Trigger warning: Sexual assault, abuse.
Last week, it was leaked that the US Supreme Court voted to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision concerning abortion rights. The conversation on reproductive health of women and people who can become pregnant has subsequently been pushed to the forefront.
Abortion is an essential medical service, and the impact of this decision is far reaching, not only in a physical health capacity, but regarding mental health as well. How do we exist without major anxiety in a world that would force us to carry to term and give birth without our consent, regardless of our situation?
Trying to avoid pregnancy and trying to navigate the system to end an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy is beyond anxiety-provoking—it is a mental health crisis. When abortion, birth control and sex education are stigmatized, they live in the shadows, and this becomes a source of even more psychological pain.
We are now fighting against groups of people who don’t see women in their full humanity, groups who refuse to see pregnant people as deserving of true bodily autonomy. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is.
Paxton is 24 years old. She was born and raised in a small Alabama town with a prominent Mennonite community of ex-Amish people who had migrated from the South. Paxton says they were modest and diligent people who took their faith very seriously. Her parents were authoritative and disciplinarian conservative fundamentalist Christians, and the corporal punishment Paxton received bordered on abuse.
“I had no voice,” she says of her childhood.
Programmed to take the Bible literally, growing up Paxton believed that abortion was equivalent to murder, and this outraged her. “I even accompanied my mother to pro-life rallies. There is a picture in my childhood home of five-year-old me holding a sign that says, ‘STOP ABORTIONS NOW’.”
As Paxton grew up, she struggled with depression and anxiety. She was no longer willing to bear the burden her parents placed on her to be perfect, to obey. She longed for freedom.
At 17, Paxton was a victim of sexual assault within an abusive relationship. She became so anxious about becoming pregnant that she made herself sick. She lost weight, vomited multiple times a day, and couldn’t sleep.
Paxton’s choice was taken from her when she experienced a miscarriage after her partner kicked her down a flight of stairs, but she knows if she had remained pregnant, she would have had to carry to term and give birth.
Paxton has PTSD from these formative years, and while she sees a therapist to help her cope, she has a lot of anxiety surrounding Roe v. Wade. “I’m terrified that our voices and choices could be stripped away from us,” she says.
All stories are valid, regardless of degree of trauma, and Paxton’s account highlights the fact that we don’t always know what someone is going through. The systems we have in place are often not built to protect us, and so the mental health aspect of these experiences can go unacknowledged and unsupported.
Makeda Zook is the program manager of the access line of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, which is essentially Canada’s Planned Parenthood. She tells us the folks they help through their access line often experience anxiety and mental health issues, and part of this is rooted in misinformation and a lack of comprehensive sexual education. But most of the calls, about 85%, come from people who are looking for access to abortion.
Although there is a prevailing sense among those who don’t work in the field that Canada is not and could not be in a similar position to the US, Makeda says this is far from true.
“We get calls from people looking for financial and logistical support to travel to access abortion care, because access is so spotty across the country, and pretty dismal if you don’t live in a major city,” she says.
A lot of these people are incredibly anxious about their situations.
Makeda says that people are often very frustrated because they’ve assumed their family doctor can prescribe the abortion pill, which they most often cannot. There is also anxiety about encountering and interacting with unsupportive or judgmental care providers, running into protestors, or someone they know finding out about the abortion, because it is still so stigmatized in our society. People having to travel hours to access care is also logistically and financially stressful.
In terms of what we can do to help ourselves and others through these difficult times, Makeda says we should focus on structural issues and advocate for change. This includes fighting to make emergency contraception free and widely available and improving sex education, so people know how to try to avoid pregnancy. Of course, contraception sometimes doesn’t work, and that is when abortion access comes into play.
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is itself a fundamental part of the solution because it fills in the gaps where policy fails. The access line Makeda manages supports people in the interim, as we work together to improve the policy landscape. In addition to providing information and logistical support, they also have a fund that people can access for emergency travel to clinics. As of May 11th, 2022, the Government of Canada announced $3.5 million in funding to improve access to abortion services and information, with $2 million going towards Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. While this is an incredible step in the right direction, crucial funding gaps that fall under provincial jurisdiction (such as procedure costs and prescriptions of the abortion pill) still remain. If you're inspired to be part of the movement to make reproductive health more accessible for all Canadians, donations to Action Canada are welcome and much appreciated.
One thing Makeda has noticed in the past week is that more people are realizing and discussing the realities of life as a person who is trying to avoid or end pregnancy, for whatever reason. As the conversation continues, we can hope and take steps to ensure that education and access improves, so that the burden of this anxiety is taken off the shoulders of those who are taught they don’t have a voice.