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"This Wasn't Really Counseling At All"

Raising Questions About "Choice" and
Pre-Abortion Counseling

Melinda Tankard-Reist



In this excerpt from her book Giving Sorrow Words: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion, journalist and women's rights advocate Melinda Tankard Reist discusses how pre-abortion counseling contributes to the lack of authentic choice.



The stories contributed for this book raise questions about pre-
abortion counseling. Most women who submitted stories felt poorly treated in the pre-abortion process. "Counseling," for them, was non-existent, token or over-directive. Their ambivalence was either dismissed or exploited to secure a "yes" decision, while risks were either not mentioned at all or downplayed if they were.

Sue, whose abortion took place when she was 15, recounts the following experience:


I was sent to the Family Planning Center for help; well, they helped me all right, so much so they had me booked in for an abortion the next day.

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Their reasons were I could not take care of myself let alone a baby. I had no permanent home, and to even think of keeping "it" was totally selfish on my part. They gave me no options and no information; my rights as a human being were not valid because of who I was, just another stupid teenager who got pregnant.


I wanted so much to talk to someone, maybe someone would say, "Don't do it, I will help you through," or maybe, "You can keep your baby, there is help available and there are people who care," but instead I was herded into a room with about ten other girls like cattle and spoken to like I was a piece of dirt and treated as such.

Sam also felt her needs were not properly addressed in the pre-abortion process:


I had to stumble through a system which was not supportive of my emotional needs, and I certainly did not make an informed decision. At no stage did [they] discuss the alternatives, or the procedure, possible effects or how I felt for that matter ... This wasn’t really counseling at all, and my guess was it was to satisfy some legal requirement ... no professional created an opportunity for me to discuss anything, really ... no one that I came across ever said to me, "Why is this happening to you, what is wrong, why have you had more than one abortion, what can we do about it?"

One teenager’s experience of counseling was to be put in a room on her own with a tape recorder and cassette tape to listen to.  Another teen wrote: "I didn’t really understand what the lady was saying but I just agreed with basically everything she said." And Jasmine was given a pamphlet but no counseling:

I was nine weeks pregnant. There was no counseling offered, just a leaflet telling me that I might feel a little upset, but that it was hormonal and would pass ...


Laura was asked by the counselor "if this is what I wanted to do. I said I didn’t know. She said, 'Well, you are here so it must be.'"


Many women expressed feeling desperate for just one person to suggest they pause and think a bit more about the decision. One woman wrote about her abortion experience as a 31-year-old in 1995:


I told both family and friends that I had become pregnant and not one of them were at all pleased about it. They said I was "mad" to bring another child into an already unhappy household ... I didn’t want to go through with it but I had no support; I felt so alone. The night before the dreaded abortion I must have cried myself to sleep, holding my stomach and saying, "I'm so sorry," over and over ...


[The next day a nurse] took some particulars. Although she was very sympathetic to my very distressed state, she did not ask me to perhaps think about it a bit more, which, looking back now, was all I wanted someone to say ... I was allowed to go home a little later in the afternoon but what I really wanted to do was throw myself off the nearest bridge ...


I look back now and wish just one person would have said, "If you don’t want an abortion, don’t do it." Why didn't anyone hear my cries for help? Why didn't the staff at the hospital not ask me if it was what I really wanted to do, after they saw me in such a distressed state?

Criticisms were leveled at the state of counseling back in 1985 by Kerry Peterson, writing in the Australian Journal of Sex, Marriage and Family:


Two major criticisms can be directed at the present system. First, abortion counseling is not readily available to all women seeking abortions; and second, it could be argued that some of the counseling that is done in the private sector is more concerned with "appearances" and evidentiary matters than the genuine well-being of the clients ... counseling should be independent of the abortion service in both the public and the private sectors.1

The accounts told here suggest there has not been much improvement since those criticisms were made. The more recent publication, "We Women Decide," also acknowledged the reality of coercive or judgmental counseling.


[I]t was surprising and alarming to find that such information [held by women to be appropriate and helpful] was quite commonly absent or inadequate ... there were disturbing accounts from some women about the superficial pre- and post-operative information that was received from one clinic.2


Unfortunately, superficial information is not the preserve of only one clinic. Yet it appears that little is being done to change these practices.


Allowing Women to Explore the Meaning of “The Baby”


The stories related in this book demonstrate that a woman must also be permitted expression of her desire to reflect on the meaning of the baby. Many women told me they had tried to do this during pre-abortion counseling but received curt, dismissive answers: "a scrap of paper," "a 10-cent piece," "just cells," "nothing there."

Sue wrote, "The doctor said, 'Don’t worry, it's not formed till after 12 weeks.' Then I saw the Human Body program [on TV]. I would not have gone ahead if I’d been told the truth about the formation of the baby."

Feminist Naomi Wolf has written about the trivialization of the fetus—which she labels the fetus-is-nothing paradigm.3 A New Zealand woman involved in post-abortion counseling and who has had an abortion says the fetus is the "F-word" of the abortion establishment.4


Laurel Guymer, a former abortion clinic counselor, was disturbed by the deception of women who asked for information about their children after the abortion. She told me:

When the women woke up in recovery they often whispered to me, "Was it a girl or a boy?" I was instructed to tell them it was too small to know for sure. But occasionally a woman would ask, "Can I see the fetus?" The standard line in an abortion setting was "a pregnancy is a bunch of cells, too early to differentiate" (unlike in IVF, where the women having miscarriages at earlier stages are told they have lost the "baby").


But some women insisted on seeing the fetus, so we would check how many weeks they were and select the appropriate pot off the shelf. None of the containers had a fetus in them, nothing recognizable to the naked eye at least. The contents resembled pavlova mixture: egg whites stiffly beaten, floating in a clear solution. They never saw their own fetus. It had been discarded ...


For many contributors, abortion had a personal moral dimension not necessarily linked to a religious background. They sought answers for their moral and spiritual pondering, but the abortion assessment process did little to facilitate these deeper questions—and they were not allowed the time.


Genevieve had cancelled two appointments at the abortion clinic. Before the next appointment, she spent four hours walking around the clinic, her mind battered by conflicting thoughts, incapable of making a decision. In a submission she forwarded to me, written for a government-commissioned report, she described trying to express her deep inner conflict:


I collapsed in sheer exhaustion. I told [the counselor] that I had been outside for hours. I cried curled over with my head in my hands on my knees. I said that "I feel like I’m depriving my child of life."


Our conversation was cut short by the doctor. The pressure was on. I stopped crying in disbelief when the counselor told me that if I was going to abort then I would have to do it right now. The counselor said, "Look, I’ll give you five minutes to think about it and when I come back, I want your answer." I couldn't believe it. Now I was going into a state of panic and shock. I could now barely speak ... The counselor glared at me, sighed a deep sigh and impatiently said, "Look, they're all waiting for you, you know ..." They seemed angry at me. They were sick of me and in the end I obeyed their commands.

Genevieve’s expression of deep psychic pain—she felt she was "depriving my child of life"—was dismissed. There was no time for philosophical ruminations, nothing would be allowed to hold up the process.


Another woman, Lee, also wished in retrospect that others had facilitated her need to reflect more on what the loss of the baby might mean to her: "I wish someone had said, 'There would be losses having a baby, but don't underestimate the loss of having an abortion.'"




Excerpted from the book Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief After Abortion, by Melinda Tankard Reist. Copyright 2007 Melinda Tankard Reist. Reprinted with permission.



Read more excerpts from Giving Sorrow Words:

Excerpt 2: Disclosure and Coercion

Excerpt 3: "They Didn't Prepare Me for the Horror"

Excerpt 4: "A Conspiracy of Silence"


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1. Kerry A. Petersen, “Abortion Counseling in Australia,” Australian Journal of Sex, Marriage & Family 6(2): 93-103 (1985).
2. Lyndall Ryan, et. al., We Women Decide: Women’s Experience of Seeking Abortion in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania 1985-1992 (Adelaide, Australia: Flinders University, 1994) 123.

3. Naomi Wolf, “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” The New Republic, Oct. 16, 1995, p. 34.
4. Philippa Peck, “Abortion: a woman’s right to refuse.” Unpublished, Aug. 1999.





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