Comment Writer Jonathan Davis examines the discourse around abortion and how regret might fit into a pro-choice position

Written by Jonathan Davis
Second-year Theology and Religion Undergraduate
Images by Marcos Paulo Prado

Content warning: This article discusses abortion.

The debate on abortion rights has been rekindled once again during the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In the midst of this turmoil, I have been introduced to the topic of women experiencing regret after the procedure of abortion, which we may refer to as post-abortion regret. The rhetoric of both sides of the debate on abortion rights – pro-life and pro-choice – has been using regret to influence their own narrative to build their arguments. If regret becomes more pathological, and can cause future psychiatric problems, then it may suggest that we need to acknowledge and respect the maternal-foetal relationship – that the bond between the foetus and women is natural and the mother may experience psychiatric repercussions if she completes an abortion due to the relationship of the foetus. This in my view however, is not the case. 

The solution to post-abortion regret is still in the melting pot. What I feel needs to be addressed is the misleading characterisation of women’s regret in abortion. In the Gonzales v. Carhart decision to sustain the Partial-Birth abortion ban act, Justice Kennedy states that ‘while we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.’ To continue:

‘It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.’

Justice Kennedy’s account of regret is that regret stays with the mother, and that this shapes her thinking around the abortion. This is not how I would define regret. Regret is simply the acknowledgement that there were negative consequences from an action, but it does not mean that the action is viewed entirely negatively. This contentious definition of regret could fuel the pro-life movement by insinuating that if a woman regrets an abortion, she wishes it never had happened. 

This contentious definition of regret could fuel the pro-life movement

If we set the task of describing what is not a characteristic of post-abortion regret, not only it will disregard any misconceptions but abandon Kennedy’s distorted portrayal of regret. Firstly, we should clear up the confusion of regret with psychopathology. That is, regret as an emotion is a distinct phenomenon from what is considered a mental health disorder, despite the fact that the two may coincide; the feeling of regret is not considered a psychiatric clinical condition such as depression or anxiety.

Regret can have several associated emotions such as sorrow, remorse and grief, yet women who suffer an intense form of regret can experience pathological distress if their emotional state escalates. This does not mean that when women experience these intense experiences of emotion, they should not be taken seriously. This task of redefining abortion regret will support women’s autonomy as it will lead to more valid methods of dealing with regret after having an abortion. This research with more accurate information can inform women better on the decision- making process when having an abortion or not. 

Secondly, there is the misconception of regret that it inevitably leads to grief, which is described by Justice Kennedy. Whilst I have said that regret can be associated with other emotions like grief, there is an entanglement between the two. However, a woman that experiences regret, does not necessarily feel grief. Kennedy goes further to say that this regret – really, grief – is due to the knowledge of the distressing procedure, and not any other factor.

However, if this grief does arise, it is not the knowledge of the nature of the procedure but rather women may ‘regret’ the procedure due to having a loss of a romantic relationship (the man abandoning the woman after finding out the woman completed an abortion), or social disapproval (women feeling pressured to ‘feel bad’ after her choice to have an abortion). Therefore, regret is not due to the abortion but because of what occurs as a consequence of this. This also invites us to apply more specific frameworks of what is retrospective judgement and emotional complexity. You can read this through Katrina Kimport’s article on the misunderstandings of abortion regret.

A woman that experiences regret does not necessarily feel grief

At last, this is just a brief, albeit imperfect, introduction to the topic of post-abortion regret, and all its misunderstandings. Fortunately, further research will give more accurate information to women on how to deal with feelings of regret – as well as grief – and be able to portray a vivid image on the decision-making process if a women should choose to have an abortion or not.

As a side note, there is much debate over the extent to which people who are not women – or do not identify as women – can be considered to speak on these issues. The research on this topic of abortion makes me suspect that further research will, thankfully, benefit body autonomy for women, and defend the right for women to choose. Nonetheless, I do not, as a male, intend to speak on behalf of others and it is not my intention to misrepresent or equivocate about anyone else. 

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