Abortion Trauma and Child Abuse

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– Theresa Karminski Burke and David C. Reardon

Experts agree that during the past 25 years the rate of child abuse has increased dramatically. Between 1976 and 1987 alone, there was a 330% increase in reported cases of child abuse. While a portion of this increase is due to better reporting, experts agree that these figures reflect a real trend toward ever higher rates of abuse.

These figures clearly contradict the pro-abortionists’ claim that abortion of “unwanted children” prevents child abuse. Ignoring the obvious illogic of this argument–which suggests that killing children is better than beating them–there is not a single scientific study that supports this theory. Instead, there is a clear statistical association between increased rates of abortion and increased rates of child abuse. Indeed, statistical and clinical research support not only an association, but a causal connection between abortion and subsequent child abuse.[1]

These academic studies, like all research, can be criticized as insufficient to prove that abortion causes child abuse. But these conclusions are also supported by the personal testimonies of women and men who have reported a direct correlation between their unresolved post-abortion feelings and subsequent patterns of emotional or physical abuse of their living children.

For example, one woman described feelings of intense rage whenever her newborn baby cried: “I did not understand why her crying would make me so angry. She was the most beautiful baby, and had such a placid personality. What I didn’t realize then was that I hated my daughter for being able to do all these things that my lost [aborted] baby would never be able to do.”[2]

The reasons for child abuse are complex, and can’t be fully dealt with here. But clearly, if abortion contributes to feelings of depression, self-hatred, anxiety and anger among mothers and fathers, not to mention patterns of substance abuse, their children will pay a price.

Fatal Abuse

In some instances, abortion can lead to complete emotional breakdowns with tragic results. For example, Renee Nicely of New Jersey experienced a “psychotic episode” the day after her abortion which resulted in the beating death of her 3-year-old son, Shawn. She told the court psychiatrist that she “knew that abortion was wrong” and “I should be punished for the abortion.” The psychiatrist who was the prosecution’s expert witness testified that the killing was clearly related to Renee’s psychological reaction to her abortion. Unfortunately, the victim of her rage and self-hatred was her own son.[3]

A similar tragedy occurred just one week after Donna Fleming’s second abortion. Depressed and distraught, Donna “heard voices” in her head and tried to kill herself and her two sons by jumping off a bridge in Long Beach, California. Donna and her five-year old son were rescued; her two-year-old son died. Subsequently, Donna claimed she tried to kill herself and her other children in order to reunite her family.[4]

There is no reason to believe that these are isolated cases. Indeed, in the years to come it may be shown that post-abortion trauma was a major cause of the dramatic rise of child abuse cases in the last two decades.

Psychiatrist Philip Ney, M.D., a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, has done by far the most research into understanding the link between abortion and subsequent child abuse. Most of his analysis, and that of others examining this issue, has focused on the role of abortion in disrupting bonding with later children; weakening of maternal instincts; reduced inhibitions against violence, particularly toward children; and heightened levels of anger, rage, and depression. It is probable that all these factors have contributed toward increased levels of child abuse following legalized abortion.

In this article, we will attempt to expand on the work of Dr. Ney and others by examining in greater detail compulsive behaviors and intrusive thoughts related to child abuse that can serve as a traumatic reenactment of abortion.

Why Re-Enact Trauma?

Traumatic experiences are by definition overwhelming experiences that are simply “too much” for a person to handle or understand. The ordinary response to a trauma is to banish the experience from one’s mind–to run away from it, hide it, or repress it. On one level, trauma victims simply want to forget and put their horrible experience behind them forever.

In conflict with this avoidance reaction, however, is the equally powerful human need to understand our experiences and find meaning in them. Thus, while a person may consciously choose to avoid thinking about the traumatic experience, their subconscious insists on calling attention to the trauma. Their subconscious knows that an unresolved trauma is unfinished business. In order to be conquered, the horror of their traumatic event must be exposed, proclaimed, and understood.

This tension between the need to hide a trauma and the need to expose it is at the heart of many of the psychological symptoms of post-abortion trauma. Symbolic reenactment is one of the ways that the subconscious seeks to simultaneously satisfy both of these needs: the need to expose trauma and the need to hide it. Reenactment allows the person to expose the trauma with the hope that its exposure will eventually lead to understanding and mastery over the trauma. At the same time, because the trauma is reenacted behind a symbolic mask, the essence of the trauma it is still concealed and protected. In other words, reenactment allows the person to call for help while disguising the areas that need help.

As trauma specialist Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., has observed, symbolic reenactment of a trauma serves to “simultaneously call attention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This is most apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb and reliving the event. The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness…. It results in the protean, dramatic, and often bizarre symptoms….”[5]

A Day Care Nightmare

For women who have been traumatized by abortion, acts of child abuse are a natural symbol for reenactment of unresolved abortion issues. For example, Rhonda was plagued with guilt and shame for having aborted five children. She believed that God wanted her make up for her past by giving love to children who needed someone to care for them. She tried to meet this obligation by starting a full-time day care career in her home.

While Rhonda was attempting to master her psychic trauma by giving love to children, the eight children under her care literally exhausted her. By the end of the day she frequently became irritable and anxious. Rhonda reported that she occasionally lost her temper with the toddlers and would find herself hitting or shaking them in a rage of fury and frustration. After these violent outbursts, Rhonda would shrink into a corner and cry, convinced that she was a horrible person.

By placing herself in a stressful situation with young toddlers, Rhonda recreated her feelings of helplessness and incompetence with children, themes that were dominant in her choices to abort. Her repeated loss of control with the children confirmed her feelings of self-hatred and disgust. The resulting ritual patterns of child abuse, followed by shame, guilt, and grief, mirrored her abortion experiences with complete emotional accuracy.

Re-Enactment Through Intrusive Thoughts

Dianne, another patient seeking post-abortion counseling, also had a daycare business. She watched infants in her home. Dianne reported disturbing intrusive thoughts about pulling the babies’ arms out of their sockets. She felt a compelling desire to grab the infants’ little arms and disconnect their limbs. Such thoughts caused excessive anxiety and horrific grief. Each time Dianne was confronted with these traumatic thoughts, she was overcome with horror and sadness. Each intrusive episode confirmed that she was a disgusting person and filled her heart with sickening grief.

Fortunately, on the anniversary date of her abortion Dianne finally recognized the connection between her abortion and the intrusive thoughts. In a searing moment, the truth of what was happening to her cut through her soul, and she wept with grief over her loss. Fortunately, Dianne sought help to deal with the long-repressed trauma, and all the unwelcome intrusive thoughts have ceased.

Intrusive thoughts like Dianne’s are a common experience for trauma victims. Once an intrusive thought comes, it can be very hard to put it out of the mind. Afterwards, people may wonder: “Where in the world did that image come from?” Like dreams and fantasies, intrusive thoughts often contain complex symbols of the trauma.

With abortion trauma, intrusive thoughts about harming children may also include symbols of the abortion procedure itself. Kathy related the following story:

I love my kids. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. They are everything in the world to me. But I get these horrible thoughts that just mortify me. It’s hard to even talk about. I might be standing at the kitchen counter making dinner and I’ll think about poisoning their food. I imagine them reacting to the poison and I have to rush them to the hospital. I go crazy with guilt and shame. Then I imagine that the doctors discover that I did it on purpose. They call my husband and tell him that I shouldn’t have the children… that I tried to kill them. These thoughts just jump into my head. They are so crazy… I can’t believe I think such thoughts. It makes me hate myself.

Kathy first entered counseling for panic attacks. She began reporting these types of thoughts each week with tremendous distress. It was hard for Kathy to even talk about them without crying. As we reviewed her life, I was hardly surprised that a saline abortion was in her past. She visibly shook when she talked about it. When I asked her how a saline abortion works, she described the procedure as a “poisoning” of the fetus.

All of Kathy’s symptoms developed after her abortion. Through these intrusive thoughts, Kathy continually relived the emotional experience of her abortion. Each episode clustered around hurting or killing her living children and the shameful aftermath. Her mourning had become complicated and was surfacing through these disturbing fantasies.

Kathy is one of the gentlest, most soft-spoken women I have ever met. I know it was enormously difficult for her to experience such horrendous thoughts. I am happy to say that these impressions, which had plagued her for years, ended after she had done grief work related to her abortion.

Emily’s case is similar. She experienced an abortion twelve years before getting married. Afterward, she refused to allow herself to think about it or grieve what she had lost. This “stuffing away” of emotions worked fine until she began to have children. Emily’s first flashback hit her violently when she had her first ultrasound while pregnant with a “wanted” child. As time went on, she would get frequent intrusive thoughts concerning her abortion when looking at the faces of her babies. After a time, she also began to experience habitual, obsessive, and scary thoughts about hurting her children. She imagined stabbing her children with a knife one by one, suffocating them with pillows, and strangling them.

Emily is a wonderful and devoted mother, yet she could not escape intrusive thoughts about death and killing. As time went on, they became more elaborate and more real. Emily could not figure out why this was happening to her. She was appalled that she was even capable of such hideous thoughts. She certainly had no intentions of ever carrying them out. But her destructive thoughts were like starving rabid animals, hounding, scratching, and gnawing at her conscience. They left her feeling bewildered, crazy, and ashamed. She desperately yearned to silence these dangerous beasts in her mind. Fortunately, all these symptoms were alleviated after Emily had done grief work related to her abortion.


The firsthand testimonies of women, combined with therapists’ case studies and even media reports of criminal cases involving child abuse or child homicide, conclusively demonstrate that abortion trauma can create or aggravate tendencies toward child abuse. While most women who experience intrusive thoughts about harming their children are probably able to resist these impulses, the fact that these destructive thoughts occur at all is alarming both for the sake of their children and themselves. If even a small fraction of the millions of abortions performed each year lead to abuse of subsequent children, whether in homes or in daycare, this problem should be of grave concern to us all.

Theresa Karminski Burke, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist. The case studies presented in this article are excerpted from her forthcoming book, Forbidden Grief. Copyright 1997 Theresa Karminski Burke. David C. Reardon, Ph.D., is a biomedical ethicist and the director of the Elliot Institute.

Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review, 6(1), Winter 1998. Copyright 1998, Elliot Institute.

Originally printed in The Post-Abortion Review, 6(1), Winter 1988. Copyright 1988, Elliot Institute.