Post-abortion syndrome is a diagnosis that some people argue can result from terminating a pregnancy. No major medical organization recognizes it as a real health condition.
It is common for people to feel a mixture of emotions after an abortion, or termination of pregnancy. Depending on the circumstances, some people may experience difficult emotions, such as sadness or grief. This does not necessarily mean they have a mental illness.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that there is no evidence that people who get abortions develop a distinct mental health condition. In fact, a growing amount of research shows that, for most people, terminating a pregnancy is not damaging to mental health.
Despite this, groups with political or religious motivations sometimes use the concept of post-abortion syndrome to deter people from having the procedure.
This article looks more closely at post-abortion syndrome, the proposed symptoms, and what the evidence says about how people feel after having terminated a pregnancy.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Post-abortion syndrome describes a group of symptoms that some people believe develop due to terminating a pregnancy.
People who support this idea believe that abortions are uniquely harmful to mental health and can cause a specific mental health disorder, such as depression, with symptoms that include guilt, shame, and self-loathing.
Some sources also describe post-abortion stress syndrome (PASS), which they allege has similar symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While some people do experience difficult emotions after an abortion, there is no evidence to support the existence of PASS.
Major medical organizations do not recognize these terms as real medical conditions for the following reasons:
- Broad symptoms: The symptoms proposed by supporters of post-abortion syndrome are broad and can occur for many reasons. The sources of information about post-abortion syndrome vary in detail, making the definition of this syndrome inconsistent.
- Oversimplification: Most mental health conditions are complex and
do not occurfor one reason. Usually, multiple factors contribute to them, such as a person’s beliefs, family history, genetics, and more.
- Pathologization: Pathologization involves turning typical emotions and behaviors into signs of a disease. For example, some people may feel temporarily sad after having an abortion, thinking of what might have happened had they made a different decision. This does not necessarily indicate they are unwell.
- Political bias: The concept of post-abortion syndrome can deter people from having the procedure. For this reason, it appears on websites with political or religious agendas. Groups that want to stop people from having abortions use the idea of post-abortion syndrome to try to persuade people not to terminate the pregnancy. They may also use it as a reason to restrict access to abortions.
- Lack of evidence: There is no evidence that the proposed symptoms of post-abortion syndrome occur in a significant number of people following a termination. There is also no evidence abortion increases the risk of any mental health condition.
It is important to note that even if a person feels bad for a long time after an abortion, this is not evidence of post-abortion syndrome. Other diagnoses, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, can better explain the symptoms.
Post-abortion syndrome is one of many myths surrounding abortion and the associated health risks.
- it raises the risk of cancer
- it affects future fertility
- it is riskier than continuing the pregnancy.
One of the reasons doctors do not consider post-abortion syndrome a real medical condition is that the symptoms are inconsistent. Different sources list different symptoms.
In general, proponents of this syndrome list regret and remorse as symptoms. Some other symptoms people may find online include:
People can feel a wide range of emotions after abortion. Their feelings might be about the abortion itself, how the medical staff treated them, or the circumstances that led to their decision.
Here are some common responses to abortion:
Ending an unwanted or potentially dangerous pregnancy may inspire feelings of relief or gratitude. A 2020 study found that 5 years after an abortion, people who could access pregnancy termination reported relief as their predominant emotion. 95% of the 843 participants felt that abortion was the right decision for them.
Grief or sadness
Some people experience grief or sadness after an abortion. This can relate to the circumstances that contributed to a person’s decision.
For example, people who want a baby but cannot continue the pregnancy may feel grief. This can occur if a person does not have the money, resources, or physical or mental health to care for a child.
The 2020 study found that a more difficult decision to terminate increased the likelihood of experiencing negative emotions afterward.
Unplanned pregnancies can make people feel scared, angry, or trapped. As a result, having the option of a safe abortion can make people feel happy.
There is a stigma surrounding abortion. Some rhetoric about people who seek abortions portrays them as bad, sinful, selfish, or unloving. This can significantly impact a person’s mental health before, during, and after an abortion.
Stigma can come from external sources or a person’s own beliefs. The latter is known as internalized stigma.
A 2018 survey of 155 women in Ireland who sought abortions found that higher levels of internalized stigma predicted psychological distress after the procedure.
While studies do not show that getting a voluntary abortion increases the risk of any mental illness, they do show that being unable to access one can affect psychological well-being.
The Turnaway Study is a group of studies that looked at peoples’ experiences after seeking abortions between 2008–2010, comparing those who could access the procedure to those who sought but could not access a termination. Over 800 people across the United States took part.
Using this data, researchers have found that compared to the group who accessed abortions, those who could not reported:
moreregret and anger
- less happiness and relief
- lower self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, and more anxiety
1 weekafter the experience
- higher levels of anxiety and depression
Over time, participants who could not access abortions often reported improvements in their well-being, meaning that long term, both groups had similar mental health.
Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of a person having negative feelings after an abortion, such as:
- Wanting the pregnancy: People who want a baby, but have to terminate for other reasons, are more likely to experience regret or sadness.
- Reactions from others: If family or a partner pressures someone into getting an abortion, this will add to any emotional distress. Conversely, condemning or disowning someone for getting an abortion can also create guilt and shame.
- Anti-choice protests: People who campaign against abortion access sometimes protest outside abortion clinics and harass people who undergo the procedure. This encourages people to feel guilty about their decision.
- Social isolation: In the 2018 study of Irish women, stigma-related social isolation was a key predictor of negative feelings after an abortion. Feeling shame about the decision can mean people keep it a secret and do not get any support from friends or family.
- Neglect or abuse: A 2018 summary of the Turnaway Study’s key findings notes that a history of neglect or abuse during childhood increased the risk of depression in people who accessed abortion.
- Pre-existing mental health conditions: People with a history of anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions may be more likely to experience negative emotions after an abortion.
Finding support after abortion can be difficult. Many organizations that offer support also oppose abortion and can ultimately make people feel guilty or ashamed about their decision. Some pro-choice organizations may also feel uncomfortable acknowledging the emotions that some people experience after an abortion.
Some places to find nonjudgmental support include:
- Exhale is a pro-choice organization that offers post-abortion support, including a text hotline.
- Ending a Wanted Pregnancy offers information and a support group for people who terminate wanted pregnancies.
- The Healing Choice is a post-abortion recovery workbook.
- All-Options offer text support and connect people to resources for finding and recovering from abortion.
- Connect & Breathe offer post-abortion support via telephone.
- Faith Aloud is a faith-based organization that offers pro-choice resources and support for people who have abortions.
Post-abortion syndrome is not a medical condition. Research has not found any evidence that abortion causes unique and distinctive symptoms nor raises the risk of anxiety, depression, or suicide compared to people who do not have abortions.
However, people can experience various emotions after an abortion, including sadness, regret, or guilt. People with pre-existing mental health conditions or who wanted the pregnancy may be more likely to experience long lasting adverse feelings.
Almost 1 in 4 females in America have an abortion before the age of 45. Despite how common it is, it is not easy to access reliable information. If a person feels distressed after a pregnancy termination, they can seek unbiased support from a reputable nonprofit or helpline. An understanding doctor or therapist may also help.