Some Abortion Myths, Dispelled

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Given the massive pro-choice rallies in Ireland this week (good hustle, everyone), I thought I’d use this week’s column to dispel some common abortion myths and misconceptions. Perfect for alienating bigoted relatives around the dinner table!

Abortion Has Always Been Viewed as Morally Wrong

Eh, no.

Whether abortion is morally wrong has been debated ever since the Pythagoreans of Ancient Greece, who thought abortion was wrong because of the child it will become, clashed with the Stoics, who believed that embryos are of a different moral order and so abortion is not tantamount to murder.

And regulation of abortion is a thoroughly modern concept. Abortions in the Roman Empire were so frequent and widespread that writers like Ovid, Juvenal and Seneca (the first-draft names of Snap, Crackle and Pop) all noted its ubiquity, while natural-historian Pliny listed prescriptions for drugs that would accomplish it. Roman law explicitly stated that the child in the belly of its mother was not a person, and so abortion was not murder.

When legal regulation of abortion came to the Roman Empire during the Christian era, the laws were designed to protect the rights of fathers, not the life of the embryo. Which is also women’s bodily autonomy being restricted because of Patriarchy, so it’s not much better, but it wasn’t because of “life begins at conception” beliefs.

Abortion Goes Against the Bible and Christianity

Sorry Bible-thumping anti-choicers, you’ll have to find another so-called “fact” to troll people with.

Induced abortion is ignored in most Judeo-Christian writings. It’s not mentioned in the Christian or Hebrew Bibles, or in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud.

From the third century AD, Christians were divided on whether abortion was wrong, showing that there has never been unity on the topic. In the tenth century, abortion of the “unformed” embryo was not considered homicide.

“Formation”, incidentally, happened at forty days for a male embryo and eighty days for a female, because of course potential men should be protected, while you should have every opportunity to abort potential women.

This ruling (made by Ivo of Chartres and Gratian, if you want to Wikipedia some seriously old dudes) that allowed first-trimester abortions was in effect until the nineteenth century.

Until, that is, the “right-to-life” movement in America, which took place between 1850-1890 and shaped the belief that life began at conception and therefore any abortion was murder. This movement wasn’t shaped by religious beliefs, but was a response to urbanisation, immigration and falling birth rates in American families.

(And even if abortion was explicitly banned in the Bible, so is eating shellfish and wearing polyester, but I don’t see you protesting that, ye prawn-cocktail-loving, cheap-T-shirt-wearing hypocrites.)

Most Women Will Regret Having Abortions

Despite common fear-mongering rhetoric that tries to dissuade women from having abortions by telling them they’ll regret it, the evidence clearly shows this is not true for most women.

According to large-scale studies by both the American Psychological Association (APA) and Johns Hopkins University, the large majority of women do not regret having chosen abortion. This research is supported by a 2010 study by the HSE’s Crisis Pregnancy Programme, which showed that 87 percent of women in Ireland who had an abortion said it was “the right outcome” for them.

(Also, can we acknowledge that this theory pitches women’s emotions on a binary where everything is either good or bad and will remain that way forever? Regret, even if felt, is not necessarily an all-encompassing emotion that means nothing will ever feel or be good again. I regret getting with my abusive fuckwad ex, but I am simultaneously glad I did because I learned a lot about recognising abusive patterns, which of my friends were supportive, how to accept real love, etc. Regret can and does co-exist with other emotions, like relief and happiness and liberation and empowerment, and so it’s not an argument against anything. Just sayin’.)

Abortion Causes Depression, Suicide or “Post-Abortion Syndrome”

There is no evidence linking abortion to feelings of depression or mental-health issues, and one of the most quoted studies that supports the abortion-as-trauma theory – by Coleman, Shuping and Rue –has been dismissed as nonsense and was completely irreplicable.

By contrast, restricting access to safe and legal abortion has been shown to cause mental anguish, depression, anxiety and stress, so if people were really worried about women’s mental health and not their own anti-choice agenda, they’d be pushing for abortion to be legalised, STAT.

“Post-abortion syndrome” was a term coined by Vincent Rue, and described a supposed emotional condition that negatively affected women after abortions. Vincent Rue also (probably) had an imaginary friend as a child.

Neither of these facts are of any relevance to anyone, because neither “post-abortion syndrome” nor BonBon the cupcake-loving Centaur exist. “Post-abortion syndrome” is not recognised by any official body, including the DSM, because there’s absolutely no legitimacy to it.

To paraphrase the great Regina George, “stop trying to make ‘post-abortion syndrome’ happen. It’s not going to happen!”

Films and Television Give Accurate Representations of Abortion

Ha! You must be joking.

Directors have an obsession with portraying abortions as gritty, illegal, risky and often lethal procedures that induce trauma and even death – and because this isn’t the reality of legal and regulated abortion procedures, they turn to depictions of historical or backstreet abortions to get their fix of shocking drama.

Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is a recent exception to this, notable for its unprecedented treatment of abortion as normal, safe and, in fact, empowering.

The other most successful films that depict abortion – The Cider House Rules; Vera Drake; Revolutionary Road; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; and everyone’s favourite, Dirty Dancing – all depict abortion as gritty, dangerous and illegal. And, therefore, nothing like the safe, regulated procedures available today.

There are other issues with the representation of abortion on screen, which were highlighted in recent research by the University of California, San Francisco, which compiled the first quantitative look at abortion storylines in American television and film between 1916 and 2013.

Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport’s research paper Telling Stories About Abortion: Abortion-Related Plot Is American Film and Television 1916-2013, found that the storylines differed from real-life statistics in significant ways.

Since 1973, when abortion was legalised in the US, the percentage of characters considering an abortion who go through with the procedure has fallen, while the number of procedures in the real world has actually increased. Also, 9 percent of the 300 analysed plot lines between 2003 and 2012 ended in adoption, despite it being a choice that only 1 per cent of women make in real life.

Perhaps most unsettling, almost one in 10 fictional women died as a direct result of their abortion, when, in fact, the figure is fewer than one in 100,000. (Although that doesn’t take into account storylines featuring illegal abortions, it still does little to break the myth that the procedure is unsafe.)

The conclusion of the paper states that: “Abortion-related plotlines occur more frequently than popular discourse assumes. Year-to-year variation in frequency suggests an interactive relationship between media representations, cultural attitudes and policies around abortion regulation, consistent with cultural theory of the relationship between media products and social beliefs.

“Patterns of outcomes and rates of mortality are not representative of real experience and may contribute to social myths around abortion. The narrative linking of pregnancy termination with mortality is of particular note, supporting the social myth associating abortion with death.”


Do you have a question for Roe? You can submit it anonymously at: dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

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Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

Reader responses

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Mary Fagan
at 1 October 2015 at 08:07

Excellent article from Roe as always. However the silencing of women who have had abortions and are sure it was the right choice for them continues.
A long road ahead I fear.

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