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‘A fight every day’: Roe v. Wade overturn a dire impact on mental health, experts say

  • July 04, 2022

overturn Roe v. Wade caused celebration as pro-life activists saw their battle won.

But mere hours after June 24 provided confirmation of the court’s previously leaked ruling that effectively makes abortion unavailable in half the U.S., pro-choice activists flooded New York’s Washington Square Park.

They were not in a good state of mind.

“I had a very hard time at work today,” said Jo Macellaro, 31. “Everybody there was really anxious and depressed and had trouble focusing.”

Nearby, Selu Sky Lark, 26, called the court’s ruling “an attack,” one that suddenly may put into question their own quest for a gender-affirming surgery.

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“It’s definitely stressing me out,” they said. “It’s going to be a really hard couple of years. It’s going to be a fight every day.”

The impact of the court’s decision will have far-reaching mental health challenges for a range of people, experts say.

There is foremost the newfound stress of worrying what to do about an unwanted pregnancy for those living in states that restrict abortion access, such as Oklahoma, South Dakota and Alabama.

And additional anxieties loom for pregnant people who feel compelled to bring pregnancies to term that might be the result of rape, incest or abusive relationships. See also a ripple effect of depression from parent to newborn child, both from a psychological and physiological standpoint.

And, experts say, there are deep concerns that those from the lower socioeconomic spectrum, namely people of color and from LGBTQ communities, may not be as able to simply buy a plane ticket to and pay for hotels in a state that offers abortion.

That group, they say, will face far greater hurdles than their white middle-class counterparts when abortion becomes not just illegal but seen as an immoral choice by the prevailing populace in some states.

Without Roe, what happens to IVF? People struggling to conceive worry embryos are at risk.

“If you think about carrying an unwanted pregnancy, we know that the consequences for mothers’ physical and mental health are largely increased, often causing depression, anxiety and even co-morbid mood disorders,” says Mary Mackrain, director of Maternal and Child Health at Education Development Center, a global non-profit research organization.

On a basic level, a depressed pregnant woman is less likely to get herself out of the house and to a check-up, Mackrain says.

Worse still, she says, “with maternal depression, it might be harder for mother and child to attach,” which in turn can cause emotional and learning difficulties for the child later in life.

That concerning prognosis is seconded by Juliet Williams, gender studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“We know this all is going to lead to an uptick in depression, shame, self-harm and anxiety, all of the predictable outcomes of not having bodily autonomy,” she says. “Forced pregnancy has terrible mental health outcomes, both for the parents and the child. It’s a mental health risk and stressor.”

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She notes that because pregnancy is a “very public condition” and cannot be concealed, pregnant women can easily become targets, adding to their stress.

Williams notes that women of color further carry the burden of already being more at-risk when pregnant than the rest of society. A 2021 University of Maryland report said Black women were more than three times more likely to die in pregnancy than white women.

Native American women also are likely to be severely impacted by the court’s ruling, considering many live in states likely to adopt it as de facto policy.

Crystal Echo Hawk, founder of IllumiNative, a social justice organization led largely by women, says research shows that Native women are nearly twice as likely to experience violence from a partner as their white counterparts. That risk is only going to increase without options for unwanted pregnancy. Native women also have a much higher likelihood of dying during pregnancy than whites.

The solution, Echo Hawk says, is action.

“This is galvanizing us to organize across not only Indian country, but with all women and Two-Spirit nonbinary transgender folks,” she says. “This is our time, we really need to step up.”

That is precisely what those who gathered in Washington Square Park last week plan to do. Fighting back against what they see as unjust government control of a woman’s body is a way of reclaiming power and keeping mental health issues at bay, they say.

“I was first completely enraged, and second, just devastated by the news,” said university professor Chandra Mohanty, 67. “But it made me absolutely want to fight and get all of my students out here to fight.”

Channa Siegel, 39, confessed to throwing up earlier in the day, so troubling was the news of the court’s decision. Siegel, who has four daughters, said she once had an abortion in order to save her life.

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“There are states now that would have let me die,” she says. Siegel’s emotions have at times overwhelmed her lately, which makes her concerned for her young daughters’ state of mind. Her own emotions are ranging from “pissed” to “appalled” to “mad.”

Seeing the passion and anger of the crowd buoyed Charlotte Wittmann, 26, who admitted her state of mind was rocked by the news. She said seeing women of all ages protesting “is such an encouraging thing.”

Piglet Evans, 58, realized that attending the rally sadly meant scrapping her old protest sign, “Keep Abortion Legal,” which was suddenly rendered useless since Roe v. Wade was struck down.  

She said she was furious that the nation suddenly seemed to be backpedaling on a number of rights many thought were inviolable.

But taking the fight back to the streets is a way of avoiding victimhood, she said.

“We thought in the ‘90s that we were done, we thought we’d won, and we kind of quit pushing so hard, and now we’re here,” she said. “Now, we’ve got to come back.”

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