Published: Dec. 1, 2010 By

[1] When I first heard about the Post Abortion Syndrome (also known as Post Abortion Stress Syndrome) as a strategy used by American anti-choicers, I did not give it much thought. There were by far greater issues to worry about in my own backyard. Poland, the Central European state where I live and work, has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The law was introduced shortly after the democratic transformation in 1993 and remains in force to this day. Officially, there are only several hundred legal abortions performed yearly, although women’s NGOs estimate that the actual number of terminations performed in Poland could be much higher. Nonetheless, bearing in mind the legal situation and the official statistics, the last thing the pro-life movement should worry about in Poland is the mental health of women who have terminated their pregnancies. Yet, I was in for a surprise. The mid 2000s witnessed a true abortion syndrome boom, with both popular media and scientific authorities exhibiting intense and mysterious interest in the topic. On Polish turf, my first encounter with pro-life discourse on the post abortion syndrome took place rather unexpectedly during a conference which I hoped would try to provide a non-ideologized vocabulary for talking about abortion. I soon learned I was mistaken.

[2] “Abortion — causes, effects, therapy.” An international academic conference by this name took place in Warsaw on June 20, 2004. The goals as described by the conference committee in the information materials sent out to academic institutions sounded objective and reasonable: “The conference is organized by the Committee for Demographic Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, and the Institute for Psychiatry and Neurology. The goal of the conference is to present the medical and psycho-social causes of abortion.”

[3] Perhaps the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights seemed a little suspicious. What could he have to say about terminating pregnancies? Still, the other organizers boasted of scientific credentials; maybe the Ombudsman would speak about the ever increasing numbers of teenage pregnancies in Poland? After all, according to official statistics from 2001, almost 15,000 minor girls became mothers that year. Furthermore, there were 349 live births to girls under fifteen (Report of the Federation for Women and Family Planning 2001). So yes, indeed, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights should intervene. As should the Public Prosecutor. After all, each one of those pregnancies resulted from a crime. The age of consent for sexual activity in Poland is fifteen years. I was intrigued and signed up.

[4] The opening of the conference quickly shattered any illusions I may have had. Paweł Jaros, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, declared: “Human life is a constitutional value. The value of a legal entity protected by the constitution cannot be differentiated on the basis of stages of development.” I quickly checked the ombudsman’s bio in the conference materials — he had been a member of the Polish Parliament on behalf of the right-wing AWS Party, which had opposed the creation of the position of Ombudsman in the first place. Conference materials included leaflets published by the American National Right to Life Committee, the English version and a translated Polish version, as well as “abortion stories” by American women. These stories were clearly modeled after the religious conversion genre present in American literary tradition since the Puritans and secularized with success in the 20th century by various recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Interestingly, this genre relating sin (in this case, abortion) and redemption (contrition usually leading to membership in an anti-choice organization) in a highly stylized fashion is absent from Polish literary tradition. Not that Poles, as mostly Catholics, do not sin. They surely do, but usually they do not boast about it.

[5] The psychologist who inaugurated the conference welcomed the participants with the words: “We, the defenders of life, gathered here today” and concluded her speech with the conclusion that “our” main goal in life should be “serving life on the road to truth.” I wanted to cry out like a well-bred conservative: “Is this is what my taxes are spent on? I object!” Yet, I did not. I shrugged my shoulders and silently thought: “Failure, total failure.” Several years ago Agnieszka Graff wrote in her analysis of the language of the abortion debate in Poland: “We have lost the war on language” (Graff 2001 121). Indeed, we, and here I identify with Graff’s first person plural signifying the Polish women’s movement, have and we are now experiencing the consequences of this defeat. The presence of the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights at a scientific conference about abortion does not shock anyone. In fact, it increases the credibility of the organizers — the Polish Academy of Sciences. We have also lost a few more battles since that time, including the battle for science, and the conference I describe is clearly an example of this. Attitudes which in many other parts of the world are treated as radical fringes have entered the mainstream in Poland and are not attacked by the scientific establishment. The conservative daily Nasz Dziennik (in English: Our Journal) published a front-page piece on the conference with the title “Science Speaks on Behalf of Life.” The main purpose of this paper is not a rant about the state of academic research in Poland, but it is an important side note. Of course, bad research exists all over the world, but it is striking that the Polish Academy of Sciences cannot distinguish between research carried out by established academic centers and backed up by extensive peer-reviewed bibliographical data and pseudo-scientific sources. Of course, I am saying this with background knowledge of postmodern challenges to the concept of objectivity and feminist critiques of the gender bias of scienece.

[6] Yet, during the conference in Warsaw psychologist Andrzej Winkler presented a paper titled: “Addictions as Consequences of Abortion.” His thirty-minute presentation did not quote any bibliographical sources or results of comparative studies backing his thesis that “terminating a pregnancy leads to personal enslavement manifesting itself through substance abuse.” Assuming he is a clinical psychologist, one can excuse the lack of biliographical data, but Winkler failed to provide even one specific example from his clinical practice. With the support of medical authorities, scientific institutions, and the government, the promotion of unreliable science starts fueling itself. What is of particular interest to me as a Polish Americanist and a pro-choicer, is how anti-choice strategies invented in the United States are transferred via such events as the “scientific conference” I am referring to onto Polish turf, disguised as top-notch scientific theories. The specificity of the two cultures causes some imported strategies to fail and others to flourish. I would like to focus on a specific example of an anti-choice strategy, the results of which, when it was applied in the Polish context, significantly surpassed the strategy’s results in the original American context.

And the one anti-choice strategy that has caught on like wildfire in Poland is the Post Abortion Stress Syndrome.

The mythical syndrome

[7] Of course, the syndrome, as I will refer to it in shorthand, does not exist. Its existence has been disproved by the American Psychological Association (US) and the Royal Academy of Psychiatry (UK). True, anti-choicers promote the syndrome in the US and UK as one of the horrific consequences of abortion, but the scale of the phenomenon pales in comparison with the popularity of the syndrome in Poland. In Poland, the syndrome is often front-page news; it pops up each and every time the word abortion is uttered in mainstream media. And, well, if there are thousands of women who claim to be suffering from the syndrome, even if in reality it is, as Kinga Dunin calls it, the “post-anti-abortion-syndrome” (Dunin in Wysokie Obcasy, Feb. 21 2004), it is hard to slight it off, to ignore it. Even well meaning pro-woman media publish articles about the syndrome. In 2004, Lidia Ostałowska, known for her pro-feminist publications in the high-circulation weekly magazine Wysokie Obcasy (in English: High Heels), published an article about women whose decision to terminate a pregnancy indeed commenced a period of depression, stemming from feelings of overwhelming guilt. She had no problems with finding interlocutors and their pain was very real. They were suffering from nightmares, sleeplessness, low self-esteem — all the classic symptoms of the non-existent syndrome.

[8] Judging from the turnout at the conference I attended — several hundred participants–it would be valid to say that the post-abortion syndrome is one of the major social and medical issues in Poland and the meeting described is a mobilization of forces in light of a new epidemic. Conferences about AIDS, no matter how well advertised, struggle to gather several dozen participants. Only cancer, the second highest cause of deaths in the Polish population above age 50, gathers crowds of physicians and psychologists comparable to the post-abortion-syndrome conference. One should feel elated seeing how many physicians and psychologists want to focus on helping women. Yet, a crowd of that size in a country which reports only 150 abortions a year (on average, according to official government statistics from the period 2000-2004) is quite surprising. It means that there are at least four therapists waiting to counsel every woman who terminates her pregnancy. I am certain Poland does not have such a good physician/patient ratio in any other branch of medicine.

[9] The speakers at the conference explained the need for such a mobilization of forces. The syndrome, as Andrzej Winkler explained in his paper “Psychotherapy of Men with the Abortion Experience,” does not affect only women who have terminated pregnancies. Its scope is much wider. The women’s partners (“fathers of aborted children”) suffer from the syndrome as well, as do the women’s children (“child survivors of abortion trauma”), their more distant families, and the medical staff of the clinics, as claimed by Dr. Witold Simon in a paper titled “Psychotherapy of Medical Personnel Who Performed Abortions in the Past.” The syndrome, according to Simon, may turn up unexpectedly, any time after an abortion is performed, often, as he claims, on the anniversary of the procedure — the fifth, fifteenth or even fiftieth. You can never sleep safely; the syndrome can strike at any moment. According to this logic, we are a society profoundly altered by the “civilization of death” (as abortion was called by numerous speakers) and the syndrome is our guilty conscience speaking. Yet, if the syndrome has been so skillfully constructed, it can also be deconstructed. It is not difficult to trace where and why it first appeared. And it appeared, as so many neoconservative ideas do, in the USA.

[10] Interestingly, the anti-choice movement shapes abortion as a threat brought into Poland from the outside, via the western civilization of death, foreign to “our” women and threatening “our” way of life. Nothing is farther from the truth; abortions have been a fact of life for Polish women for centuries, as proved by Kazimiera Szczuka in her book Milczenie owieczek (in English: Silence of the Lambs), which analyzes the occurences of abortions in Polish 19th- and 20th-century literature. In fact, abortion was legalized in Poland long before it became legal in the US. Yet, abortion is described as part of the despised (by political conservatives) western lifestyle, which threatens the physical existence of the nation. Homosexuality, pedophilia, and euthanasia are always mentioned in one breath with abortion, to amplify the dreaded impact of “western values” on the Polish way of life. Meanwhile, the actual imported product is not abortion, but the post abortion syndrome.

History of the syndrome

[11] In the mid 1980s, the pro-life movement in the US found itself at a stall. The president was openly pro-life, as was the Republican majority in Congress. Mainstream media were favorably disposed towards the pro-lifers’ cause, and even the surgeon general, appointed by Reagan, was pro-life. In spite of that, the pro-life movement had still not managed to achieve its main goal — the delegalization of abortion. The root cause was not the lack of influence of the pro-life movement on public life in the mid 1980s, but the specificity of the American legal system. While in Poland each new parliamentary majority can, theoretically, meddle with the anti-abortion laws to their hearts’ content, a Supreme Court decision such as Roe v Wade can only be reversed by another decision which overturns it. Overturning Roe was a formidable challenge at the time when the original Roe crew were still members of the Supreme Court. The Human Life Amendment was another strategy for delegalizing abortion via changing the constitution. However, that also proved to be too difficult to achieve in the American context.

[12] The syndrome signalled a change of anti-choice strategy, moving the focus from the classic moral argument (abortion is the taking of human life, therefore it is immoral and should be banned) to the psycho-medical argument. According to this logic, abortion should be banned not because it is murder, but because it harms the psychological and physical well-being of the woman. “Abortion harms women” became a new slogan of the American anti-choicers at that time. Let me add that this argument is still going strong in the US and is often used by groups that claim to be “pro-woman” (as opposed to “pro-family” groups which do not bother with such details), for example, Feminists for Life of America, a group which has morphed this argument into the more modern slogan of “Women Deserve Better.” The argument comes in two versions: the scientific medical version (“abortion causes breast cancer,” “abortion causes infertility”) and the psychological version (of which the syndrome is a prime example). However, for added impact value, the medical and psychological strategies are often mixed.

[13] The term Post Abortion Stress Syndrome (acronym PASS) is not accidental. It sounds serious and official. It is also modelled after Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), popularized in the 1980s as a disorder many Vietnam veterans were said to be suffering. The PTSD connection was supposed to legitimize the presence of the syndrome in medical terminology. Additionally, the connection between abortion and war has always been a trump card used by the anti-choice movement to emphasize the gravity of the situation, often alongside Holocaust references. In the traditional version of this argument, abortion is referred to as war waged against the nation, as a Holocaust of the unborn. In the new “woman-friendly” argument, the situation of the women is analogous to that of soldiers who have been deeply traumatized by their wartime experiences.

[14] The eighties also marked the flourishing of the self-help movement, which began in the 1920s with Alcoholics Anonymous and sparked the formation of other twelve-step programs and talk-shows featuring abuse survivor narratives. Elayne Rapping, in her bookCulture of Recovery: Making Sense of the Self-Help Movement in Women’s Lives, locates the roots of the self-help explosion of the 1980s in women’s consciousness-raising groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Rapping claims that although the recovery movement borrowed feminism’s democratic procedures for conducting meetings, it shifted the paradigm of analysis from a social one (“the problems of women as a group result from life in a patriarchal society”) to a medical one (“your problems as an individual are the results of a disease over which you have no control). PASS discourse mixes these two paradigms, providing patients with a socio-medical diagnosis: “you suffer from a disease over which you have no control and the roots of the disease lie in the society.”

[15] Let us not get ahead of the story; we are still in the US in the 1980s. At this time, on the other side of the ocean and behind the iron curtain, abortion was legal and the anti-choice movement did not exist. The recovery movement was absolutely unheard of. Obviously, no one mentioned PASS. Abortion was a fact of life, a procedure performed very frequently, due to lack of access to reliable methods of birth control. Obstetricians routinely greeted pregnant women with the question: “Do we scrape this out or do you want to give birth?” It is close to impossible to obtain comparative data for the US and Poland from that period. However, Vincent Rue, founder of the Institute for Pregnancy Loss, and David Reardon recently (in 2004) co-authored an article in the peer reviewed Medical Science Monitor comparing American and Russian women using data collected in 1994, shortly after the iron curtain disappeared and before the anti-choice movement had enough time to influence public opinion in Eastern Europe. The results revealed that “while 65% of American women and 13.1% of Russian women experienced multiple symptoms of increased arousal, re-experiencing and avoidance associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 14.3% of American and 0.9% of Russian women met the full diagnostic criteria for PTSD” (Rue at al. 2004 SR5). Only0.9 percent in 1994. Yet, some 12 years later the syndrome is ubiquitous, at least in Poland. I do not have enough information to speak about Russia. What caused that change?

[16] The seeds of the syndrome must have fallen on very fertile ground — to use a well-known pro-life metaphor. Apparently, some features of Polish culture make it extremely receptive to the discourse of the syndrome. I have already hinted that the strategy of shifting emphasis from “abortion is murder” to “abortion hurts women” was a smart move, and one which worked especially well in a country like Poland, where the feeling of victimhood is an integral part of national identity. When the abortion debate is perceived as a confrontation of the rights of the fetus with the rights of the woman, the anti-choicers do not have much to offer to women with unwanted pregnancies, as, by definition, they represent the rights of the fetus. Changing the categories from “fetus vs woman” to “woman vs civilization of death” made it possible to actually connect with the group that had been alienated by the previous strategy. PASS turned women from murderers into victims of the system. PASS discourse also allows the possibility of repentence, which had not been an option in traditional anti-choice discourse.

[17] This element of PASS discourse caught on amazingly well in Poland, where, at this time, it is practically impossible to take the pro-choice side without emphasizing how terrible the consequences of abortion are. Public persons who actually support the relegalization of abortion, former gender equality plenipotentiary Izabella Jaruga-Nowacka, former minister of health Marek Balicki, even some outspoken feminist activists, often begin their pro-choice speeches with lines such as this one: “Being aware of the horrible consequences of abortion, we should not forget the dire situations of women who are forced to submit to them.” Presenting supporters of choice as trying to con women is a devious, yet highly effective strategy. In 2004, the conservative weekly Wprost published an article in which the author describes how “feminists from the Federation for Women and Family Planning force pregnant women who want to abort to go through a terrible ordeal” (Kasperkiewicz 30) by providing information about medical abortion on their website. The author of the article seems to take the side of the pregnant woman, who is conned into believing that medical abortion will solve her problems, while, in fact, the terrible pain of abortion will only be the first step on her road to self-destruction. The author is not overtly ideological; she seems to be giving sound advice and to be genuinely concerned.

[18] The actual effectiveness of the psycho-medical strategy is also based on arousing fear. Rhetorical devices like the title of the article I just quoted from–“Frankenstein’s Pill”–and distorted information about the procedure and its consequences are intended to scare women. This tactic, coupled with the lack of trust in the Polish medical system and the existence of the illegal underground network, has proved successful.

21st Century Hysteria

[19] The post-abortion syndrome, as I have already noted, appeared in the US at more or less the same time as the epidemic of supposed alien abductions and satanic ritual abuse. As Elaine Showalter writes inHystories, many psychological disturbances were born at the end of the 20th century in the US. She interprets these disturbances as new mutations of hysteria, fueled by millenial fear, the age of new technologies, and changes in social structure. For some reason, in its homeland the post-abortion sydrome never reached the proportions of other hysteric epidemics. It finally died down to be born again on the other side of the ocean. Why did this hysteric epidemic (and not that of alien abductions, for example) catch on in Poland?

[20] Showalter writes: “Contemporary hysterical patients blame external sources — a virus, sexual molestation, chemical warfare, satanic conspiracy, alien infiltration — for psychic problems” (Showalter 4). This is how the syndrome operates in Poland. It is a problem over which the patient has no influence. There is no escaping the syndrome. You either have it, or, according to the popular understanding of psychoanalysis, you are denying it. The mechanism of denial was the most discussed psychological mechanism at the anti-choice conference in Warsaw. No wonder: it is a perfect tool for popularizers of the syndrome. The Federation for Women and Family Planning, one of the few pro-choice organizations in Poland, operates a hotline number for women in need. The volunteer call-takers routinely rceive phone calls from women who have (illegally) terminated their pregnancies, have braced themselves for the negative psychological consequences to come, and… nothing happens. “I don’t have the syndrome. Is everything OK?” — they ask, genuinely surprised.

[21] Just like the other “hysterical epidemics” described by Showalter, the syndrome can be used to explain all life failures: depression, the breakup of a relationship, even criminal acts. During the conference in Warsaw, Dr. Vincent Rue from the US presented a sample of poetry composed by patients who were undergoing therapy in his center. “PASS discourse” is best illustrated with a poem in which a young girl blames abortion for the death of her boyfriend and even for her own homosexuality:

I was in love
Really in love
But my boyfriend
Was still into drugs
And I couldn’t handle it
So I aborted it
And he killed himself
And now I’m gay

I copied this poem by hand from the overhead projector. As far as I know, it has not been published.

[22] Even David C. Reardon, the godfather of PASS, used the syndrome as a mitigating factor, for example in the infamous Lorena Bobbit case. In 1993, Bobbit chopped off her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife. Leaving her husband behind to bleed out, she left the crime scene, taking the penis with her. She later dropped it into a roadside ditch from her car window. The police managed to recover the severed member, which was later stitched back onto Mr. Bobbit. The operation was so sucessful that the current full-time occupation of Mr. Bobbit, full name John Wayne Bobbit, is starring in porn movies (one of his best known features is Frankenpenis). What caused Mrs. Bobbit to take such drastics steps? Mrs. Bobbit claimed Mr. Bobbit used to beat her regularly and she could not stand it any longer. Reardon had a different answer. The syndrome was at fault. Why?

[23] In June 1990 Lorena Bobbit terminated a pregnancy. According to Reardon, she was pressured into doing this by her husband, who did not want to have children. The nighttime assault on Bobbit took place exactly three years after the abortion. According to Reardon, symptoms of PASS often appear on the anniversary of the abortion. He claims that his hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that, when running away from the crime scene, Lorena took with her the husband’s severed penis and an electronic Game Boy, which they had at home. Reardon writes in the Bobbit case report: “In her hands she clutched both a phallic symbol and a child’s toy, which even by its very name — Game Boy — symbolized the missing ‘Little Boy’ she so desperately wanted. When fleeing the house, then, she was, on some subconscious level, simply trying to take ‘her baby’ with her” (Reardon 1996 unpaginated).

[24] Although Reardon’s explanation sounds absurd to anyone who knows the details of the case (Mr. Bobbit used to rape and beat his wife, who, in turn was also well known for violent outbursts ), it emphasizes the factors which led to the popularity of the post-abortion syndrome in Poland. The key word is responsibility. PASS discourse convinces women that their decision to terminate a pregnancy was not an autonomous decision, which helped them take control over their life, but was forced upon them by specific individuals (an evil husband, overbearing parents) or broadly understood social pressure. The syndrome pushes the responsibility for the abortion onto exterior factors, at the same time blaming the abortion for all life failures that followed. Thus it “enables” decision-making without the need of being responsible for one’s decisions. And, as I’d like to argue, this is a catchy concept in post-communist Poland. In the Polish edition of Newsweek right-wing journalist and writer Rafał Ziemkiewicz compares a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy to actions undertaken by a person suffering from a mental disorder:

We do not consider the decision to take one’s life as an autonomous and free decision because a mentally sound person would never make such a decision. We think that the person who committed suicide took his own life as a result of depression, in a bout of madness. This is confirmed by medical practice — we can treat depression and many people whose suicide attempts failed later lived long and happy lives. The decision of a woman to kill her own child is a similar one. It is not she who is in reality making this decision. It’s environmental pressure, a moment of despair, a temporary psychological imbalance resulting from the hormonal changes of the first few weeks of pregnancy. Later there’s pain, sadness, and guilt. (Ziemkiewicz 112, translation JW)

[25] Such perception of the abortion decision is readily accepted by many women. After all, it is always better to be considered temporarily mad than a murderer. Of course, such an explanation is also readily accepted by conservative ideologues like Ziemkiewicz, though for completely different reasons. It suggests a return to the traditional division of male and female roles in life; a return to the scenario in which a woman should not be making any serious decisions due to her fragile psyche, while the man should protect her from her own hormonally-induced irresponsibility. In 2001 Agnieszka Graff read the revulsion to feminism in post-1989 Poland as a desire to return to a state of normalcy after five decades of life under communism; a return to a time when things are as they should be and as they were before communism — an idyllic time of manly men and truly feminine women. Although feminism has made huge strides in Poland since that time, being a fragile and feminine damsel is still a tempting alternative. I am not saying that Polish women are inherently and incorrigibly irresponsible, of course they are not, but this paradigm is more readily available (and often very appealing) to them than to women in countries where the mainstream of public discourse has been more permanently changed by feminist ideas and where individualism has been a much stronger factor in the development of the society.

[26] American suffragettes advocated individual moral responsibility since the 19th century. The Seneca Falls Declaration lists lack of responsibility as one of the reasons for the inferior position of women — “He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband, in the covenant of marriage” (Cady Stanton 71). The fight for equality was coupled with the fight for the right to claim responsibility for one’s actions. The existence of documents such as this one, together with a tradition of American individualism, have paved the way for a different understanding of the concept of responsibility than in Poland.

[27] Of all the fin de siècle hysterical epidemics, the post-abortion syndrome is the one which most resembles classic 19th-century hysteria. Hysterics were exclusively women. The two “syndromes” also share a wide range of symptoms and the supposedly sexual cause of the disease. The symptoms of hysteria are numerous and often contradictory — nervousness, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, loss of libido, excessive libido, heavy menstruation, light menstruation, masturbation, excessive energy, lack of energy, and so on. The symptoms of PASS are similarly vague. Yet, the greatest similarity of the post-abortion syndrome and “classic” 19th-century hysteria lies in the function that both these disturbances serve. The symptoms of hysteria are typical attributes of femininity — but they are exaggerated, excessive. The 19th-century middle class woman (interestingly both in the American and Polish traditions) was expected to be frail, but fainting several times a day was excessive. She was expected to experience mood swings, but not to erupt in violent rage. The scope of the syndrome is not as broad, referring mostly to the concept of motherly love, but this is a very important concept in Poland. Just as in classic hysteria all attributes of femininity are exaggerated, so in the post-abortion syndrome is motherhood. It stops pertaining just to actual children and is carried over onto aborted fetuses. What follows is that the syndrome, just like hysteria, is an expression of the anxiety about changing gender roles in post-communist Poland. At the same time the syndrome makes it possible not only to rehabilitate the woman who has terminated a pregnancy, but even allows her to take over the highly esteemed role of the Polish Mother (Matka Polka), mourning her lost sons.

[28] A lot has been written about the myth of the Polish Mother, or Matka Polka. Izabela Kowalczyk writes that “the roots [of the myth] can be located in the time when Poland lost its independence” (Kowalczyk 12, translation JW). When the men were imprisoned or in exile, as often happened in the unhappy history of Poland, the women had to run the house and the family business. The necessity of coping with these numerous tasks formed the idealized image of the heroic Polish Mother, capable of coping with any calamity. The icon of the Polish Mother became an important feature of national identity, retained over years of political dependence. Sławomira Walczewska notes that motherhood was, for a woman, the only way of joining the national community: “Motherhood is realized through giving birth to a son and raising him in the patriotic tradition” (Walczewska 53, translation JW). The ultimate fullfillment of the myth entails sacrifice. In fact, the ultimate sacrifice that the Polish Mother should be ready to undertake is the sacrifice of the life of her own sons for the greater good of the nation — the fight for independence. Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish romantic bard, emphasized this in his poem “To the Polish Mother.” He praises women who take on the challenge of raising sons to loyally serve their country and give their lives, should the need arise. Nineteenth-century visual representations of the Polish Mother emphasize the similarity to Mater Dolorosa, the suffering mother: Virgin Mary giving up her son to ensure salvation for all humankind. This is especially visible in the artwork of painter Artur Grottger. In his Polonia cycle the women are either saying their farewells to their husbands and sons setting off for the Uprising or grieving over their dead bodies.

[29] Though contemporary women artists have reworked the icon of the Polish Mother in various ways, emphasizing the contradictions inherent in this topos, and it is by no means every Polish girl’s dream to become a Matka Polka, the model still remains a significant influence on Polish ideas about womanhood and is continously invoked as a positive model by the majority of Parlamentarians taking part in political debates. Obviously, a woman who has rejected motherhood by terminating a pregnancy has buried her chances of achieving the iconic status of the Polish Mother, synonymous with being a “good woman.” A right-wing politican from the LPR party, Roman Giertych, argued during the 2006 debate concerning the introduction of further restrictions on abortion: “They [women who have terminated their pregnancies] have violated several elementary rules of gender identity. They have become strangers, whose presence here will no longer be tolerated. Those who openly defy the model of Matka Polka lose their rights to being treated as normal/good women, as good mothers” (Giertych unpaginated). Yet the very same people who utter opinions like this one present themselves as strong believers in PASS and in its medical treatment. Why and what exactly does the treatment entail?

[30] It is striking how the supposedly therapeutic process for dealing with PASS, first created in the early 1990s by Phillip Ney at the Institute for Pregnancy Loss Child Abuse Research and Recovery in Canada, replays the feelings of maternal sacrifice and grief about lost children present in the paradigm of the Polish Mother. The program, first commenced under the name Project Rachel, later Hope Alive and finally NEST (acronym for New Experience for Survivors of Trauma), is an eight-month-long program consisting of weekly group therapy sessions. As Witold Simon’s handbook Zespoły utraty ciąży (in English: Pregnancy Loss Syndromes) explains, the participants are women who have had abortions and who, supposedly, suffer from PASS. The aim is to cure the syndrome. During the program the women are encouraged to bond with their “unborn child,” name the baby, and involve him in the daily activities of the family. They are often encouraged to acquire a life-size doll, pretend that it is a baby, and take care of it, for example, by feeding and changing diapers. If actual dolls are not involved, the women are asked to pretend an additional child is a member of the family, to set aside an extra dish at the table during mealtimes, have a crib moved into their bedroom, and speak to the child. In the following stages of the process the baby dies and the woman is supposed to go through a period of mouring, wearing black, often abstaining from food, leading to the ultimate resolution — a funeral ceremony for the unborn baby, complete with a casket, in the presence of members of the family.

[31] During therapy, the women are encouraged to relive their abortion experience, speak to their children, even write poems addressed to them:

I want to say these words to you:
Patryk, I am sorry for losing you,
For the rejection and the pain.
For all the sickness this has caused,
For guilt and for shame.
I want to finally lay you to rest
Among angels high above,
I love you, Patryk, my dearest son,
Farewell until we meet again,
In love, Mom (anonymous poem in Simon, translation JW)

This poem was included in the handbook written by Witold Simon, which I used to summarize the process of therapy. The poem is presented as a typical example of artwork produced by women undergoing therapy. It was written by a 26-year-old woman who had become pregnant as a 13-year-old after being raped. She did not even have an abortion, but she did suffer a miscarriage. As Simon states, the therapy allowed her to deal with the guilt she had been suffering from through assuming the socially accepted role of the mother. Taking into account the circumstances surrounding the woman’s pregnancy, it is hard to believe that she could have been feeling any guilt in the first place. I would venture to say that the guilt was induced by the therapeutic process itself.

[32] Interestingly, the stages of mourning described by Simon do not include admission of guilt. Yet, the entire structure of the therapeutic process inevitably leads to the formation of guilt, even where there should be none, as in this case. Furthermore, the woman who was raped as a 13-year-old should be undergoing therapy for survivors of sexual abuse, not for women who have had abortions. Yet, as it seems from the numbers of therapists flocking to PASS conferences, it is a lot easier in Poland to find a therapist dealing with PASS than with domestic violence. To return to the issue of guilt, guilt is implied, inherent in the experience, and also necessary for redemption through contrition and the acceptance of the role that had been formerly rejected, that of the Polish Mother. The process, resembling a classic 12-step process used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help groups, operates through the creation of guilt, which in turn leads to contrition and a desire for making amends.

[33] This can suggest a possible explanation for the phenomenon of public funerals of aborted fetuses that have been recently in the news in Poland. The funerals were at first symbolic — the first one was organized by anti-choice protesters in 2003 in Władysławowo during the visit of the Women on Waves ship to Poland. In 2005, Father Józef Maj of St. Katarzyna’s Parish in the Służewiec district of Warsaw organized a real funeral of actual fetuses. On November 1, 2006, a monument dedicated to “Lost Children” was unveiled at a cemetery adjoining the parish church. The monument shows a figure of the Virgin Mary embracing a group of toddler-age, faceless children to her bosom. The monument was actually a gift of the Italian pro-life movement, impressed with the fetus funerals organized by Father Maj. It is a fascinating compilation of religious and nationalistic motifs — Mater Dolorosa, the suffering mother, in this case, is the onlooker, the spectator, assumedly the woman who has terminated her pregnancy, while the Virgin Mary is protector of the nation, which is embodied in the children she embraces.

[34] Hysteria, as analazyed by Showalter and various other feminist theorists, was a form of expression available to women who had been deprived of other forms of expression. These madwomen could speak, and even shout, precisely because they were mad. But at the same time, and because of that, no one took them seriously. According to Ziemkiewicz’s article quoted above, a woman who has terminated her pregnancy is a madwoman by definition. She is mad in a society which claims to value motherhood above everything else and which equates femininity with motherhood. It cannot be denied that Poland is such a society. If a woman willingly refuses motherhood and all the privileges that it brings about, madness is the only rational explanation. “We can still save her” — suggests Ziemkiewicz. We can cure her. Motherhood can cure the fallen woman, compensate for her suffering and humiliation, and, key for understanding the logic of the syndrome, cure the mentally disturbed woman.


[35] The discourse of PASS fits into Polish culture because it equates femininity with motherhood. When terminating a pregnancy, a woman loses her femininity by rejecting motherhood. However, through suffering from “the syndrome,” she compensates for her failure and regains her femininity. And even, in a perverse way, she becomes a superwoman, a “Matka Polka,” through the experience of child loss. The syndrome enables a “happy end” of the abortion story, without a revolution of cultural values. No other way of narrating abortion does this. Due to the cult of motherhood and the lack of possibility of working through the abortion experience, PASS discourse has become the only narrative available for speaking about abortion, like the discourse of hysteria was the only narrative available for questioning the role of middle class women in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the discourse of hysteria, although it gave voice to women, could not contribute to changes in the society. And for the very same reasons, neither will the discourse of PASS.

[36] This semi-redemptive quality of PASS discourse will only operate in Poland. In the US, motherhood does not have the magical transformative power and is not as entangled in national martyrdom as it is in Poland. Interestingly, in general the American self-help movement of the 1980s never became popular in Poland. Twelve-step groups such as Workaholics Anonymous or Codependents Anonymous do not have any chapters in Poland. Overeaters Anonymous has one. References to twelve-step recovery groups make for good dinner jokes about “those crazy Americans.” Currently, it is probably easier to locate a psychotherapist dealing with abortion trauma than to find one dealing with domestic abuse. The feature that makes PASS therapy unique among the other types of therapies using the addiction model is the indirect but significant implication of guilt, which operates especially well in the context of the women’s Catholic upbringing.

[37] The popularity of the syndrome helps explain the Polish pro-choice movement’s problems with changing the restrictive anti-abortion law, which seems such an oddity in contemporary Europe. Yet, as long as the only paradigm available for talking about abortion is the quasi-religious discourse of sin and redemption, gathering public opinion support and the support of politicians necessary for changing the law will prove impossible. The prevalence of the syndrome strengthens the image of pro-choicers as not only “murderers of unborn babies” but also fiends of women. It is hard to expect any politician who hopes for reelection to assume this risk. As has been said, the discourse of the syndrome strengthens the status quo in Poland. Therefore, neutralizing the power of the syndrome is one of the pieces that need to come together in order to complete the puzzle spelling out change. Deconstructing the syndrome is most definitely a starting point. At present, the syndrome is treated as a “natural” consequence of abortion, which, yet again, helps maintain and increase its power. Problematizing the causal relationship between abortion and mental health issues using independent media and art projects is a necessary step. However, a lot is at stake for the pro-life movement; a lot of time and, certainly, money, has been invested in securing the syndrome’s reign. In a context where the syndrome is considered “normal,” all representations of the abortion experience which do not conform to this paradigm are considered “ideological” and, as such, are rejected by mainstream media.

[38] Creating possibilities for the sharing of actual abortion experiences is also of key importance. Even though the prevalence of the syndrome may, and in many cases does, influence women’s experiences of abortion, the possibility of women voicing their own stories cannot be feared. The strength of personal experience and the liberating potential of stories that differ from the guilt-obsessed narrative of the syndrome cannot be overlooked. A major breakthrough took place in 2009 with the release of the independent movie Podziemne państwo kobiet (Women’s Underground State), directed by Anna Zawadzka and Claudia Snochowska-Gonzalez. In the movie, women recount their own experiences of illegal abortion and the language they use to talk about abortion is direct, honest, and surprisingly distant from the language promoted by the media and by politicians. The women in the movie describe their decisions to terminate pregnancies as difficult, often heartwrenching, but the real drama lies in the difficulty of accessing the illegal services and in the degrading and dehumanizing way they are treated by medical staff. There are stories that touch on the woman’s feelings of regret after the abortion, but they are never structured as reenactment of the classic PASS scenario. And it is clear that the most prevalent feeling is that of relief.

[39] While it may seem that in a society that has already been so profoundly altered by the discourse of the abortion syndrome, women’s experiences of abortion will necessarily be structured through this discourse and should therefore pose a threat for the pro-choice cause, this does not seem to be the case. After all, all those women who call the hotline of the Federation for Women and Family Planning and ask “I don’t have the syndrome. What’s wrong with me?” currently do not have any channels available for discussing their experiences. Once stories like theirs are out in the open, the definition of “normal” reactions to abortion will most certainly broaden. Of course, some stories reproducing the discourse of the syndrome will inevitably appear, but that cannot be feared. Honesty, openness, and respect for other women should serve as guidelines for the pro-choice movement.

[40] New electronic media are excellent platforms for articulating these silenced stories. Access to mainstream magazines and, especially, television stations in Poland is highly regulated, yet the ease of spreading information through the internet has decreased the constraints this situation imposes. It is promising for the pro-choice movement that popular news and lifestyle internet portals, such as, have begun publishing stories on abortion that are not structured through the discourse of the syndrome. An excellent example is the story “Aborcja nie jest dramatem” (in English: “Abortion is no Drama”), published in November 2009 on the internet news portal. The story presents a happy, successful, thirty-something mother of two named Karolina who recalls her three illegal abortions. In Karolina’s story her abortions are milestone events that allow her to make choices about her own life and reevaluate its direction. Of course, there is still a long way from publishing stories that challenge the discourse of the syndrome to changing the existing anti-abortion law. However, this would be a step in the right direction. It will not be possible to change the law before public perception of abortion and its consequences changes. And it will not be possible to achieve that without loosening the grasp of the abortion syndrome on the Polish society.

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