Buddhist temples to be adorned with tiny plaques in memory of aborted children. Might this suggest some type of commemorative recognition, whether in the form of heart-shaped pendant worn on a necklace or a tree planted in your garden in honor of the child?
Finally, perhaps the most adaptive response to guilt is to learn from the circumstances and actions that gave rise to it. Whether processed through prayer, personal journaling or therapeutic conversation, what lessons of an affirmative kind could this experience teach you about life, about your values, about yourself? Does it highlight old rules or standards that require review or revision? Does it suggest core principles that might provide clearer orientation in future circumstances? What might such reflection suggest about how you can act compassionately and wisely on your renewed principles going forward? For example, if part of what emerges for you is the clear value you place on giving children an opportunity to live abundantly, you might consider contributing in some significant fashion to the lives of disadvantaged children who could greatly benefit from the time or resources you might offer. In this way guilt can occasion growth, and help bring something into the world that is deeply needed.