Who's Missing from the Family Portrait? The Effect of Parental Abortion on Living Children and their Families
I just found out my mother had an abortion. I suspected it for a long time. I can remember as a child my father and mother whispering about her having become pregnant and what should they do. I was surprised when I did not get a little brother of sister but I was too afraid to ask what happened. (Abortion Survivors, Philip Ney, MD, Marie A. Peeters-Ney, MD)
Countless men and women at some point in their lives learn that their mother or father had a past abortion. It can be a jarring realization; “I have a brother or sister that died in an abortion procedure.” Others may have had an intuitive sense that someone is missing in the family and felt a longing for a lost sibling.
April of the Shockwaves Initiative offers an opportunity to allow their experience and stories to open our minds and hearts to this rarely considered impact of abortion on our families and society.
Dr. Philip Ney is a Canadian Psychiatrist. From his clinical work and research Dr Ney discovered there were some key themes in the lives of his patients with sibling loss from abortion, common with other death, disaster or trauma survivors. In his booklet Abortion Survivors Dr Ney and his wife Marie present the case of an individual presenting with symptoms of depression, deep insecurity and at times suicidal thoughts.
In the course of their therapy the patient shares that she has an aborted sibling. Dr Ney introduces the concept of survivor syndrome and the patient begins to make some connections:
Patient: …I realize they could have aborted me. I was conceived shortly after my parents married, but I know they wanted me.
Doctor: I wonder how you feel knowing that you are alive because you are wanted, while your brother or sister is dead because he or she was not wanted.
Patient: …I put an awful lot of effort into being popular. I guess it is because I need to be wanted. I am always looking over my shoulder to see how people react to what I do….
Doctor: You mention how insecure you feel…this is a common feeling with people who have survived…They feel they now have to live a special kind of life to deserve their parents’ choice to keep them alive.
Patient: …I feel this enormous burden that I have to be best in everything that my parents could expect of a child as if I had to compensate for something…eventually I gave up and became bitterly rebellious….
Survivors also may struggle with a deep seated guilt that they were the one that was supposed to die:
Patient: I feel I was supposed to die not by brother or sister, and now some event will suddenly kill me…I wanted to get high to escape reality.
This is not to say that all children or adolescents who struggle with these issues of depression, insecurity, drug abuse etc. have sibling survivor syndrome. However it may be an important issue for family, ministers and counselors to consider as it may be a key contributing factor in an individual’s overall symptoms and behavior issues.
Dr Ney goes on to share that abortion survivors can have a type of anxious attachment to their parents. Keep in mind this can also be due to the problems some parents can experience in bonding with their living children. Complicated grief and guilt from an abortion loss can also cause parents to be anxious and over protective.
Can a child that has no conscious awareness of a parent’s abortion still experience symptoms of survivor syndrome?
In this excerpt from Janet Morana’s book Recall Abortion we discover:
“….Dr. Philip Ney…tells a story of a woman who came to him for counseling for her six-year-old child who was having nightmares, wetting the bed, and suffering from separation anxiety. Dr. Ney, in his interview with the mother, asked her about any pregnancy losses. She told him about two abortions that she had prior to giving birth to this child. Then in a separate interview with the child, Dr. Ney asked the child to draw a picture of her family. She was an only child, and yet she drew a picture with her mom, dad, brother, sister, and herself. She had a sense of the missing siblings.”
Be Not Afraid
It can be overwhelming when we begin to realize the deeper impact that abortion may have on our living children and families.
Keep in mind each person and family is unique. Any parent with a number of kids can confirm the sometimes striking differences among siblings in their personalities and temperament.
Dr Vincent Rue is the Director of the Institute for Pregnancy Loss in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr Rue says that trauma does not impact all individuals in the same way. He lists a number of variables that account for this:
- The resiliency of the individual; (2) exposure to prior trauma(s); (3) the nature, duration, intensity, chronicity and severity of trauma; (4) lack of support; (5) psychosocial functioning; (6) age; (7) coping abilities and expectancies; and (8) cultural, socio-moral context.
Some children are especially intuitive and sensitive and so may be more likely to suffer some of the symptoms of survivor syndrome, especially if there is other neglect, abuse or trauma in their history. We can see how the patient in Dr Ney’s profile was more vulnerable to experience greater impact from learning of her parents’ abortion at such a young age. It appears the patient was an only living child and was isolated. He/she was understandably not able to articulate and communicate confusing feelings and fears and process these with her parents, another relative, friend or counselor. A sensitive nature made the individual feel more vulnerable and project his/her fears on to situations and events that another child may not experience as threatening. You can see in the exchange with Dr Ney how the patient begins to realize the deeper effect of this family secret on self-concept and the relationship with parents, authority figures and others.
Others family members may not be so intensely impacted either by knowledge of a parents past abortion and have their own less traumatic way of processing the experience. They may not have an intuitive sense of a missing child in the family as other siblings may report. Regardless of these differences, all family members would benefit at some point in learning the truth about their lost sibling and healing resources for individuals and families. These programs can help family members grieve the lost child and embrace them with love as active members of the family. This can include speaking to a trusted counselor or clergy/minister with sensitivity to this issue that can help the family begin to communicate, reconcile and heal together.
Just as each individual is unique, so too each family. Attending to one’s personal healing is always a good idea and provides a firm foundation and the support network to take next steps in reaching out to other family members. This will not always be possible as some family situations can be quite dysfunctional and even abusive. This requires careful discernment and consultation with a professional counselor.
Visit the April section of our Shockwaves Website for testimonies by siblings and their parents as they share how they faced the truth honestly with love, forgiveness and healing. You can also find additional articles, media content and testimonies on sibling survivor issues.