How Overturning Roe vs. Wade Threatens Trauma Survivors
Restricting agency causes harm to those who have undergone trauma.
Posted June 24, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Trauma survivors need to experience both bodily and relational agency in order to support their recovery.
- Overturning Roe vs. Wade severely restricts agency and thus sabotages survivors' chances of recovering from trauma.
Survivors of sexual violence aren’t the only ones who will be negatively impacted by Roe vs. Wade being overturned. Yet many trauma survivors will be triggered, frightened, and even re-traumatized by being deprived of agency over integral aspects of their lives and wellbeing.
Traumatic responses often occur when a person is denied agency over an impactful event, life situation, or component of their identity and flourishing. Agency is essential to recovering from trauma because trauma largely involves a profound loss, destabilization, or suppression of agency. Curtailing a trauma survivor’s agency after the traumatic experience can have harmful effects on their recovery.
Overturning Roe sharply limits the agency of those who are able to get pregnant. As a trauma therapist, I’m terrified that trauma survivors will be forced to live and recover in a world where their agency is gravely and cruelly limited.
1. Lack of bodily agency threatens children.
Children are often taught, usually implicitly, that they do not have agency over their bodies. We typically encourage children to hug and kiss their relatives on command, for example, thus teaching them that adults get to decide what happens to their bodies.
Unfortunately, not all adults are safe. Due to a greater awareness of child sexual abuse and the importance of bodily autonomy, there is a movement in the psychology community that urges adults to ask children for their consent to acts of physical intimacy (e.g., hugs, kisses, snuggles, etc.) rather than command or coerce them to engage in such acts. This change allows children to embrace age-appropriate agency over their bodies so that they are better able to keep themselves safe and to inform adults when their agency is threatened, and it helps instill in them the value of consent.
With the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, what are we communicating to children? I argue that we're communicating that, as adults, they will have agency over their bodies—but with significant, and often severely dangerous, exceptions: exceptions concerning their health, sexual wellbeing, and reproductive freedom. If such restrictions on their bodily autonomy are imposed, how can they maintain an adequate sense of security in the world, let alone an appropriate sense of their own dignity? How will they be able to keep themselves safe and understand their self-worth, if they are deprived of the ability to make choices that affect basic aspects of their health and happiness, or if they are told that even their bodies are not fully theirs? Adults and children who are trauma survivors need to experience bodily agency which will support their recovery.
2. Forced birth perpetuates pervasive trauma.
Amnesty International (2020) reported that forced pregnancy is “a serious violation of sexual and reproductive rights and autonomy which can cause severe physical and psychological harms and often has lasting personal, social and economic consequences.” Forced pregnancy is also defined as a crime against humanity by the United Nations, and there is no doubt it can be traumatic. As Roxane Gay (2022) writes, “we should not live in a world where someone who is raped is forced to carry a pregnancy to term because a minority of Americans believe the unborn are more important than the people who give birth to them.”
There are currently some U.S. states that allow abortions in cases of rape and incest. Yet this is arguably no guarantee that survivors of rape and incest will not be forced to give birth. In order to be exempt, what is required? Does a survivor need to somehow prove that the rape or incest occurred? Do they need to file a police report or even win a conviction?
There are many survivors who do not and/or cannot make an official report. Those rapes that are reported are rarely tired in court. Will these survivors be forced to give birth? And cases of rape and incest are not the only reasons why someone would need an abortion in order to support their physical and/or mental health. Overturning Roe vs. Wade tells birth-capable people that they do not have agency over their bodies and that others have the authority to make bodily choices for them—which is fuel that both ignites and perpetuates pervasive trauma.
Trauma survivors need to assert agency in their relationships in order to promote their safety and recovery. Some survivors have ceased contact with family members in order to heal. Others work to establish firm boundaries in order to foster safety in their relationships.
Being forced to give birth will strip survivors of relational agency and could place them in unsafe situations. It's likely that many pregnant people will stay with abusive partners because they are forced to carry a pregnancy to term; and even if pregnant people leave their abusive relationships, giving birth to a child could nevertheless conscript many of them to frequent contact with their abusers for many years to come. Even if they are able to assert some agency by leaving the relationship, it's very possible that they will be forced to have some type of relationship with their ex-partner in order to meet the child’s needs and/or abide by legal requirements. How can they heal from the trauma of their abuse when they are forced to continue to engage with their abuser?
Imagine being forced to have a relationship with your rapist due to the fact that they have paternal rights to your child. This is a reality for many pregnant people who give birth in a state that requires a criminal conviction in order for the rapist’s parental rights to be severed. And these convictions are difficult to get. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators are not convicted and are able to sue their victims for child custody (Guha, 2021). If they win, they are able to have a continued relationship with their victim.
It’s extremely difficult for trauma survivors to recover while they participate in unsafe relationships. Some survivors do not recover at all while they are involved in such unsafe relationships. Others pass on the cycle of abuse and trauma to their children.
Agency is required for trauma survivors to recover and feel safe. I argue that overturning Roe vs. Wade has severely curtailed the agency of trauma survivors and thus sabotaged their chances of recovering from trauma.
Amnesty International. Forced pregnancy: A commentary on the crime in international criminal law. (2020, June 30). Amnesty International. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/ior53/2711/2020/en
Gay, R. (2022, May 3). It’s Time to Rage. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/03/opinion/roxane-gay-roe-v-wade.html
Guha, N. (2022, March 22). In multiple states, rapists can sue their victims for parental custody. Prism. https://prismreports.org/2022/03/22/in-multiple-states-rapists-can-sue-…