Earlier this month, the Arizona state House voted to impose new restrictions on abortion, including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period during which a woman is required to receive information – in person – regarding the anatomical characteristics of the foetus at its particular stage of development and the apparent abundance of available support options if she decides against having an abortion.
There are a number of problematic assumptions that underlie these kinds of restrictions and these assumptions need to be made apparent in order to have any kind of productive and meaningful discussion on abortion and reproductive rights. These assumptions should be of particular concern to psychologists and psychological researchers who have been given a unique role in the debate over abortion as women’s psychological well-being is consistently invoked on both sides to prove either the necessity or harm of restricting access to abortion.
One of the most obvious assumptions underlying the approved restrictions appears to be that women cannot be trusted to make sound decisions about pregnancy and abortion. Imposing a 24-hour waiting period implies that women are making such impulsive and irrational decisions about their bodies that the State needs to intervene in order to protect them from their own impetuousness. Contrary to this assumption, there is an unsurprising wealth of research showing that women engage in complex and nuanced reasoning processes and that most are very certain about their decision to have an abortion. The decision-making process involved in unwanted pregnancies is frequently constructed as a time of crisis. This kind of construction implies that women are likely to be too confused and overwhelmed to make a reasonable decision; but again, there is a great deal of research describing how women do not perceive their decision-making process as an all-consuming crisis. Of course, being clear and certain of her decision to have an abortion does not preclude a woman from feeling negatively about it. Negative feelings and ambivalence are likely to exist where there are pervasive negative constructions of abortion and the women who have them.
The rationale provided by House Representative Frank Antenori reveals other problematic assumptions about women in addition to being almost explicit about viewing women as irrational. He has expressed “a duty to protect either our wives or our daughters from making decisions that may come back to haunt them further down the road in their lives.” This frames the issues in a most disturbing way, with illogical, impetuous women on one side and responsible, judicious men on the other. His statement also makes use of the assumption of a “post abortion syndrome” that is likely to terrorize women later in life (when they come to their senses). Again, there is little evidence supporting such a theory. In fact, recent reviews of scientific research on abortion have found that high quality studies show few if any differences in mental health when comparing women who have had an abortion with those who have not. Studies reporting negative mental health outcomes from abortion were those that were most methodologically flawed.
Antenori’s statement also relies on the belief that women’s psychology can be seen as a sort of key to revealing an absolute truth about the rightness or wrongness of abortion. Of course mental health is an important consideration in terms of understanding women’s experiences of abortion, but it is important that in doing so we recognize and acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between a woman’s ‘mental health’ and her socio-political context. It cannot be assumed that it is possible to extract or identify as discrete units the feelings and emotions specifically about an abortion experience. These feelings are inextricably connected to other aspects of a woman’s life. A good deal of research has described how negative feelings or ambivalence around abortion are most often linked to other variables, such as to what extent women are bombarded with negative constructions of abortion, the level of secrecy a woman has to maintain about her abortion, relationship variables, abuse, whether she has been pressured or forced into having an abortion by a controlling or violent partner or parent, and so on.
Attributing negative feelings or ambivalence to abortion not only serves a particular political agenda, but does so at the expense of the well-being of a woman whose attention is likely to be diverted from the real issues in her life. Additionally, because women are unlikely to be oblivious to abortion’s political context and the political significance of their reports of well-being following an abortion, viewing women’s mental health as revealing an absolute truth significantly limits the ways in which women are able to explore possible ambivalence or negative feelings and significantly constrains meaningful discussion on how to support women having abortions.
The new restrictions on abortion, which include allowing health professionals and pharmacists to deny women emergency contraception (or even refuse to provide information about where women can obtain it) have clear punitive qualities which are often rooted in conservative and highly gendered beliefs about women’s sexuality and moral integrity, but may also reflect an assumption that women have control over their own fertility. Assuming that birth control is easily negotiated (or even 100% effective) can result in women who have unwanted pregnancies being characterized as irresponsible and deserving of unwanted consequences. This assumption, however, does not take into account the uneven power dynamics between men and women in relationships, the sociocultural factors relieving men of responsibility in family planning, and the high rates of violence against women both inside and outside of relationships.
These new restrictions on abortion are concerning, not only for how they limit women’s ability to make choices about their own bodies, but for how they rely on profoundly problematic constructions of women and place such a heavy burden on women’s psychology to reveal the truth about abortion.
PsySR member Kate Sheese is a master’s student in the History & Theory of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include transnational labour migration, gender, sexualities, reproductive rights, and feminist/critical/constructivist psychologies. Kate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.