The end of federally protected abortion rights in the U.S. has many people reeling with grief. Here’s how to move through this collective trauma and turn it into a powerful agent for change.
On June 24, the Supreme Court handed down one of the biggest reversals in its history when they overturned federal abortion rights and upended the 50-year precedent set by the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade.
While the nation knew this decision was coming and unlikely to change after a leaked version of the majority opinion written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito hit the front pages in May, it has deeply rocked the population and further divided an already deeply fragmented country.
Most Americans support abortion rights. In fact, a June 26 CBS News poll conducted immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision reported that 59 percent of Americans disapprove of the overturning of Roe, and 52 percent believe it was a step backward for the country. And even after the ruling, a late May 2022 Gallup Poll showed that 85 percent of Americans support abortion in some or most cases. Removing abortion protections was a traumatic even for many people not just because of the rights that were rolled back for more than half the nation’s population, but also because we are seeing once again how our government and judicial systems are no longer doing the will of most people. As such, many are feeling a compounding damage of helplessness or lack of control that has collectively left us trying to find a path forward.
The implications of the final June 24 ruling are far-reaching, and experts agree that the decision could have an impact on everything from contraception to LGBTQ+ rights and civil liberties. As a result, people all over the nation have taken to social media and the streets to protest and express their grief, rage, uncertainty, and fear as a direct result of the court’s reversal of more than five decades of legal protection for abortion. This is trauma on a mass scale, and it has real consequences for both individuals and the collective. Here’s what you need to know about how to metabolize your feelings and move into a place where we can all begin to work together to effect change.
Trauma for the masses
When the Supreme Court upended the rights to bodily autonomy, privacy, and abortion, all of which were previously protected by Roe v. Wade, it caused what most experts refer to as mass trauma or collective trauma.
According to a paper published in 2018 at the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, collective trauma is “a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society.” According to Psychology Today, “collective trauma can impact relationships, alter policies and governmental processes, alter the way the society functions, and even change its social norms.” While the term is often applied to mass events of violence like mass shootings, the Holocaust, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it also applies to the repeal of civil rights, systemic and historical oppression, and racism.
Understanding what collective trauma does to us as individuals
The American Psychological Association noted that the Supreme Court ruling on abortion will likely have damaging effects on collective mental health, releasing a statement that said, “Adding barriers to accessing abortion services may increase symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.” The APA also said, “This ruling ignores not only precedent but science and will exacerbate the mental health crisis America is already experiencing.” One need only to look at our own body’s response to stress to understand the APA’s concern.
When we experience trauma, whether physical, mental, or emotional (and whether real or perceived), our nervous system moves into one of three modes: fight, flight, or freeze. Deb Dana, LCSW, is a clinical psychologist who has written a number of books about complex trauma and the real-world application of how we understand these modes and their triggers for therapists and students. In her book Anchored, she notes that in order to feel safe, we need three core components: context, connection, and choice. Dana says that lack of choice is a predictable cue for danger to our nervous system, and thus it’s no surprise that many of us are feeling hopeless given a strict removal of choice by the Supreme Court.
“Lack of choice is a cue of danger to us as humans,” Dana says. “We feel trapped, and when we feel trapped, we move into one of the survival responses: the fight and flight or the collapse and shutdown. As we think about how we got to this moment in time, there’s been a lot of fight and flight. There’s been a lot of active protest of trying to shape the system in a way that feels fair, feels like there is choice. And then came this decision, where I think many of the people that I’ve been talking to have now moved into more of that dorsal hopelessness, which is the nervous system’s rescue from overwhelming mobilization that doesn’t get us anywhere. It is often again where we go when we do feel trapped as if there is no way out.”
Dana continues, “It’s a dangerous place for big parts of the population to be because then we’ve lost any ability to impact change. And yet biologically, it’s the place our nervous system takes us in order to survive so that we might live to fight another day.”
How to move through your emotions around the loss of rights
While everyone may be responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in a wide variety of ways, acknowledging that we are in an extended period of fight or flight is an important first step to take in order to begin to metabolize this collective trauma. It’s also important to recognize that this is new territory for us to process as a collective.
Sarah Greenberg, M.Ed, MA, MFT, BCC, is the director of Clinical Design & Partnerships at BetterUp, a virtual coaching and mental health startup. Before joining BetterUp, Greenberg spent years working in the rape crisis and trauma healing space, and based on her experience, she suggests relying on some tried-and-true tenets to process what you may be feeling.
Greenberg suggests that you avoid “shoulding” yourself. “There is no single right way to feel, and no single right path to process these feelings,” she says. “Often, the first step to moving through is acknowledging what’s true for you, without judgment. How we feel, the intensity of what we feel, and how we choose to process is influenced by so many factors, including the intersection of personal experiences, identity, and current environment.”
She also says that the repeated exposure to tragic national events — like the Uvalde school shooting and the Highland Park parade shooting, police brutality, and even systemic racism — can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. But she notes that there are a few small things you can do to care for yourself and process what you’re feeling.
First, Greenberg says, take time to unplug. It’s important to understand the importance of setting boundaries, whether that means taking a day away from the news and social media or taking some time to get out in nature and reconnect with yourself. If you’re feeling particularly upset, try turning to art, writing, exercising, or creating to channel some of that energy outward.
Dana suggests that another vital step to take is to connect with those you care about — even if it’s just for a moment via text message to check in and see how friends and family are faring in these strange times. “It will help if we connect first with people who we feel share our experience,” Dana says. “That would be a place that I would begin because I need to gather nourishment from that before I can then step into the arena of having these courageous conversations, these difficult, often-dangerous conversations with others.” Greenberg echoes this sentiment, saying, “Human connection doesn’t eliminate stress, but it does act as a salve against that stress being toxic. Now more than ever, community matters.”
Both Dana and Greenberg also suggest that setting small, easily achievable goals can be helpful to move through this period of grief. You could aim to find the right abortion rights organization to donate to, or call your government official. Both these actions can help you feel like you have more agency in this moment of turmoil.
Dr. Margaret Mary Downey is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Tulane University and is a practicing Catholic who is pro abortion and is a birth and abortion doula. She trained as a medical social worker in California, and her work at the university is focused on social and structural health inequities, particularly those in reproductive and maternal health. She says that it’s vital to support organizations that support reproductive rights and health rights for all people. “You can be critical about where you put the volunteer time and donations because I think it’s really appropriate at this time to say you support abortion access, but support for trans people can’t be excluded,” Downey says. “I think another thing people can do is advocate for abortion access in their own health insurance plans. Advocate for maternity leave, paternity leave, and childcare.”
Finally, it’s also really important to give yourself space to process what’s happened and recognize that grief isn’t linear. It will wax and wane as the nation comes to terms with how reproductive care for women will change and how other civil and bodily autonomy rights will be impacted. As Dana says, we have to move with this grief. “The question is, how do we come to be with this in a way that helps us feel it, and then move along?” Dana says.
Find a glimmer of hope, and activate for change
Dr. Downey says that in spite of the damning decision by the Supreme Court, she remains largely hopeful for the future of women’s rights and abortion access. She’s been studying the reproductive justice movement for many years and says that it holds a source of hope for the future, even in dark days such as these.
“The reproductive justice movement and framework was started by Black feminists in the ’90s who were drawing on generations of organizing and resistance to the control of their lives,” Downey says. “Reproductive justice is about having all of the love, sex, family, and community that we desire and deserve. And it’s a human-rights framework,” she continues. “I think holding out the vision that reproductive freedom is about more than what the law says is important right now. We can know for one another that we have freedom, bodily autonomy, and have a liberatory vision around abortion, which is to say bodily autonomy. And I think that can be a counterweight to grief or apathy because if we only think of our freedom in terms of court cases, then we will lose our sense of our own freedom.”
If we only think of our freedom in terms of court cases, then we will lose our sense of our own freedom.
Dr. Downey also notes that with the demise of the federal protections of Roe, there’s an opportunity to reshape and reframe many of the policies surrounding pregnancy, family life, and even abortion.
“I don’t think that there’s enough visioning in public health research about abortion,” she says. “I think that we’re constrained as researchers often by thinking of abortion as an adverse health outcome and treating pregnancy like a disease. And I’m excited at the possibility that we have a chance to shape a new reality together. I think there’s a chance for us to see abortion as a liberatory thing, and to see pregnancy as something that is not an affliction.”
Finally, Dr. Downey also notes that it’s important to realize that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to protect people who can get pregnant and need abortion care. “There are people who have been anticipating Roe’s overturn for decades, who are doing the work, and who know how to provide access to abortion in ways that are consistent and safe,” she says. “I have been amazed at the capacity of the front-line workforce to navigate around policies that are constraining reproductive freedom, prenatal care, and childcare. There’s a tenacity in the front-line workforce that I think we can take a lot of faith in. I think supporting those organizations in their communities is really important.”
Downey continues, “Abortion is health care. Reclaim whatever your cultural tradition, or your spiritual tradition, is. I guarantee there are pro-abortion people in that lineage and tradition, and it’s time to start reclaiming morality and spirituality from the right, from the forces who want control over reproductive freedom.”