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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 06:46 GMT 07:46 UK
Woman sues over abortion distress
Abortion literature
Abortion remains highly contentious

A woman from the north of England is suing the NHS for not warning her of the distress she would suffer after having an abortion.

The woman, who wants to remain anonymous, suffered a serious breakdown after having an abortion four years ago.

In what is the first case of its kind in Britain, she says that she was not told about the serious physical and mental damage the termination would cause.

Life, the pro-life charity, said the decision to sue was "courageous".

I realised what I'd lost... I just felt near a nervous breakdown then, so I had to go to my GP to ask for help

The woman says that at the time of the abortion she thought she was doing something wrong, but afterwards managed to put the experience behind her and got on with her life.

Three years later she gave birth to a baby boy and it was after that she experienced intense feelings of guilt and self-hatred

She said: "I realised what I'd lost... I just felt near a nervous breakdown then, so I had to go to my GP to ask for help."


The GP told her the feelings she had were not uncommon among women who have had terminations and directed her to a counselling group.

"Probably the first six sessions I spent in tears while she listened and since then we've been working through things like guilt and forgiveness," she said.

"It helps a bit but I won't ever be the same."

The woman, who worked in the NHS herself, was struck by the fact that before she had the abortion, no mention was made of any possibility of an adverse psychological reaction.

She knew from her own experience that before any surgical procedure, patients have to be warned of side-effects so that they can give "informed consent".

She decided to try to mount a legal challenge, which will say the NHS was negligent in not warning her of the possible consequences.

She said: "I just want to make the NHS aware of the approach they have on the wards, just to let them know what women are going through, how serious it is and I think they need to do something about it."

Mental health 'benefits'

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) published national guidelines in 2000 on what women who are to have an abortion should be told.

These include a list of possible complications like haemorrhage, uterine perforation, cervical trauma, and post-abortion infection.

However, the College says it does not advise clinicians to raise the possibility of psychological problems.

Dr Gillian Penney, the chair of the RCOG's Guideline Development Group, told the BBC the College takes the view that psychological problems following abortion are rare and that in fact abortion is good for women's mental health.

She said that far more problems follow unwanted pregnancies than abortions.

She also said that in most cases where women do experience adverse reactions they are found to have had psychological problems that pre-date the termination.

The RCOG's own website mentions "psychological sequelae" which it says only a minority of women experience.

It continues "early distress, although common, is usually a continuation of symptoms present before the abortion".

Legal position

If the woman's case comes to court it will be the first of its kind in Britain, but not the world.

In 1998 in Australia, a woman sued a clinic which she said had not warned her of the possible psychological consequences of an abortion.

It became known as "Ellen's case" and in the end was settled, through mediation, before it reached court.

Ellen received a sum of money, but was bound by a gagging order forbidding publication of the details.

Women are deliberately not being told the whole truth

Nuala Scarisbrick, Life
Her lawyer, Melbourne QC Charles Francis, told the BBC that there are other similar cases now in the pipeline, but so far none has come to open court.

The question of psychological fall-out from abortion is very controversial.

Pro-abortion groups deny it is a problem at all while pro-life groups claims that it is widespread but under-reported.

The British case is still at a very early stage of development.

The woman has engaged a lawyer and will now undertake to get medical testimony to back her assertion that it was the abortion which caused her psychological problems.

Breast cancer risk

However, any court hearing is still many months away.

Nuala Scarisbrick, a Life trustee, said not only was the woman not told about the risk to her mental health, she was also not told that induced abortion could increase her risk of developing breast cancer.

Had the woman known about the risks, said Ms Scarisbrick, she would not have gone ahead with the operation.

She said: "Women are deliberately not being told the whole truth.

"They are not given the chance to make informed decisions. They have a right to know."

She added: "This woman's bravery may encourage other women to speak out and take action."

Ian Jones, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said there evidence to suggest that only a very small number of women suffered from psychological distress following an abortion.

The BBC's Robin Aitken
"The woman's legal action would be the first of its kind in Britain"
Ian Jones British pregnancy advisory service
"This is a personal issue and should be regarded as that"
See also:

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