Catherine Beckett, an American Counseling Association member with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, has made it a habit to avoid using “must” phrases with clients. “It sends a message to the client about what they’ve experienced,” says Beckett, who specializes in grief counseling. “I don’t ever want to say, ‘Oh, you must feel so guilty,’ or ‘You must feel so isolated,’ because that may not be the case at all.”
A case in point: when clients reveal in counseling that they have had an abortion at some point in their past. Some clients consider that experience to be just another piece of their life story, free of any negative associations. For others, the experience can evoke a range of issues, from spiritual and familial turmoil to attachment difficulties and feelings of loss. When dealing with such a highly charged topic, counselors must be prepared to put their own personal views aside to support clients who fall into either camp — and those who present a range of emotions in between.
Research cited by an American Psychological Association task force found that the majority of women who elect to have an abortion will not experience mental health difficulties afterward (see apa.org/pi/women/programs/abortion/). In February 2017, JAMA Psychiatry published a study titled “Women’s mental health and well-being 5 years after receiving or being denied an abortion.” The study observed 956 women over the course of five years, including 231 who initially were turned away from abortion facilities. Among the authors’ conclusions: “In this study, compared with having an abortion, being denied an abortion may be associated with greater risk of initially experiencing adverse psychological outcomes. Psychological well-being improved over time so that both groups of women eventually converged. These findings do not support policies that restrict women’s access to abortion on the basis that abortion harms women’s mental health.”
Even though most women will not experience long-term mental health problems after an abortion, some may still endure feelings of loss or encounter other negative emotions caused by external factors such as culture or family. For certain clients, a past abortion experience, whether it took place one month ago or decades ago, can be at the root of a range of issues — low self-esteem, relationship problems, disenfranchised grief — that surface during counseling sessions.
Beckett notes that most of the women she works with aren’t questioning their decision to have an abortion but rather “struggling to process it and place it in the narrative of their own lives in a way that feels comfortable.”
“As a practitioner, you should know about [abortion] and understand that within the population you’re seeing, it’s probably in their story,” says Jennie Brightup, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist in private practice outside of Wichita, Kansas. “You need to be prepared to know how to work with it.”
Counselors should approach the revelation of an abortion just like any other experience or issue that clients may have in their histories, Brightup says. “Have an open mind. Allow it to be something that can be a problem for your client. See that it could be an issue … [and] have some knowledge about how to treat it.”
‘You think you’re alone’
The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, estimates that in 2014 (the most recent data available), 926,200 abortions were performed among women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. This comes out to a rate of 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women.
The institute notes that this marks America’s lowest abortion rate since the process was legalized nationwide by the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. The U.S. abortion rate has seen a steady decline after peaking in 1980 and 1981 at close to 30 abortions per 1,000 women. Using the 2014 data, the Guttmacher Institute extrapolates that 5 percent of U.S. women will have an abortion by age 20; 19 percent will have an abortion by age 30; and 24 percent will have an abortion by age 45.
Abortion is more common than many people, including mental health practitioners, think, says Trudy Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who presented on “Choice Processing and Resolution: Bringing Abortion After-Care Into the 21st Century” at ACA’s 2012 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Johnson, who had an abortion in college, says that for many people, processing the abortion experience is “a slow burn. It doesn’t affect you until later on. [Many] women have had an abortion, but you think you’re alone. You don’t feel you get to grieve it. … It’s a gut-level thing, a tender place. Many have never told a soul,” says Johnson, who specializes in trauma resolution, including abortion-related issues.
For clients who have yet to process and place a past abortion into their self-narrative, it can feel like a sadness that they can’t quite pinpoint or define. “It’s kind of like a phantom pain. It’s there, but you don’t know why,” Johnson says.
Clients with a variety of presenting issues may have unprocessed emotions surrounding a past abortion that could be compounding their struggles, Johnson says. These issues can include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Complicated grief
- Shame and guilt (especially shame that is undefined or has no apparent cause)
- Self-loathing and self-esteem issues
- Relationship issues (including destructive relationships)
- Destructive behaviors (including substance abuse)
For certain clients, their unprocessed emotions can feel like a weight they have carried and buried deep within themselves for a long time without sharing it with anyone, Johnson says.
Johnson recalls one client who initially came for couples counseling with her husband but eventually started seeing Johnson for individual counseling. During a session, Johnson recognized that the woman was becoming upset, so she handed her a blanket and pillow for comfort. The client put the blanket over her head, obscuring her face, and disclosed that she had had an abortion 18 years prior. Her family had shamed her for the decision, and her feelings of shame were still so overwhelming that putting the blanket over her head was the only way she could bring herself to talk about the experience, Johnson recounts.
“You just can’t imagine the shame that [some of] these clients carry,” says Johnson, a private practitioner who splits her time between Arizona and Tennessee. “They just have to talk about it. We, as professionals, can be that safe place.”
Clients who have had abortions sometimes question whether they have the right to grieve because there was a choice involved to terminate their pregnancies, says Beckett, who is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral counseling program at Oregon State University. The concept of the experience of disenfranchised grief — those who are not supported in their grief because it is not culturally recognized or validated — applies in these instances, Beckett says. In fact, the disenfranchisement can be both external (a loss not recognized by the client’s culture) and internal (a loss that the client, individually, does not recognize).
“People do not have the same kind of support and validation [to grieve a loss] when they’re disenfranchised, and that is a huge part of abortion grief,” Beckett says. “The emotional aftermath is so impacted by spiritual, political and ethical values and beliefs. That will really color how they process it and how much they’re able to reach out and get support. This all needs to go into our assessment of a client. What was their experience, but also how are they talking to themselves about it? All of that should inform how we offer support.”
Broaching the subject
Practitioners might want to consider asking clients (female and male) about pregnancy loss, including abortion, on intake forms. Brightup asks clients about past pregnancy loss in a genogram exercise she does in the first few sessions of counseling. If the client mentions an abortion, she simply makes a note and keeps going. It is not a topic she feels a need to jump on immediately, she says, and she doesn’t want to risk retraumatizing clients or prompting them to talk about it if they are not ready. Some clients may not mention an abortion on an intake form or genogram because they don’t consider it a loss or associate it with trauma, Brightup says. Others have buried the issue so deep that they don’t think about it or feel that it is worth mentioning, she adds.
“When you’re hearing their story, you can find places to check in and ask questions. Most of the time, I allow them to come around and tell me. It’s a core secret. If you feel [judgmental] to them, they’ll never tell you and they’ll run [stop coming to therapy],” says Brightup, a certified eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapist.
Practitioner language is also important, Beckett notes. “For some people, asking [if they have an abortion in their past] is giving them permission to talk about it. And the way we ask about it may give them clues about whether or not it is safe to talk to us about it,” she says. “For example, there’s a difference between, ‘Is this something you have experience with?’ and ‘Well, you haven’t had an abortion, have you?’”
Even the word “abortion” can provoke an intense reaction for some clients, Johnson says. In some cases, she will use the phrase “pregnancy termination” or even “the A word” with clients who feel triggered and begin to close themselves off.
“You might need to say it differently,” Johnson advises. “Abortion immediately turns it into a political, socially charged [issue]. Changing the terminology helps it to be safer.”
The key is to foster a safe, trusted bond so that clients will feel free to bring the topic up themselves when they are ready, Johnson says. “The most important thing is building a relationship of safety,” she emphasizes.
Different points on a path
Clients who disclose having an abortion in their past may vary widely on how they feel about the procedure and how much they have processed those feelings.
“There are clients who will come in and do not report having any mental health issues related to their abortion experience. Understand that they’re out there. But the other side is out there too,” Brightup says. Practitioners must be prepared to work with clients who express either sentiment — or a range of feelings in between.
Counselors should watch their clients’ body language and other cues, especially in cases in which a client is emphatic or even defensive when talking about an abortion. It is wise to unpack the client’s experience and associated feelings over time, Brightup says.
If counselors disagree with a client’s assertions concerning how she feels about the procedure, “you can lose the client because they won’t come back [to therapy],” she says. “Agree with their narrative. In little pieces, once they trust you, you can come back to the story and probe a little, ask a few questions as gently and carefully as you can.”
Some clients will have fit the abortion into their self-narrative and moved on, whereas others won’t be as far along in the journey. Still others will have worked through their feelings surrounding the procedure in a healthy way previously but may find themselves struggling with it again as they move into another life stage such as pregnancy or motherhood, Beckett says.
This was the case for one of Beckett’s clients who sought counseling because she was struggling with powerful emotions that had resurfaced. The client had undergone an abortion when she was 17. Later in her life, she had a daughter, and that daughter was now turning 17 herself. Even though her daughter wasn’t facing any type of decision regarding pregnancy or abortion, her age triggered feelings in the client that needed more therapeutic attention.
The client’s abortion had been illegal at the time where she lived, so she had felt compelled to keep it a secret, Beckett explains. The client realized her daughter was now the age she had been when she had an abortion. “The mother saw, for the first time, how young she [had been] and how desperately she had needed love and support at the time, and she didn’t get it,” Beckett says. The realization was “exquisitely painful” for the client, but at the same time, it brought “a new level of compassion for her 17-year-old self,” Beckett recounts.
“She took a great deal of comfort in knowing that if her daughter were to get pregnant, it would be an entirely different experience. Her daughter would have the support of her family and better care,” Beckett says.
The hard work of unpacking
Just as clients will differ in the work they have done — or haven’t done — to process the emotions surrounding an abortion, the support and interventions they might need from a counselor will also vary.
“People grieve very differently, and we need to be ready to support people however they are doing it,” Beckett says. “Some people are going to want to take action or give back somehow. Others will respond to more creative processes or ritual creation. Others will want a quiet, safe place to process.”
Normalizing a client’s experience can be a much-needed first step. Beckett says that talking about how common abortion is, and the fact that many people feel a need to process their feelings afterward, can bring relief to clients. Practitioners can also help clients reframe their thoughts to realize that feelings of relief after the procedure are common, as is a fear of judgment and a sense of isolation that can accompany that fear.
“Figure out what this particular client’s experience is and then, if appropriate, offer normalization of that,” Beckett says. “Support them to determine what is needed to move them toward greater comfort and peace. Offer them ideas and support around getting those things that they need.”
In Brightup’s experience, post-abortion work with clients often falls into four quadrants:
- Reconciling how clients feel about themselves
- Engaging in grief work around how clients perceive and feel about the loss (if they do indeed view it as a loss)
- Working through clients’ spiritual issues or any inner tensions related to “rules” that were broken
- Working on clients’ relationships and how they relate to people: Are there areas that need healing?
From there, practitioners should tailor their approaches to meet each client’s individual needs and pacing, Brightup says. She often uses sand tray therapy as a tool to help clients talk about post-abortion loss and find closure. Journaling, writing letters or poems, creating art and engaging in other creative outlets can also be helpful, she says. Certain clients may respond to creating some kind of physical memorial or taking time out of a counseling session to do a remembrance with just the two of you, Brightup adds.
Beckett agrees that counselors should collaborate with clients to find a ritual or activity that works for them. Although many clients will make progress through talk therapy or by connecting in group work to those who have had similar experiences, others will feel a need to take some kind of action, Beckett says. Creating memorials and rituals, writing letters or participating in other creative interventions can help these clients to process their emotions and experiences.
For one of Beckett’s clients, healing involved creating a special ritual on what would have been her child’s due date. Each year, the client would be intentional about spending time with a child — whether a niece or a nephew or the child of a friend — who was the same age that her child would have been.
“She came in pretty soon after her abortion, and she knew she needed help to process it,” Beckett says. “She wasn’t questioning the decision, but she was having trouble [with the fact] that her life would move forward but the life of the baby she had not had wouldn’t move forward. She wrote a letter to that baby expressing her caring and regret and explaining why she felt she couldn’t bring him or her into the world. Every year on her due date, she would find a way to connect with a child she knew that would be that age. She would spend time with that child and make it a good day for them.”
Whereas this intervention helped this particular client to find peace, “for other clients, the thought of that would seem hellish,” Beckett stresses. “There’s no prescription for this. It’s a process of figuring out what is still remaining and needs to be released. Talk with the
client to find creative ways to be able to do that.”
Counselors can help clients navigate areas in which they feel emotionally stuck, Beckett explains. For example, one of her clients was struggling even though she had worked through many of the emotions she had experienced after an abortion. The client had three children, and when she became pregnant with a fourth, she and her partner made the decision to terminate the pregnancy.
“There was one part that she couldn’t get OK with: ‘I see myself as someone who takes care of others,’” Beckett says. “That’s where we focused: How did she define ‘taking care’? How did this decision threaten her self-concept? We dove into that area and she eventually realized that terminating the pregnancy was taking care of her fourth child. That was the best way to take care of that child, instead of bringing the child into an already-overwhelmed system that wouldn’t have been able to provide what the child needed.”
Johnson finds narrative therapy a useful approach when focusing on post-abortion issues with clients. Giving them the freedom to tell the story of their abortion — how old they were, how it happened, who came with them that day — can be powerful, she says. Sometimes clients won’t remember the details about their abortion because they’ve blocked them out, Johnson says, but as they open up and talk about the experience in therapy, they often start to recall things.
“This has been in their head for years. When they finally start talking about it, they go on and on because that’s [often] what they need,” Johnson says. “You can see the layers coming off as they’re processing it verbally, the whole story. … Letting them talk about the details and tell their story is a starting point.”
When relevant, Johnson also helps clients identify all the points of grief connected to the abortion beyond the loss of a pregnancy. For example, clients might have experienced a breakup with their romantic partners or the breakdown of a relationship with their parents or other family members either leading up to or after the abortion. Giving clients permission to grieve and accept the loss of these things is an important step, Johnson says.
There are “so many layers to this. The main thing [for counselors] is being a safe place. The impact of a hidden abortion could really be affecting the outcome of your therapy if it’s not addressed. Be aware that there could be this issue under all of the other stuff [the presenting issues],” Johnson says.
“Treat this as a disenfranchised and complicated grief situation, and take out all the political mess and pros and cons,” she continues. “The client has already made a choice. Let’s forget about that and just work on the grief. They’re not the same person that they were when they made the choice. They’re a different person now, so they need to have permission to revisit that time in their life and be free of it. The therapist is kind of a vessel of freedom for that, and it’s a wonderful place. … You’re helping them overcome the bondage, pain and grief that’s been with them for so long.”
Putting personal feelings aside
Abortion remains one of the most politically and socially polarizing issues in modern-day America. Despite this — or, in some cases, because of this — certain clients are going to need to work through issues related to abortion in the counseling office. A practitioner’s role is to be a support through it all, regardless of his or her own personal views on the topic.
Brightup urges counselors to rely on their training, which includes setting personal opinions aside and being what the client needs.
Creating a neutral and welcoming space for clients to talk about such a sensitive topic is paramount, Johnson agrees. “If you don’t have any experience working in this area, you can do more damage without meaning to,” she says. “Or, for some people, there’s a hidden implication that if you help a client through feelings related to an abortion, you’re condoning abortion.” That is simply not true, she stresses.
Beckett agrees. “Clients need a safe and nonjudgmental space to share [about their abortion experience], and that’s hard for some counselors based on their own belief system. It’s not going to be easy for all counselors — that affirmation of [the client’s] right to grieve. [But] a client needs support to determine what is needed to move them toward greater comfort and peace. Offer them ideas and support around getting those things that they need.”
As clients process post-abortion emotions, they may struggle with the decision to tell others, including a current or former partner. What should a counselor’s role be in that process? Read more in our online-exclusive article: wp.me/p2BxKN-54z
- For more on the mandate for counselors to practice competent, nonjudgmental care, refer to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics at counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics/code-of-ethics-resources. ACA members with specific questions can schedule a free ethics consultation by calling 800-347-6647 ext. 321 or emailing email@example.com.
- Interested in networking with other ACA members on this and other related issues? ACA has interest networks that focus on women’s issues, grief and bereavement, sexual wellness and other topics. Find out more at counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.
- The Professional Counselor journal article, summer 2019 (page 100, Volume 9/Issue 2): “Supporting Women Coping With Emotional Distress After Abortion“
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.