The politics of postpartum depression

To pass a PPD research bill, a troubling clause is added about post-abortion depression.

By Julia Dahl

Published July 30, 2007 6:35PM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., quietly scored a small legislative victory. More than six years after he'd originally introduced the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act, on July 19, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection unanimously approved the bill, which would grant $3 million in 2008 to the National Institutes of Health to study and expand treatment and awareness of the condition that strikes as many as one in 10 new mothers.

But there was a catch. In order to get enough support for the bill, Rush had to add language encouraging the NIH to study the mental health effects of abortion.

Unlike postpartum depression, post-abortion depression -- sometimes referred to as post-abortion syndrome -- is not a recognized medical condition, but it has crept its way into the national dialogue. Sometimes spoken of as a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, the so-called syndrome has been the subject of multiple studies (in 1989, then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop testified before Congress on the subject), including one published last year in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, which concluded that the women they studied (all New Zealanders aged 15-25) who'd had abortions experienced "elevated rates of subsequent mental health problems including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders."

A recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer examined the issue and described the current consternation this way:

Many anti-abortion activists insist there are proven, profound emotional and psychological effects from having an abortion -- a so-called post-abortion syndrome. One outgrowth has been religiously affiliated retreats such as Project Rachel, aimed at helping to purge guilt.

Others say the syndrome is non-existent and just a new way to push the "pro-life" agenda, and that most women live productive, psychologically and emotionally normal lives after an abortion.

It's possible, of course, to be pro-choice and still acknowledge that the decision to have an abortion may not always be without psychological consequences. Some depression and anxiety seem like normal reactions to a procedure that is not only surrounded by copious societal judgment, but that is by its nature a loss. But do we call it a syndrome?

Studying the psychological effects of abortion isn't objectionable. Abortion and its aftermath are women's health issues, after all, and it's hard to argue against more knowledge. But there is something distinctly offensive about anti-choice politicians thwarting efforts to expand the study and treatment of a debilitating, frighteningly common disease (which led the namesake of Rush's bill to commit suicide less than five months after giving birth) so as to equate it with the possible consequences of a procedure they already believe is immoral and should be illegal.

Julia Dahl

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