Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick


The Psychological Impact Of Anti-Abortion Legislation Is Real And Dangerous

Here's why having our reproductive rights at risk affects our mental well-being

by Ivana Rihter

I was in a Hollywood Starbucks when I received the news alert that Alabama was going to try to put an end to abortions once and for all. The whole mood shifted almost immediately as I saw other women glance down at the buzzes and pings on their phone. "God fucking damnnit," one muttered as she slumped in her chair and clicked the story. There was an almost tangible stench in the air that made us all stop sipping our coffees and typing on our computers. Eventually, we all trudged on, with pits in our stomachs and fake smiles plastered on our faces. This sequence of events is one that most of the country is used to by now: We hear of an atrocity that will affect thousands of people; we panic; and then, we push it out of our minds so we can continue being productive at our jobs and pleasant to our families.

The back-to-back barrage of abortion restrictions that have been introduced in Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio has had an especially difficult impact on our psychological well-being. Marinating in the constant fear that your bodily autonomy will be taken away has real mental health consequences, and the past few months have been a never-ending stream of bad news when it comes to the future of Roe v. Wade. Missouri has attempted to shut down their last remaining abortion clinic, Ohio is trying to write a medically impossible ectopic pregnancy procedure into law, and the so-called "heartbeat" bills are being passed with no understanding of how and when people find out they are pregnant. (Hint: It is most often after the six-week mark, particularly in the case of unplanned pregnancy.)

"With every news alert, you get every ping your phone makes has a physiological response in your body, you get a hit of adrenaline, you get a hit of cortisol [which is a] stress hormones," says Melissa Paschke, LCSW, ERYT Brooklyn PPD Support. "We are constantly drunk on stress hormones, saturated with [them] all day every day."

If you have found yourself feeling irritable, anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed at the thought of checking the news or looking up your state's proposed bills, rest assured that you are having a reasonable response given the circumstances. The rate Roe v. Wade seems to be unraveling at has a direct impact on our mental health and well-being. The systematic stripping of reproductive rights is not just a political issue, it is an assault on the safety and autonomy of any person that can become pregnant. Being forced to bear a child can impact the entire trajectory of one's life, from educational options to career possibilities, and many of these bills will most directly impact low-income people of color in the state. On top of that, women who have experienced ectopic pregnancies, sexual assault, or traumatic pregnancies firsthand are forced to relive their experiences and tell their stories on loop.

The systematic stripping of reproductive rights is not just a political issue

"As human beings, we have certain basic needs that need to be met in order for us to be able to function in our daily lives," says Erin Joyce, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist that specializes in evidence-based, trauma-focused therapy. "Physical safety, that we are safe in our bodies, is one of those fundamental needs, and in order to feel safe in our bodies, we need to feel like we have control over our bodies, so when we feel like that control is threatened, then it's very distressing, very destabilizing."

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

If you look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, "safety" sits at number two on the pyramid, right after our physiological needs to breathe and eat. Safety can mean personal security; it can mean having a stable income; and it can also mean having control over our health and well-being. When access to safe and legal abortion is taken away, just about all of these things are affected. With states around the country attempting to pass total abortion bans, with no exceptions for rape and incest, many people's homes become a hostile place for them to live, for them to have sex, and for them to plan for their futures.

"It's a very anxiety-provoking experience, especially for people who have experienced trauma," says Joyce. "Seeing that played out in the news can definitely trigger memories of that experience and with fear can come other emotions like anger."

So what can we do in this stressful time? According to psychologists, one of the best ways to fight through this mental health slump is to get actively involved. "Donating to candidates, making sure to vote, making sure people in your community are registered to vote, taking real action like that can be really helpful," says Paschke.

Donating to candidates, making sure to vote... taking real action like that can be really helpful

By breaking out of the vicious cycle of ruminating, worrying, and spinning out on worst-case scenarios, you are able to channel stress into action and take back some semblance of control. "Everybody needs time and space away from outrage to reconnect with their source, to reconnect with the things that feed them," says Pashcke. "Cut out some of those alerts and make sure that there is other space made for the things that serve you and feed you."

Limiting screen-time and getting rid of news notifications, as difficult as it is, is critical in keeping a semblance of balance in our lives. Our brains were not meant to function with an influx of signals 24 hours a day without rest. Especially so when those signals make us feel like crawling into a hole and never coming out again. It can also be incredibly triggering for anyone who has experienced trauma. Watching Scott Walker stand on a stage at CPAC misrepresenting late-term abortion, or seeing the president tweet about executing babies feels dystopian in nature, as is hearing rhetoric that suggests that pregnancy from cases of rape is "something that God intended to happen" as Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock said in 2012. And hearing former Missouri Representative Todd Akin saying, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that thing down"—which again has no basis in reality, biology, or anything at all—feels defeating, because it's clear that anti-abortion activists are operating from a place of fantasy, not scientific reality. Speaking of which, a sponsor of an Ohio abortion bill even thinks you can re-implant ectopic pregnancies, taking the fetal cells from the fallopian tube and transporting them into the uterus to grow. Not only is this a ludicrous notion, it has never been done, nor is it even remotely possible. For people who have experienced the traumatizing (not to mention life-threatening) pain of an ectopic pregnancy, wanted or unwanted, seeing this on a bill is beyond ridiculous—it's hurtful.

"Say you're reading the news and you're reminded of past experiences you've had, try to ground yourself in the moment: Call on all of your senses, what you're experiencing in the here and now, noticing how the ground feels, noticing things in your environment can be helpful," says Joyce. "Just reminding yourself that I am safe and I am taking care of myself, that can be helpful."

Just reminding yourself, 'I am safe and I am taking care of myself'

After I left Starbucks the morning of the Alabama bill, the dread lasted for weeks. The thing about being a person with a uterus in this country is that your rights are always under siege. This is not a subtle siege either, it is one that you are forced to watch play out on Twitter, on people's Instagram Stories, and on CNN's morning segments. All the while, you have friends who are survivors or have had abortions themselves being triggered and retraumatized once again, and it can feel impossible to cradle yourself and them and the world at the same time.

Conservative legislative bodies clearly feel they have a right to legislate people's bodies, and won't stop till they have the restrictive, punitive future they crave. And while there is some good news, like the sweeping abortion protection passed in states like Illinois, the dread over what might happen remains. I live in California; I have an IUD and know logically that there is some hope that most of these bills won't hold up in court as the ACLU goes after them, but still, I felt off for weeks after the hellish news first broke on this latest wave of anti-abortion legislation. What finally helped was when I took the advice of some of the psychologists I spoke to and deleted news alerts from my phone and signed up to be an escort at an abortion clinic. Then, slowly but surely, the knots in my stomach began to untwist. Now, I am not "okay," per se, but I am rested and ready to keep screaming.