After abortion, lingering guilt

PHOTO: After abortion, lingering guilt

SINGAPORE - Mrs Jennifer Heng had her first abortion at 17 and her second at 19. She was a student and just not prepared to be a mother.

Neither was she prepared for the guilt that would follow her for years after.

News reports on abandoned babies would trigger remorse. Even colleagues joking about labour pain brought back memories. No one knew about the abortions except for her boyfriends.

Then in 2001, she chanced upon a book by Rachel's Vineyard, a non-profit organisation based in the United States which helps people suffering the emotional trauma of abortion.

"It taught me how to move on," said Mrs Heng, now 37, and a mother of one as well as a pastor at Good Gifts City Church.

She has also written a book, Walking Out Of Secret Shame, about her past to help others.

It was in 2011, when she was writing the book, that she met Mrs Rose Boon, a pregnancy crisis counsellor of 20 years.

Mrs Boon had started a local version of Rachel's Vineyard in 2010 after realising there was no similar support group in Singapore.

Together, the two women are working to expand the reach of Rachel's Vineyard Singapore, the only known group here which helps both women and men come to terms with going through abortions.

"If you don't get healing, you can spiral to low self-esteem, hatred, guilt and shame," said Mrs Heng.

Around 40 people have attended the nine retreats held so far.

Mr David Ong, an MP for Jurong GRC, last month proposed in Parliament that a way to boost the birth rate would be to reduce the number of abortions.

But he also told The Straits Times over the phone that post-abortion care is an area worth exploring.

"We should make sure that they (people who have been through abortions) are supported emotionally and mentally," he said. "The challenge is, how do we get people to come forward?"

Pre-abortion counselling is compulsory for Singaporeans and permanent residents with at least secondary school education and fewer than three children. The termination can be carried out only 48 hours afterwards.

Patients also undergo post-abortion counselling on the day of the procedure.

But the impact of pre-abortion counselling on a patient's decision is "minor at best", said Dr Kenneth Wong of the private Obgyn Centre.

In a Straits Times report last year, doctors said that only between 5 and 20 per cent of patients change their minds about an abortion after counselling.

Dr Wong said most patients have made up their minds before going for counselling.

One in three abortions carried out in 2011 was also by women who have had previous terminations.

"Once you do the first one, the second one feels simpler," said Mrs Heng, adding that she knew of women who had been through six or eight abortions.

"Abortion becomes a form of contraception."

Abortions have been legal here since 1970, and can be performed on pregnancies of under 24 weeks.

Though the number has held steady at about 12,000 per year for the last decade, it has fallen by about a quarter among Singaporeans but increased among permanent residents and foreigners.

Experts attribute the drop among Singaporeans to better awareness and the use of contraception.

But for those who go through abortions, some hold on to their guilt for years, Mrs Boon said.

She gave the example of a woman in her 60s who had undergone two abortions more than 40 years ago, but still approached the group for help.

"It is not uncommon for one to experience feelings of guilt and remorse, and to wonder 'what if'. This can take years," said Dr Helen Chen, head of the psychological medicine department at KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

Mrs Boon observed that men too suffered from the emotional fallout, but had no platform to voice their feelings.

She and Mrs Heng hope for more discussion in the media about abortion and its effects.

"In Singapore, it's not something anyone talks about," said Mrs Heng, whose book was published last year and is available for $12.

"On the other hand, if you Google 'abortion in Singapore', a whole list of abortion clinics shows up. A whole list of ways, but not help."

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