Abortion and Domestic Violence

By David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

There is an important connection between violence in the womb and violence in the home. Certainly not every abortion leads to domestic violence, nor is every case of domestic violence rooted in the trauma of a prior abortion. But it is not a coincidence that the rates of abortion and domestic violence have risen together during the last twenty-five years. The evidence supporting a correlation between abortion and violence between women and men, at least for some couples, is so compelling that it is beyond dispute.

Perhaps the two key elements related to post-abortion violence are (1) increased levels of irritability, anger, and rage, and (2) increased tendencies toward risk-taking, self-destructive, and suicidal behaviors.

In an Elliot Institute study of 260 women, 53 percent stated that after their abortion “I started losing my temper more easily,” and 48 percent stated “I became more violent when angered.” Self-hatred, hatred of the male, and hatred of men in general, were all significantly correlated to each other.

In this same sample, 56 percent reported experiencing suicidal feelings, with 28 percent actually attempting suicide one or more times. Approximately 37 percent described themselves as “self-destructive” with another 13 percent “unsure,” that is, unwilling to rule out that they had become self-destructive. Suicidal tendencies and self-destructive behavior were statistically associated to shorter tempers and increased levels of anger and violence (p< .00001). In turn, short tempers and self-destructive behavior were also significantly associated with feeling less in touch with one’s emotions, feeling unable to grieve, faking displays of happiness, and feeling less control over one’s life.

This constellation of problems, an increased tendency toward violence, emotional detachment, and self-destructive behaviors, would appear to be exasperated by the study group’s dramatically increased rate of drug and alcohol abuse subsequent to abortion.

The Abused and the Abusers

Violence begets violence. So it is not surprising that women who become more rage filled after their abortions are also more likely to become the victims of violence. For example, Carol St. Amour writes:

I was a very open-minded, pro-choice feminist…. [But after my abortion] I hated myself and Jim so much that I could no longer keep it inside. I was very pathetic, instigating fights between us, saying things like he loved his ex-wife and children more than me and our dead baby. We went for secular counseling during this time. Our therapist said that I was experiencing a mourning period and overwhelming grief. To me it was a baby, my baby. To Jim it was a products-of-conception blob, a problem. He understood my feelings, but he couldn’t handle it.

In November, during a bitter fight, I grabbed a 12-inch butcher knife and cut up his good brown suit, stabbing at it and crying. He began hauling things out of the house, leaving and taking his possessions with him. I was furious. We began throwing things at each other, spitting, name-calling. As I watched him load OUR car with his things, something clicked in me that I wanted to kill him. I lunged at him with the butcher knife, and he hit me as a full-grown man would hit when fighting with another man. He picked up an oxen yoke from the porch (I collected antiques) and used it as a baseball bat on me. It knocked me off my feet and drove me six feet into the house. There I lay, I couldn’t move. My kids were running around screaming, crying, and attacking him, hitting him for hurting me.1

Cycles of violence such as this are common. Studies of domestic abuse have found that women are substantially more likely to initiate violence then men, as confirmed even by the women studied. Because of their greater strength, however, the hitting done by men causes more damage. But researchers have also found that to offset this advantage of strength, women are more likely to resort to the use of household weapons, such as boiling water or knives.

One explanation for why women may be more likely to initiate violence is that women may be more likely to perceive men as able to “take it.” Women may feel that their punching and scratching does not significantly hurt the larger and stronger male.

Another possibility, however, is that women may be more likely to use their partners as means of self-punishment. A woman who is self-destructive or suicidal, but afraid to deliberately harm herself, may be more likely to become involved with a violent man. She may also be more likely to provoke or attack her spouse, simply because she doesn’t care if she gets hurt. Indeed, she may even feel that she deserves to be hurt. According to one post-aborted woman:

One night during a drunken spree, he held a knife to my chest. I told him to kill me, that I wanted to die. I had nothing. No parents, no husband, really, no baby, and no self-respect. How could he respect me? I had killed our child. How could I look at myself in the mirror every day? I was a murderer. I truly wanted to die.2

This woman’s self-esteem had been destroyed by her abortion. She believed that she deserved to be punished, and she was prepared to accept this punishment, and even destruction, at the hands of her husband. Having been too weak to protect her child, she subsequently felt too weak to protect herself.

This problem of self-punishment by proxy may also involve masochistic issues. For a woman who has become emotionally dead because of post-abortion trauma, her outbursts of rage may be the only emotion which she can truly feel. She may, therefore, continually expose herself to cycles of violence because they help her feel connected with reality. In the immediate aftermath of violent episodes, she and her male partner can both feel the sadness, the pain, and the grief that they have been keeping locked inside. But even in these moments, their emotions are held at arms length, repackaged under the label of domestic violence rather than post-abortion grief.

The most troubling concern of domestic violence counselors is that so many abused women stay in abusive relationships. In many of these cases, the best explanation for this victimizing behavior may be found in the self-punishing aspects of post-abortion trauma. Therefore, until domestic violence counselors begin to address the underlying problems associated with post-abortion trauma, they may never help this group of women escape from the cycle of violence in which they are trapped.

Back to the Bobbitts

Having laid the groundwork throughout this special issue of The Post-Abortion Review, it is now time to draw upon the testimony and insights described herein to summarize what I believe is the most plausible description of the dynamics which created an atmosphere of violence in the Bobbitt household.

Immediately, and for several months after the abortion, Lorena became severely depressed. She had a lack of energy, lack of enthusiasm, and a lack of joy. This was drag on John’s “let’s party attitude.” It was also an indictment. Every time he reached to touch her and she pulled away, every time he saw her sitting with her head down in a sad depression, he was reminded of his guilt. He didn’t like feeling guilty. He blamed her for making him feel guilty. He blamed her for getting pregnant in the first place. They each felt anger and resentment toward the other.

Lorena also became sexually cold toward John. This created additional anger and guilt. He insisted that she was his wife and owed him sex. She refused. He forced himself upon her. These fights further increased the levels of anger, shame, and guilt which both felt. At the same time, a pattern was becoming established. This cycle would turn into a macabre dance of violence and intimacy.

Withdrawn and bitter, Lorena was emotionally dead inside, self-destructive, and suicidal. She would somehow antagonize John, either deliberately or simply because she no longer cared. After all, she believed that she and John both deserved to be punished for what they had done. Then, after every brutal fight, John would try to comfort her. He would promise to never let it happen again, promise her a better future, and then make love to her.

In these moments after the violence, Lorena was perhaps able to see John the way she wanted him to be: sensitive, apologetic, and filled with remorse and grief. It was only then that she could feel emotionally connected with him. It was only then, during this open display of sorrow, that she could feel emotionally connected to herself. Only then were her emotions real and authentic. This was pain and grief exactly like all that she was keeping bottled up inside herself. And then, when John was making his sorrowful promises to fix their problems, Lorena was briefly able to resuscitate her dreams of building up a happy home and family. Then, last of all, in the moments of apologetic lovemaking which followed, she could imagine how she would welcome the gift of a replacement baby.

Of course, Lorena would have preferred that they could make this connection without going through the route of violence which got them there. But it may not be too much to say that these moments of shared guilt and intimacy which followed the violence are what kept them together. It was a pattern which could only have a tragic ending.

Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 4(2-3) Spring & Summer 1996. Copyright 1996 Elliot Institute

1. David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1987) 78, 80. 2. Colleen, “Looking For Advice in All theWrong Places”Post-Abortion Review 1(3), Fall 1993.

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