War Causes Abortion

Posted on July 18, 2017 By

by Rachel MacNair and Catherine Coyle

This is a condensed version of Chapter 4 in Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion. References are in APA style – authors in parentheses, full citation at the bottom.

Left: Rachel MacNair. Right: Catherine Coyle

War as an Instrument of Unchosen Abortion 

In an article entitled “Abortion and War,” Emanuel Charles McCarthy (2011) points out what is obvious upon paying attention to the point:

Emanuel Charles McCarthy

 As I read the triumphant headlines in the newspapers day after day—“U.S. Pounds Iraq from Air”—and saw the pictures of missiles streaking into Iraq, I could not help but hear the silent screams of all the little Iraqi children in utero who were having their lives ripped from them. The lucky ones were the ones who took a direct hit. The ones, who were aborted because of percussion, vibration or because of the terror, trauma, malnourishment and/or exhaustion visited upon their mothers by war, would probably have suffered less agonizing deaths at the wrong end of a suction machine in an abortion clinic. . . . Modern industrial war, once unleashed, produces an instant Auschwitz for the unborn—that’s fact, not conjecture. Mass abortions are the necessary and one hundred per cent inevitable consequence of modern war. (McCarthy, 2011, p. 1- 2)

To cite a specific case to show how this works within the dynamics of war, Jon Lee Anderson, a writer for The New Yorker, said in a March 24, 2003 interview with Charlie Rose on Rose’s PBS show: “My driver, a sweet Iraqi man, was bitter today because one of his daughters suffered what he called an involuntary abortion during last night’s bombing due to fright. She was 3 to 4 months pregnant.” This was by way of illustrating how Iraqis who opposed Saddam Hussein might nevertheless turn against the United States if the destruction became too great.


War as a Pressure for Abortion

There is very little empirical study of war as a pressure for women to abort pregnancies that would have been desired in the absence of war. There has been some documentation in news reports that indicate this has occurred; for example, The Washington Post (Pomfret, 1993) reported that Srecko Simic, chief of obstetrics at Kosevo hospital, did a study there and found that during the siege of Sarajevo there were three abortions for every pregnancy carried to term, with rates of prematurity, stillbirth, and death within seven days of birth also skyrocketing.

Mary Meehan

Mary Meehan (2012) wrote a magazine article with cases indicating how this dynamic works:

In 2007, Iraq’s Red Crescent Society reported that over one million Iraqis had been displaced by violence or the threat of it. ABC News, covering the Red Crescent report, said many pregnant women in that situation were having abortions “because they are unable to get medical care for themselves and their unborn.” (Meehan, 2012)

She also points to a case reported in The Washington Post:

[A] 33-year-old woman . . . said she struggled for weeks, trying to decide between her religion and her love for children on the one hand and her inability to support a newborn baby on the other. Finally she went ahead with the abortion.

The Catholic mother of two said she spent the night crying and praying . . . “I would never do this in peacetime and God knows I wanted that child, but there is no food for him in my house,” she said. “There is nothing. What could I do?” (Pomfret, 1993).


Rape as a Weapon of War

Rape of thousands of women has been used as a weapon of war throughout history – a strategic decision to spread terror and humiliation (Moore, 2010).   As Jina Moore summarizes:

Rape has been a consequence of military defeat for millennia. But in the last 20 years — from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Colombia to the Democratic Republic of Congo — sexual violence against women, and sometimes even against men, has become a strategic military tactic designed to humiliate victims and shatter enemy societies. And increasingly, governments presiding over peaceful countries are using mass rape in deliberate and targeted campaigns to spread terror and humiliation among political dissenters, often during election seasons. The strategic use of rape has been recognized by international courts as an act of genocide and ethnic cleansing. (Moore, 2010)

Massive rapes will likely lead to feticides and infanticides, both voluntary and pressured, among those impregnated. There will also be numerous suicides among such women. The whirlwind of war harms many people who are never counted in the battle casualties.

One study investigating the psychological consequences of rape in the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s contained quite a bit of information about women who were impregnated by the rapes (Loncar, Medved, Jovanovic, & Hotujac, 2006). Out of a very large population of refugees (1,926), they focused on the 55 women who confirmed having been raped.

Unsurprisingly, they did find that there were many negative and intense aftereffects. Rape normally has such an impact. Additionally, in the case of rapes within war, the normal kinds of post-rape therapeutic interventions were rendered unavailable by the war itself.

Of the 55 women, 29 got pregnant; this rate of over half is well out of bounds of the portion of women who get pregnant by rape outside of war circumstances. The authors have no explanation for this, but one possibility is that those rape victims who get pregnant may be much more likely to admit to being raped. The pregnancy makes the rape harder to deny and makes the event much more firmly established as a completed trauma.

Of the 29 impregnated, 17 had an induced abortion, which means that 12 did not . . . authors found that the strongest predictor of the outcome of deciding on an abortion was suicidal thoughts and impulses.


Implications for Meeting Women’s Needs and Rights

The most obvious implication for anyone in the field of peace psychology is that we should prevent all wars. Falling short of that, however, there are still things that can be done.

UN Resolution 1820 does give governments, legal counsel, and grassroots activists a basis upon which to act. As with all high-sounding rhetoric, it does require much work on the ground to make it happen.

United Nations peacekeepers in theory help prevent wars, or prevent further outbreaks after wars have mainly wound down. Accordingly, they get immunity from prosecution, to keep local governments from interfering with their work by bringing unfair charges. However, women and girls in war-torn areas are vulnerable. Sometimes, because of extreme poverty, they sell sexual favors. There is also outright rape. As a result, a campaign has been launched with the specific goal of removing legal immunity for sexual exploitation and assaults committed by U.N. Peacekeepers, called Code Blue.

All women who have been sexually exploited are traumatized and need psychological support ranging from tender loving care to professional counseling. Some of the women will have had abortions or go to the extreme of infanticide, and their reactions to this will vary according to cultural beliefs and individual predilections. Some of the women will give birth to the children and place them for adoption, and their psychological aftermath can vary depending on whether this was a well-facilitated international adoption (there are an ample supply of eager adoptive parents) or whether government blocking of adoption is part of the war situation.  Yet others will choose to give birth to and raise their own children. However, the background of hatred in which the child was conceived may require special attention for compassionate care of both mother and child.

Post-war reconciliation: The need to ease tensions after a war, both for the people involved and to prevent another round of war, is always especially difficult.  It is even more complicated if rape was used by one ethnic group against another.  When people regard “rape-babies” or “scum-babies” as worthy targets of their prejudice, it adds fuel to the ethnic tensions commonly causing the problem in the first place. Emotions will be raw on this point, whatever options the women and their families choose. They will need to be taken into account in the post-war reconciliation efforts in which peace psychology excels.


Loncar, M., Medved, V., Jovanovic, N. & Hotujac, L. (2006). Psychological consequences of rape on women in 1991-1995 war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatian Medical Journal, 47(1), 67-75.

McCarthy, E. C. (2011). Abortion and war. Retrieved from http://www.centerforchristiannonviolence.org/data/Media/Abortion_and_War.pdf

Meehan, M. (2012, January 16). In harm’s way: Children, born and unborn, trapped in wartime. America: The National Catholic Review. Retrieved from http://americamagazine.org/issue/5126/article/harms-way

Moore, J. (2010). Confronting rape as a war crime: Will a new U.N. campaign have any impact? CQ Researcher, 4(5). Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqrglobal2010050000

Pomfet, J. (1993, August 12). Besieged Sarajevo, no place for a baby. The Washington Post, A-18.

United Nations (2008). Resolution 1820. Retrieved from http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/CAC%20S%20RES%201820.pdf


For more of our blog posts dealing with psychology, see:

Violence Bolstered by Professional Contradictions

The Creativity of the Fore-closed Option

Where Violence Begins

Excerpt – Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion, Introduction

Our next post, Abortion and War are the Karma for Killing Animals, was originally written as a comment to this post, but was lengthy enough to make its own post.



abortionconnecting issuesconsistent life ethicrapewar and peacewar policywomen's rights

  1. Sharon Beth Long says:

    A friend tells me that his mother had a miscarriage during the Nazi bombings of London during WWII

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *