CONFERENCE PAPERS 2007
1 Story giving birth to Hope (Peter Maher)
2. Pregnancy Proneness: The Hidden Agenda (Anne Neville)
3 Interview with Theresa Burke in Hobart (with Penny Edman)
When I was first introduced to the Rachel’s Vineyard
Retreat, I went along with the experience which I trusted because
of my friend, Julie Kelly. I was intrigued by the enthusiasm and clarity
of the healing Julie described. During those early retreats I was
struck by the transformative power of storytelling in the retreat
process. I remember quite clearly participants recalling on the Saturday
of the Retreat the horror of the abortion event, what led to the abortion,
and its effects with predictable expressions of hopelessness; pain;
low self esteem and inability to find healing, forgiveness and love.
With almost equal predictability, these factors in the stories were
transformed in just a few short hours into stories that held out a
hope for change, recognition of the reality of what had happened and
a chance for healing from the debilitating grief and loss that had
been a constant part of their lives. I became interested in what brought
about that change. The storytelling process is one that has the power
to help retreat participants see the story again from a new perspective;
recognise who is suffering and in need of healing and rewrite the
story in a way that is more truthful. They now hear themselves describing
the event and its effects with greater compassion for themselves and
Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats can be viewed through models
of learning healing through mutual nurturing. This learning takes
place through rituals such as living scriptures, prayers and/or the
Sacraments and storytelling. These practices address healing from
pain and grief in a gradual and gentle way. It is based on a carefully
managed expression of pain and grief.
Role play around the stories along with appropriate
debriefing interrogate the story so to speak. It is as if the learner
is asking the story questions about the accuracy of the initial interpretations.
Ritual engages the learner in seeing themselves in new ways in relationship
to Jesus, God and others, including the baby. Meditation uses the
imagination to add a new dimension to the story. Rituals and reflection
questions using the process of imagining being in the story allows
people to see themselves in new ways and reinterpret the meaning of
their story or find the place where they are stuck in their lives.
These practices tend to push the person to action not only because
it seems to provide a better outcome but because these practices also
open up suggestions about how to act as they tend to engage the imagination
in seeing themselves differently; seeing the context differently and
increasing options for action. While true emancipatory learning always
comes from a partnership between learner and teacher; there should
be no mistake it is the teacher or facilitator who offers a directive
process for the learner to understand and engage in transformative
action. Thus teachers or facilitators of life learning in an emancipatory
model are not unattached. In this form of education they take sides.
Paulo Freire, the father of popular education, as it is called, noted
that to remain neutral is to side with the oppressor. Rachel ministry
is unapologetic about siding with the victim – that is the one who
is hurt. In the story of those suffering post abortion pain there
are various hurt people. One is the baby and so the baby is honoured
and remembered. The other is the woman or man whose pain and grief
is honoured in order to bring reality to their struggle, siblings,
other family members, health workers and friends.
I heard Richard Rohr speak in Sydney last year on the
topic of gospel spirituality. I believe his key point
can help us to name another dimension to the spirituality of transformative
learning in Rachel ministries. He noted that we often live with a
dualistic mind that wants to insist that “I am not like you” – I don’t
do bad things like you do; I don’t smoke, drink or get fat like you
do; I don’t waste my life and I would certainly not have a an abortion!
This, he claims, is the destructive mind. Gospel spirituality emphasises
that in fact “I am just like you”. We are reminded that we are vulnerable,
hurt or in pain; we have all made mistakes and are all equally in
need of God’s love and self forgiveness to find happiness and wholeness.
Pregnancy Proneness: The Hidden Agenda
*All names used in case material are fictitious to maintain client confidentiality.
This paper looks at the deeper underlying issues that may contribute to an unplanned pregnancy. Our findings are based on a number of studies and research articles as well from a vast amount of anecdotal evidence from our clinical work.
Time and again women present for a pregnancy test when clearly it has not been their intention to become pregnant. Obviously, a number of women come because of failed contraception but others seem to be clearly governed by other forces. Even those for whom contraception has failed may be influenced towards an unplanned pregnancy by secondary issues. This is particularly so for those women who have a number of pregnancy “scares”.
Germaine Greer, in her new book “The Whole Woman” asks:
This is the woman who is well known for her passionate stance on female equality and autonomy bewildered at the seeming lack of progress in the area of sexuality and reproduction. She seems to be aware to some degree that there may be greater forces involved.
We refer to this phenomenon as Pregnancy Proneness i.e. a predisposition to a pregnancy that is neither consciously desired nor planned for. Just as it seems that some people are more prone to accidents so it would seem that certain individuals are more likely to find themselves faced with a pregnancy scare or the decision whether to continue a pregnancy or not.
One would expect that sex education and training in the use of contraception would be the logical solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. However, the widespread application of these ideas has in no way eliminated the problem.
One only has to consider the current abortion figures to see that women are still becoming pregnant despite the provision of preventative education and the availability of many different forms of contraception. Its very failure shows that we are not dealing with the mere mechanics of anatomy and physiology but with a more complex situation. Many women, not just adolescents, continue to be unaware of how their bodies work, fail to understand fertility cycles and are often unclear about which specific sexual activity can result in a pregnancy.
Whilst there has been a dramatic decline in the birth rate and especially that of babies born to teenage mothers this figure in no way represents the true number of unplanned pregnancies in Australia - it doesn’t take into account the number of terminations performed. According to the figures from the South Australian Abortion Reporting Committee for 2005, the abortion rate for women aged between 15 and 44 years of age was 15.3% - a slight decrease from the previous year’s figures. The teen abortion rate has shown the biggest fall from 21.1 to 17.7 per 1000 women. The 20 and 24 years age group continued to have the highest abortion rate followed by the 25 – 29 years age group whose rate now exceeds that for the teen group.
These figures obviously do not take into account the use of emergency contraception that is now freely available to women through pharmacies throughout Australia.
Also from the 2005 South Australian figures, the proportion of women having repeat terminations of a pregnancy stands at 38.8%. Almost half of those in the age groups 25–29 years and over have had previous terminations. Of those aged 20-24 years, 36.3% had had a previous termination. Figures from the Government of South Australia’s “Pregnancy Outcome” Report suggest that 29% of women would have an abortion in their lifetime if they experienced the abortion rate of the different age groups for 2005.
It is interesting to note that a single experience of “unprotected” intercourse (where no contraceptive measures are used) carries a 4% chance of conception taking place (Abernethy, 1980). However, unprotected intercourse over a twelve month period at an average frequency has been shown to carry an 80% risk of pregnancy (Abernethy, 1980).
Whilst some might say that to continue having unprotected sex is madness at its best, it would seem that the human drive to reproduce is incredibly strong even in the face of consciously considered obstacles. We would have to wonder at the influence of natural biological and psychological forces to reproduce that possibly conflict with the current trend to delay childbearing.
Women contacting us are usually in a state of crisis. The immediate problem (a pregnancy) may seem to be the only problem particularly to the adolescent - with little awareness of the deeper issues, which may actually underlie the pregnancy. It is these deeper problems that pre-dispose a woman or couple to an unplanned pregnancy - hence the term “pregnancy proneness”.
It’s been found that some women seem to have a tendency to conceive more frequently than others and in situations where they believe it is not their conscious intention to have a child. The teenager usually does not deliberately decide to become pregnant, although there are some instances when this is so.
Beverley Raphael in (1972) described a range of underlying issues leading to the conception of a child at a time that seems inappropriate to the mother. These include - depression, replacing a loss, deprivation and hostility in childhood, uncertain femininity, and self-punishment.
At Open Doors we often see evidence of these factors in the life stories of women who seek a pregnancy test and counselling.
Firstly, we will start by considering:
A number of studies have reviewed possible factors leading to problem or unwanted pregnancies. These showed, in approximately two thirds of the women studied, a history of loss in the previous six months prior to the problem conception. In 50% of these women, the loss had actually occurred in the previous three months (Greenberg, Loesch and Lakin cited in Raphael, 1972).
A recent loss is a very common feature in the history of clients at Open Doors - especially those who have had an abortion or a miscarriage. Many suffer from reactive depression related to their pregnancy loss and become “stuck” in the depressive phase of their grief work.
Significant losses include:
• A death
These changes and losses can result in a degree of depression and, consequently, lead to a state of vulnerability. It is this vulnerability and its accompanying needs that may lead a girl or woman into behavior that seeks to compensate for an emotional loss. I’m referring to the drive towards physical and sexual contact to fill the psychological void and the often accompanying lack of contraceptive vigilance. Grieving people will speak of a “hole” or an “emptiness” which, somehow, needs filling.
Many women who find themselves pregnant unexpectedly present with some degree of depression and, when drawn out about their situation, speak about losses that continue to have an influence. This can best be described as a “masked grief” (Lamb, 1988) that is a form of complicated mourning. For final resolution it is necessary for the particular loss to be dealt with.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of their immature cognitive and emotional development. Family breakdown through divorce and separation of parents is one area of loss experienced by a growing number of adolescents. They seek to replace lost parent/child relationships through sexual activity in a futile search for parental intimacy and affection. They become vulnerable not only to an unplanned pregnancy but also to long-term emotional difficulties. Their contraceptive awareness is often compromised.
The misguided impression that “it couldn’t happen to me” often over-rides prudence and is frequently a feature of adolescent thinking. Often there is little or no thought of the possibility of a pregnancy. The psychological drive to fill the emotional gap often channels the need for intimacy into a sexual relationship.
Behavior is governed by emotional pain and unmet needs and so the cycle can become repetitive.
“Melanie”, 16, lost her maternal grandmother after a long illness just 4 months prior to her first contact with Open Doors. Whilst she came for a pregnancy test, she spent a lot of her time with the counsellor focusing on her close relationship with her grandmother and what the impact of her death entailed for her. The opportunity to deal with her grief had been severely restricted as Melanie’s parents’ marriage was floundering and she felt she could not add to their problems by saying that she wasn’t coping. In an attempt to deal with her pain Melanie sought comfort in alcohol and a physical relationship which she later recognized as further compounding her difficulties. Fortunately, Melanie’s test was negative.
The second factor to consider is:
A significant factor involved in the grief response is the impact of parental separation and divorce. Reports from a British study (Kiernan and Hobcraft, 1997 cited in Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 29. No.5) noted that “individuals who experienced parental divorce during childhood were younger than average when they began having sex, entered their first marriage or cohabiting relationship and had their first child” (p.242) Women from disrupted families were almost 50% more likely to have entered a co-habiting relationship before the age of 20 and were twice as likely to have become teenage mothers.
In cases when there have been a considerable number of losses experienced
we have seen disappointment expressed by teenagers when the pregnancy
test was negative. A number of young clients have acknowledged their
disappointment and their longing for a baby - as “someone to love
and someone to love me”.
For some girls becoming a mother actually provides them with the motivation necessary to get their lives on track. They discover and develop a potential they didn’t know existed. Their lives, goals and relationships are re-evaluated and they can actually bloom.
Although there is a great lack of research into the unconscious motivation
or desire to replace a lost pregnancy with a subsequent one, case
studies show that for some this occurs. Frequently it is found at
Open Doors, that the date some women come for post-abortion counselling
coincides with the anniversary dates of their abortions or the expected
due date of the aborted child. Very often the pain of the loss is
buried for a time until there is a significant trigger to re-activate
it. Many do not actually connect the emotional response with the abortion
until it is explored or pointed out.
After a recent termination “Tracy” returned to Open Doors for a further pregnancy test. She was very clear that if her test were positive this time she would be continuing the pregnancy.
Tracy had believed her family to be complete when she found herself pregnant again at 36. Her 3 children were all at school, she was back in the workforce and she and her husband were at last experiencing an improvement in their finances. The decision to terminate the pregnancy was made fairly quickly.
Afterwards she found herself grieving - something she did not expect to do. She realized that the decision to abort the previous pregnancy had not been the right decision for her. In talking with her counsellor she became aware of her desire and attempts to wind back the clock and replace the baby she had lost. Indeed she realized that she had taken active steps in a misguided attempt to do this by “forgetting” to take the Pill.
For some their post abortion grief produces what could be described as quite bizarre features.
One young client “Sharna” was convinced her baby was waiting “just here” (indicating to the right at head height) for her to conceive again so that “she” (the baby) could return. She said she could “hear” her baby talking to her telling her that she wished to return. Sharna wanted to pinpoint ovulation to make sure that her baby had a chance to return in a subsequent pregnancy. Sharna’s grief had taken on a delusional aspect. She was in need of a great deal of help to face her loss and grieve. Unfortunately she did not continue with us so we don’t know the outcome for her.
Some women will systematically engage in sexual activity very consciously in order to become pregnant. Some will even trap their partners with assurances that they are on the pill. The drive to replace the lost child can be incredibly strong. Sometimes we hear it said that women just have babies to rort the system and secure benefits. However, to hold to that opinion would be somewhat shortsighted in light of the issues we find common in the histories of many women.
It is also a notable occurrence that women seek a pregnancy test around the anniversary date of the loss of their child or around what would have been the expected date of birth of that child. These are times of greater vulnerability and emotional flooding. So often there may only be an awareness of an increased restlessness and heightened sadness without the emotional response being connected directly to the loss.
For others there will be a very definite “trigger” that will cause their grief to surface.
A caller on our grief line sobbed as she spoke of the intensity of her loss for a baby she had aborted at the age of 18. The news of her daughter’s first pregnancy had led to the upsurgence of her own grief, which had never been expressed. “Helen” spoke of her persistent battle with depression, which intensified at certain times of the year. After identifying that these times coincided with the termination and when the baby would have been delivered “Helen” acknowledged a great feeling of relief - these events now made sense.
The third area for consideration is:
Girls and women who experience unwanted pregnancies frequently show
certain consistent patterns of particular family interactions.
Even when contraception is being used teenage girls report the tendency to become “clumsy” about its use (Fahy, cited in Twist, 1994). Motivation to ensure against a pregnancy is often influenced by the perceived lack of alternatives available to girls from impoverished backgrounds. Sexual activity is symbolic of the deeper needs and a resultant pregnancy may be an attempt to fill the need of the girl for love i.e. someone to love her who won’t hurt her. Having a child may psychologically provide the young mother with an opportunity to attend to her own emotional growth process. As she projects her love out to her child she is then able to receive the reciprocal loving from the child.
Julie was critical of her mother’s behaviour and felt she didn’t care about her - she said her mother was too busy “ doing her own thing”. Her father she rarely saw despite her repeated attempts to contact him. She was basically left to her own devices.
She engaged in sexual activity seeking closeness, a scenario she saw modeled by her mother who was possibly seeking to meet her own needs this way. There was little or no thought of using contraception. Because of her age and the stresses she was trying to cope with Julie operated with a great deal of “magical” thinking, denial and a restricted ability to consider the consequences of her actions.
This response is by no means confined just to the adolescent.
For some a pregnancy, although untimely, actually confirms the feminine
role - that is the ability to conceive and have a child. The need
to prove this comes through with varying degrees of awareness in many
of our clients.
Confirmation of her pregnancy was in one sense a great relief for
her but, on the other hand, she was then faced with the agonizing
decision of whether to continue the pregnancy or not. Believing she
had no other option she chose to terminate. Until the actual birth
of her first child she battled with the fear that the child she had
aborted would be her only chance at motherhood.
The National Survey of Family Growth in the United States in 1995 examined the actual degree of control that young women exert over first intercourse. The report showed that substantial numbers of young women aged from 13 whilst “voluntarily” participating in a first sexual experience felt ambivalent or negative about it (Abma, Driscoll and Moore, 1998). It is reasonable then to conclude that this lack of control reduces the likelihood that contraceptive vigilance will be observed.
Where there has been an unsatisfactory father/daughter relationship the girl may seek to compensate for the lack of love (perceived or real) in sexual encounters. In reality she may be seeking her father’s love and approval. Many will enter relationships where there is a significant age difference. In the U.S. study just referred to it was also found that a relationship with a large age discrepancy (where the partner was seven years older or more), “works against contraceptive use” (Abma, Driscoll and Moore, 1998 p. 17).
Some women can be lacking self-esteem and look to motherhood to find
love and success. They unknowingly become pregnant to try and reassure
themselves they are worthwhile – that they have achieved something.
They want to give the child the love they perhaps didn’t have in their
own childhood. It can be a way of them experiencing love for themselves
through the baby’s responses.
Adolescent sexual development often involves a certain amount of risk-taking as has been mentioned before. Sexual behavior can be influenced by “other problem behaviours” such as alcohol and drug use according to a 1998 study (Kowaleski-Jones and Mott). This study looked at the impact of risk-taking behaviours and the presence of depression, low self-esteem and a decreased sense of control in its participants who engaged in early sexual activity. Drugs and alcohol can severely compromise both the control of sexual activity and contraceptive vigilance.
Where self esteem is low a greater vulnerability exists. Reserves are down and so the ability to withstand pressure to participate in “at risk” behaviour is compromised. Particularly where there has been a history of deprivation or abuse a tendency to perpetuate the status quo may be reflected in self-destructive activities.
An unplanned pregnancy can usually place enormous restrictions on the individual, especially the teenager. Plans and goals are thwarted causing disarray and turmoil. Irrespective of the choice in dealing with an unplanned pregnancy the girl is led to the point of making a decision that will impinge dramatically on her life. Continuing the pregnancy, she faces the responsibilities and difficulties associated with pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing often with little access to help. Alternatively, if abortion is the choice, she may interpret the heartache that may follow such a decision as her due punishment. She may feel unable to access assistance to deal with her grief or may believe that she does not deserve help because of her choice.
A study by Stock, Bell, Boyer and Connell in 1997 reported a number of features in those with a history of childhood sexual abuse.
It found participants:
• Were more likely to have had intercourse by the age of 15
They emphasized the association between sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy due to resultant high-risk behaviour.
Several other studies cited within this report showed that in the general population of women, 60 – 80% incidents of abuse occur before 11 years of age, while 20 – 28% occur in adolescence. Studies of adolescent parents and pregnant teenagers in this report cited young mean ages at the time of first molestation. Maltreatment of any kind has been increasingly implicated as a strong factor in adolescent pregnancy.
Survivors of sexual abuse may accept some level of aggression in intimate relationships as appropriate or normal. These women “may be prone to sexual or physical victimization by others especially in sexual/romantic relationships (Briere, 1992).
When “Nicole” found herself pregnant her partner, “Darren”, insisted that she have a termination. She was very distressed as she wanted to continue this pregnancy and felt she would be able to manage with support. Her partner, however, was adamant and threatened to withdraw from the relationship.
Nicole came for a number of counselling sessions in an attempt to withstand the pressure her partner was putting on her. Even though he was a very aggressive man Nicole had stayed with him for a number of years. She previously had a number of failed relationships (all to dominant males) and felt unable to start again with two children.
Her background story was a sad one. She had experienced a family
life affected by an alcoholic and violent father. Her mother bore
the brunt of the father’s drunken rages and was often unable to offer
her children the emotional protection they needed. She bowed to the
father’s demands in order to keep some sort of peace. This affected
the family profoundly
At times things were more settled which created a false sense of security. It was in the quieter periods that Nicole would hope that Darren might have at last changed. However, that hope was usually short-lived. It was after a recent argument that Darren was particularly remorseful and no contraception was used at his insistence.
This was not the first time that had happened. She had already had two abortions in this relationship and didn’t know how she would cope with another.
A recent study (Olenick, 1999) found that women who had experienced any type of abuse or dysfunction were significantly more likely than those who had not to have had an unintended first pregnancy. From this study researchers estimated that one in five first pregnancies during adulthood were associated with childhood experiences of abuse or household dysfunction.
So many of these pregnancies end in abortion.
One would have to wonder whether anything could actually be considered more self-punitive than having an abortion. In order to do so a woman may have to de-humanize her baby, preventing any attachment to her child. This is something that is almost impossible if she already has other children or has always seen having children as a part of who she is. She has to deny not only the baby but also part of herself. Therefore she has to destroy a part of herself.
The sacrifice of her former value system may, initially, seem like a secondary issue in the light of the pressures influencing her to “choose” an abortion. However, as time passes the woman is often undermined by this very issue – being left with a sense of having abandoned her formerly held views and feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
Major Life Events
Other events that seem to be associated with an increased risk of
Men and Problem Pregnancy
Men are probably influenced in much the same way as women towards parenting unplanned pregnancies. For example the mid-life crisis may lead a man to prove his manhood precisely because he senses it waning. Hardly any research has focused on the role of men in pregnancy proneness, but clinical experience of our therapists at Open Doors shows that family background issues are also critical for men. The situation of men being involved in unwanted pregnancies seems to be consistent with the patterns stated for women.
Many of these factors mentioned above are all too evident in the clients we see at Open Doors. In particular, many younger clients are disadvantaged and, therefore, vulnerable finding it difficult to control sexual activity to prevent a pregnancy from occurring. Numerous female clients, both adolescents and those older, have histories of loss, deprivation, poor self-esteem, a lack of confidence and the ability to be assertive in relationships.
The pregnancy prone woman is often prone to making abortion her immediate
response. An unplanned pregnancy for many can represent a very real
threat to a woman’s sense of self. She perceives the pregnancy as
a threat to her very existence - a “death of self”. Personal survival
will often propel her to choose abortion as a means of survival. It
is often considered the least of 3 evils – i.e. the choice between
continuing the pregnancy, relinquishing the baby for adoption or having
an abortion (Swope, 1998).
The presentation of a client with a suspected pregnancy certainly calls for action to help with the immediate dilemma. But, however, it can also be expected that the presenting problem is often not the only problem but just the tip of the iceberg and that there may be many issues lying beneath the surface. These, if not dealt with adequately, can continue to pose an unconscious influence on the woman’s reproductive role.
All too often the post abortion woman can then find herself in a repetitive cycle of loss and grief. This involves, in the first instance, unconsciously attempting to cater for unmet emotional and psychological needs and secondly having to deal with the “disaster” that an unplanned pregnancy can represent. If she terminates she then again confronts her vulnerability and the drive to replace the loss.
In the interests of better counselling we need to not only deal with the immediate problem of an unplanned pregnancy. We also need to be mindful of, and address, the unstated and often unconscious influences that may propel girls and women into a pattern of repetitive destructive behaviors.
As counsellors of these women we aim to assist the woman to become more self-aware and self-determining. By being helped to recognize her unmet needs and losses and by being supported to manage them appropriately she is more likely to come out her current crisis functioning at a higher level.
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INTERVIEW WITH THERESA BURKE IN HOBART by Penny Edman
The abortion issue needs to be redefined from a women's
issue to a relational issue according to the woman who developed the
Rachel's Vineyard retreat for healing after an abortion.