Abortion providers and mental health experts say having a child when you don’t want to can be shocking and traumatizing. Some are young, financially unstable and not ready to transition into parenthood. Others cripple under the shock, panic and pressures of a time-sensitive, yet life-altering event, leaving them feeling trapped with little control.
Maleeha Aziz, the community organizer of Texas Equal Access Fund, had her first abortion as an incoming college student (while on birth control). More recently, as a mom to a 1-year-old, she had a second abortion.
“An unintended pregnancy is traumatic,” Aziz says. “It’s not something that goes away on its own. You have to do something about it, and that isn’t easy.”
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Texas’ new law is the latest effort to impede women’s access to abortion. On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy— a move that disproportionately affects low-income and marginalized communities.
Experts say the right to an abortion can prevent depression, anxiety or PTSD. But now, many pregnant people in Texas no longer will have that choice.
“When we deny these people access to abortion, we’re denying them of control over their own body, their life, their destiny, their happiness, so of course it has a huge impact on their life,” says Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a Houston-based provider at Planned Parenthood Center for Choice.
The trauma of an unplanned pregnancy
Regardless of age, beliefs or relationship status, Aziz says, finding out you’re pregnant when you don’t want to be is “never a good feeling.”
According to the American Psychological Association, experiencing unwanted pregnancies can lead to mental health ramifications, such as lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety.
In situations “where we are victims of circumstance, it’s understandable that we find ourselves falling into a shame spiral, or constantly second-guessing ourselves and our experience,” says Christina Jeffrey, a licensed mental health counselor and Chief Reputation Officer at Humantold, a New York-based psychotherapy provider.
“Add to this the social and cultural pressure many women feel as it relates to childbearing, butting up against their own internalized value systems and desires, and it’s a perfect storm for anxiety and self-esteem issues.”
Along with dealing with physical and psychological symptoms, women seeking abortions tend to bear the brunt of harsh, misogynist judgements about their choices, including those about their bodies. It’s often assumed that only immoral, selfish and careless women get abortions, and that they deserve to be shamed and ostracized as a result (while men ironically escape the stigma).
Kumar says his patients will often tell stories “about not wanting to tell anybody, being concerned about other people finding out” due to this abortion stigma.
“It’s not uncommon for me to see patients here in Houston who traveled from other cities, simply because they don’t want anyone they know to find out.”
However, what is often more stressful than the pregnancy itself is finding options to deal with it, thanks to the “added trauma inflicted by legislators.”
When Aziz was confronted with her first unwanted pregnancy while living in Texas, she ended up traveling to Colorado Springs, Colo., for an abortion, because “Texas made it so difficult.”.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the average one-way driving distance to an abortion clinic in Texas would increase from 12 miles to 248 miles— 20 times the distance— if legal abortion care in the state shuts down.
“I thought it would be simple. I thought I would be able to go to a clinic, get a procedure and be done with it,” Aziz says. “I was feeling so many emotions at the same time. Confusion, fear, anxiety, and I was feeling impatient too, because I just wanted it to be done but I couldn’t just go one day, take care of it and be done.”
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Unlike other restrictive abortion laws, Texas law offers a $10,000 or more bounty for suing anyone who helps to perform or procure an abortion at six weeks gestation or later.
This isn’t just doctors who are at risk: Any parent or friend who drives someone to get an abortion or helps pay for the procedure can get sued by a private citizen— including a nosy neighbor.
Reproductive rights activists fear this will discourage women from seeking social support for an already difficult situation, and instead resort to unsafe abortions in isolation.
“You’re not going to want to put family members or loved ones at risk, so it’s going to force more people to deal with their pregnancies all by themselves,” Aziz says. “And that’s horrible because some people really need the support.”
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Jeffrey reminds that pregnancy is hard enough when it is a wanted outcome. But when you add in the fact that not every pregnancy is wanted, it further complicates the situation. This is why, she says, it’s important to reach out for help.
“We are not designed to do life in isolation…Fear of retribution will cause many women to withdraw from community and internalize their pain and fear in silence,” she says, adding that the subsequent isolation and loneliness can result in lower immune function, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and increased substance misuse and abuse.
Despite how frustrating and disheartening the law may be for some, Aziz reminds that those coping with an unintended pregnancy shouldn’t go through this “difficult time” alone.
“We were put in a bad situation and it’s really unfair, but we have to stay strong and go through this together.”
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