Abortion and Regret

by Sherry F. Colb

Since the topic of abortion is all over the news, I want to take this opportunity to address one of the many lies that people who wish to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and to give birth tell. The lie is the idea that women who have abortions suffer all manner of psychiatric fallout, including abortion regret syndrome. Even Justice Kennedy, who was actually capable of compromise, said the following in Gonzales v. Carhart: "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."

Note the lack of any reliable data to measure the phenomenon--about which I admire Justice Kennedy's honesty. In fact, before we continue, I would like to quote Justice Kennedy's successor to demonstrate that not everyone who has served on the Supreme Court manifests the same honesty as Anthony Kennedy.

Then-Judge Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing: “And one of the important things to keep in mind about Roe v. Wade is that it has been reaffirmed many times over the past 45 years, as you know, and most prominently, most importantly, reaffirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.” Not content to leave it there, he added that the established right to abortion was a "“a precedent on precedent.” A lie? Maybe not. Misleading? Absolutely.

Back to the abortion regret idea. So Justice Kennedy thought it made sense to conclude that some women come to regret their abortions. Given that every person who makes any decision at all might come to wish she had made a different decision, this idea is relatively innocuous. Last Thursday, for instance, I expressed regret for having bent over backwards to show respect for people who believe that the government should have the power to force women to remain pregnant and give birth against their wills. There is nothing remarkable about observing that some women who terminate a pregnancy might come to regret their decision.

The more "exceptionable" part of Justice Kennedy's conclusion was the part where he thought that abortion regret syndrome was a sufficiently big problem to justify a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions. Ordinarily, the fact that we might regret our freely chosen decisions about our own bodies (including whether we wish to use those bodies to turn an embryo or a fetus into a baby) does not justify a prohibition against making that decision. But the Court's ruling in Carhart did leave other methods of abortion (equally subject to regret) available.

What took the innocuous observation that people may regret their choices to the questionable conclusion that the government should accordingly be able to prohibit those choices may have had something to do with assumptions about women and what the true purpose of women is.

In a debate last Thursday between Yale Professor Reva Siegel and Harvard Emerita Professor Maryann Glendon, Glendon brought up the harm that abortion has allegedly done to women. She seems to be working from the Feminists for Life playbook, the one that tries to persuade women that abortion is bad for them, even if the "science" in the "informed consent" about abortion regret syndrome is actually yet another noble lie. Perhaps Glendon does not realize that it is no longer necessary to try speak of protecting women from abortion. The movement to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and to give birth can return to the good old days when it spoke of the embryo as if it were floating in ether (and as if it were already a baby).

I want to make a shocking but completely obvious observation here, once we are on the subject of abortion and regret. Many women regret not having had an abortion. Just to be clear, I have no such regrets. I chose to be pregnant and loved almost every minute of the experience. What made it possible for me to enjoy being pregnant as much as I did was the fact that I got to choose that status. Being forced changes everything, and I imagine that some of the women who become pregnant after June of this coming year will feel a great deal of resentment toward the self-appointed morality police who turned what would have been an experience of unadulterated joy into a space of compulsion and anxiety about unexpected health challenges and the sense that one's most private parts are subject to eminent domain (and, to add insult to injury, no just compensation). The government now has an easement option on every pregnant woman's body.

Not all women who learn they are pregnant are happy and excited about it, of course. Many are heartbroken, particularly those whose condition resulted from an act of rape or incest. Some number of these women who did not wish to become pregnant have nonetheless decided to keep the baby. For many, this choice was undoubtedly the right one. But for others, for countless reasons, the mothers came to regret the decision to stay pregnant and give birth. We do not hear from these women because for them to acknowledge their feelings publicly would be to deal a traumatizing blow to the child to whom they gave birth. Some of these mothers made the best of the situation and welcomed the new child, but their reasons for not wanting another did not magically go away, and perhaps all things considered, they remain regretful about the choice that they made. To admit as much is practically to declare oneself an "unwoman," but I have little doubt that many mothers feel this way.

And you know who probably feels the most like this? Justice Barrett, I am talking to you now. You and I have something in common. We both have children to whom we gave birth as well as children whom we adopted. And this shared experience gives us a foundation for wisdom about who might most regret taking their pregnancies to term. It is the women who gave birth and then had to surrender the babies whom they made from scratch inside their bodies and then birthed into the world, producing a cascade of oxytocin, the love hormone. Women who had to give up their babies--the callous "solution" that you offered them during oral argument--are the most likely of all to regret the decision to remain pregnant. All they got out of it was the enormous and intrusive burdens of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, and then someone like you or like me got to raise their beautiful babies, the ones that they could not afford to parent. 

I would not be surprised if a majority of the women who surrendered babies came to regret the decision to take their pregnancies to term. For them, the choice meant only pain. And now, because of you, they may not have any legal alternative. But then all of the people who are willing--eager--to raise babies that other women created in their bodies will have so many more such babies to take home. I understand that some aspiring adoptive parents among the devout were encountering a shortage of healthy newborns for adoption. With the upcoming decision overruling Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, you and your colleagues will solve the supply chain crisis. If approximately one in five pregnancies currently end in abortion, there will be many many babies for childless people to adopt. What a win-win.