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Women's Regrets Become Part of Abortion Debate

In this special series, Full Focus examines a subject that’s not easy to talk about --  abortion. At current rates, one in three women will have had an abortion by the time she is 45 years old. But despite its far reach, it remains a subject stigmatized, secretive, and fraught with emotion. KPBS Reporter Joanne Faryon has more.

In April, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on a rarely used procedure called partial birth abortion . In its decision, the court also suggested some women may regret their decision to have an abortion. Historically, the abortion debate has been about the rights of the fetus versus the rights of the woman. That’s changing, as some anti-abortion activists argue abortion hurts women, pitting women against women.

In part 1 of our series, we’ll introduce you to two women who make that argument. And we’ll tell you how much influence their c38aign is having on the national debate. In Part 2, you’ll hear the other side. We’ll tell you what the scientific research and abortion rights groups say about abortion regret. And finally, in part 3, we’ll hear from three women, all with different points of view, who say there is common ground in the abortion debate. Just a word of caution, some of what you might hear in tonight's segment might be disturbing.


And now, part one of our special series - Choice and Regret: A Look at the Current Abortion Debate.

Heather Mechanic: Don’t ruin yourself, young lady, young lady! ... Don't go into that house of horror, that house of shame.... Depression, shame, nightmares... You'll be wounded for the rest of your life.

Mechanic: (Singing) Glorify, Christ Jesus the King...
Web movie: Support or Protest?
Heather Mechanic says she's supporting women. | View Google video
Web movie: Financial Crisis Forcing Americans to Examine Spending Habits
Ms. Magazine Editor Katherine Spillar says abortion clinic protesters spread disinformation. | View Google video
I know what you might be thinking. Who is this woman?

She chases people on the street, runs after cars, and calls out randomly in front of this San Diego abortion clinic. Her name is Heather Mechanic. And before you write her off as an extremist, you’ve got to hear the rest of the story.

Mechanic: Women who regret the suffering... not just the destruction of the child, but their suffering... Years and years... Depression... guilt... suicide thinking...

It’s that message, that women come to regret their abortions, that they didn’t know what they were doing -- that in the end, abortion hurts women -- that is making its way into the abortion debate. It’s even found its way into the Supreme Court.

YouTube Video: This is Peter with and national pro-life, and I’m standing in front of the Supreme Court, where the partial birth abortion was upheld.”

In April, the Supreme Court upheld a nation-wide ban on a specific second and third term abortion procedure. It was a decision anti-abortion groups applauded and abortion rights groups lamented.

The procedure was first banned in 2003, even the name of the procedure controversy. Its legal name is “partial birth abortion”, the medical term: intact dilation and extraction. And its very description can be gruesome.

It’s a procedure the American College of Physicians and Surgeons say is necessary for some women. It accounts for less than 1 percent of all abortions. Yet this procedure has managed to renew the abortion debate and arguably give momentum to the anti-abortion movement. It also invoked a Supreme Court justice to give credibility to a faction of that movement that until now, had been calling out from the far right fringe.  

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. Here’s the section that has given one group of women validation, while outraging another. He writes: “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. Severe depression and loss of self esteem can follow.” 

He went on to say, “It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished, and sorrow more profound, when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.”

Mechanic: Abortion hurts women. It damages. I wish I had not met thousands, and the ones I have personally counseled in my workshop -- even if they were 100 percent pro-choice -- they have regretted their abortions, and have been so wounded by it. And I don't like to see women hurt this way. I can't bear that -- between those two -- women and children. I don't think that's extreme at all. Not at all.

Web movie: Heather's Story
Heather Mechanic details life after her abortion. | View Google video

Heather Mechanic is a nurse, a former major in the reserves, a family therapist, and a long time anti-abortion activist. In 1970, while living in New York City as a single mom, Mechanic got pregnant and had an abortion. She says she suffered years of depression, shame and guilt. She became anti-abortion after becoming a born-again Christian twenty years ago.

Mechanic: Every single one -- whether they're pro-choice or pro-life -- take the position of regret and guilt and shame, and it's rare that they can admit it, that they can even talk about it, so when you say I was left with shame, unfortunately its not just I -- it's so many women."

Caron Strong (reading affidavits): “Were you adequately informed to the nature and consequence of abortion? No, I wasn't informed.” “Emotionally I began to drink heavily and lost all respect for myself.” “It’s affected me over the years I've experienced increased regret, guilt shame and deep depression. I attempted suicide about four months after my abortion and cut myself and wrote in my blood on the bathroom wall these words, I killed my baby."

This is Caron Strong. She is the National Director of Operation Outcry . She is reading from the hundreds of affidavits her group has gathered from women who say they were victims of abortion. Some say it ruined their marriage, caused them to become drug addicts or alcoholic -- the list goes on. And the stories, at times, are fantastical. [Click here to read a PDF of the brief from the Operation Outcry Web site. The affidavits begin on page 48.]

Strong: My friend Kathy in Kentucky, she had a late term abortion, once they aborted, she started crying after the abortion and an attendant walked in and said what are you crying for, you knew what you were doing and he grabbed her baby cause it was born intact, and he grabbed her baby by the feet and said you knew this and he dropped the baby in the bucket next to her bed.

Before you dismiss Caron Strong as a fanatic, you ought to know who she works for. Operation Outcry is a project of the Justice Foundation . A Texas-based group that uses lawsuits to pursue its conservative agenda. The Justice Foundation submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in the “partial birth" abortion case. It was the very brief Justice Kennedy referred to when he wrote that some women regret their abortion.

Strong: That there are psychological consequences that women are not informed of and they need to be informed and there are real consequences the court needs to address -- and they did -- that women are truly impacted by this. And yes and there are always someone who will say I wasn't impacted by this, but there are those of us who say 'yes we were.' And so our voices need to be heard.

Caron Strong is a single mom with a six-year-old daughter in North Hollywood. She’s had four abortions. She is an evangelical Christian.

Joanne Faryon: Are these just women who got messed up and looking for something to pin it on?”

Strong: No, I don't think you can generalize like that because that's not everyone's experience. Jackie didn't become an alcoholic -- Jackie just can't ever have children as a result of her abortion.

Faryon: But the brief that was submitted talked about those problems. Drug abuse, alcoholism.

Strong: That's fair, and a lot of these people might have had propensity to do that anyway, and there are other people who might never had gone in that direction. But there are other people that once they've crossed that line and they get it, they get it. They really get it.  I had an abortion and I took the life of my child -- then a lot of people will reach for other things to deaden that.

There have been studies investigating whether such a thing as post-abortive syndrome exists, including a 1989 review of the research literature by C. Everett Koop . Koop was the Surgeon General during the Reagan years and was anti-abortion. His study found there to be no evidence to either support or refute post-abortive syndrome. Neither the American Psychological Association nor American Psychiatric Association recognizes the disorder.

Strong: How has your abortion affected you? I never drank or did any kind of drugs before that time. I considered suicide. Subconsciously I was trying to kill myself in other ways.

Caron Strong wants abortion banned in every case -- no exceptions. Not for rape or incest, not for a severely deformed fetus. She wants the law to protect women from themselves. She believes if abortion had been illegal, she would not have had four.

Strong: I was going to do whatever I was going to do. But if it was illegal and it was murder -- I mean, have you ever wanted to choke somebody? Sure, but hey, I don't want to go to jail.

Faryon: What you're arguing is make a law that doesn't let me do what I want to do so I don't do it. Why not, you, just don't do it?

Strong: The reality is those laws work. We have stop signs and they prevent lots of accidents. Sometimes I feel like speeding, but I stop at the red light.  The rule is in place for a reason.  In this case, they would be in place to protect unborn children and basically women from not knowing what they're getting into. Should they: yes, but do they?  They don't, they just don't all do that.

Web movie: Extremists?
Operation Outcry's Caron Strong responds. | View Google video

Both Caron Strong and Heather Mechanic deny their personal guilt or grief motivates their very public crusades. Are they extremists?

Mechanic: No, not at all. What is extreme is killing a child. Child abuse is an extremist.

Fringe or fanatical? It may be a moot point now that their point of view has creeped its way into the national debate, and found credence in the Supreme Court decision. It just may be the fringe is having the last laugh.

Strong: Not on the fringe anymore. Well, maybe it’s a good thing they didn't pay attention to us for a while. We've been focusing on trying to help women, and, what do I say to them, well we’re not going anywhere. I’ll say that.

Tuesday on Full Focus, we’ll hear from the other side. And how the pro-choice movement is reacting to the Supreme Court decision.