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Anti-abortion and pro-family? Not possible.

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Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the ideological battle in the United States over abortion has only intensified. North Carolina has become the latest state to restrict abortion access, after the Republican-controlled legislature overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) veto on a bill banning abortion after 12 weeks. And that is one of the less extreme laws — just last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a law banning abortion after six weeks, with limited exceptions in the case of rape or incest.

I am not here to condemn these politicians for their personal views on abortion. One of the beautiful things about this country is we are all allowed to believe what we want. But when we start policing people’s individual choices, it can have devastating effects beyond the ballot box. I can say with certainty that when politicians restrict abortion access and shame women who seek this procedure, they strike at the core of a demographic they claim to represent: families.

Politicians in favor of abortion restrictions often paint their positions as “pro-family.” As a family therapist with over 36 years of experience, I believe the opposite to be true. Such legislation removes all agency from women and forces discord into their family dynamics.

Imagine this scenario in Florida: a couple having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy and raising a rapist’s child. The stress undoubtedly will affect the couple’s intimacy and sexuality and may lead to divorce. Once the child is born, the parents may live in fear of the child being known as a child of rape and how the child will be treated. Family members may relate to the child differently because of the rape. And without every state convincingly taking away a rapist’s parental rights, women and couples may be revictimized.

How is that pro-family?

To be sure, abortion is not a decision to be taken lightly. But when the government legalizes forced pregnancy and demonizes women who seek help, it makes it that much easier for families to become divided. With the nation facing a dangerous shortage of mental health professionals, these laws have the potential to cause issues that escalate beyond even family divisions.

When a mother is forced to have a child against her will, it sets up living conditions that are suboptimal for every member of the family. Family members will suddenly be needed to support the new mother, adding additional stress to the dynamic. If the new baby is seen as a burden, the mother may not be able to bond properly, which can create mental health issues for the child that have far-reaching consequences. 

The legislation is bad enough, but the rhetoric used to support it makes it that much easier to turn families against one another. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution that conflated abortion with slavery and segregation; one state senator from Illinois compared it to the Holocaust. When elected officials make these offensive comparisons, is it any wonder that an anti-choice parent would go so far as to disown their child for having an abortion?

Let’s make one thing clear: The idea that abortion is a tool only of the uncaring and irresponsible is an absolute myth. Pregnancy loss, whether voluntary or involuntary, causes incalculable grief, and it’s not something taken lightly.

Grief is one of the most powerful emotions imaginable. As a family therapist, I’ve worked with countless clients who’ve struggled through grief before they even decide to have an abortion, torn between the desire to raise a child and the knowledge that they may not be ready. People can experience what I call ambiguous loss after an abortion. They may fantasize about what the baby would have been like, worry about being punished (spiritually or literally), and experience feelings of guilt or shame.

When a law like North Carolina’s comes along, those feelings are made to have less value. The 12-week timeline is considered a “compromise” — but consider the fact that most women don’t know they are pregnant until six weeks. And now think about the emotional toll it takes to make such an important decision. Are we saying that if a woman takes her time and makes that decision at 13 weeks, she is suddenly a criminal? That’s an overly easy way of viewing things; frankly, it’s equally as easy for someone seeking an abortion to automatically view their conservative family as equally evil for their views.

That’s why these laws are so dangerous: they draw battle lines.

It’s unlikely supporters of these restrictive laws will suddenly have a change of heart on their legislation and rhetoric. But just because politicians are unwilling to see the light doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Family is more important than being right or morally superior. Even though you don’t agree, is that enough for you to go your whole life without the benefit of their care?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that families are complicated: They can be both loving and cruel. A politician who is truly pro-family would not legislate what should be a private family matter and use inflammatory rhetoric that serves only to divide.

Marlene F. Watson, Ph.D., LMFT, is director of training at Ackerman Institute for the Family. A licensed couple and family therapist, she is the former chair of the Couple and Family Therapy Department, and associate professor emerita in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Tags abortion restrictions Florida Incest North Carolina pro-family policy Rape Reproductive rights Roe v. Wade Ron DeSantis Roy Cooper

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