Abortions Don’t Harm Women, But Abortion Bans Do

The religious right often justifies pre-abortion counseling as a way to prevent women from developing poor mental health after an abortion. There’s just one problem: no large-scale research has ever corroborated a need for these sessions. Now a new study further illustrates that these kinds of abortion restrictions are unnecessary — and potentially harmful.

This month UC San Francisco researchers published the findings of their extensive five-year study. In total, they examined nearly 1,000 women from 21 states who sought abortions.

The women were then categorized to allow for better scrutiny of the data: women who received abortions and women who were denied abortions due to state restrictions. The latter group was divided into women who later went on to miscarry or accessed abortion through other avenues, and women who carried the pregnancy to term.

Researchers conducted interviews with the women every six month to assess their mental health using standard clinical measures for conditions like depression, anxiety and other risk factors.

This study used data from the groundbreaking Turnaway Study conducted by the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health:

Because of the ideological controversies over abortion, and the difficulties of study design, before the Turnaway Study, there was little quality research on the physical and social consequences of unintended pregnancy for women. Most of the research that did exist focused on whether abortion causes mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or alcohol and drug use.

That body of work often used inappropriate groups for comparison — for example, comparing women who obtain abortions with those who continue their pregnancies to term by choice — and retrospective designs that depended on women to report unintended pregnancies and abortions in hindsight.

Such comparisons are inherently biased and paint a distorted picture of life following an elective abortion or pregnancy continuation.

This latest longitudinal cohort analysis is important because it attempts to characterize — for the first time — how abortion access and denial impacts women’s health without introducing biasing factors like those mentioned above.

While the study is already being attacked for its supposedly small sample size, it is in fact among the largest data pools of its kind. At the very least, this research offers the chance for more accuracy than ever before.

Abortion access does not negatively impact women’s mental health.

There are many trends and figures to tease out from this study. For those interested in digging into the numbers, they are available here.

For our purposes, we will look at only the major questions the study sought to answer — namely: Does having an abortion harm women and make them regret their decision later?

Put simply, the study found no evidence to support this idea.

Abortion opponents often argue against later term abortions, claiming that these operations are the most dangerous for women and their mental health. Again, however, the researchers found this assertion is not supported by the evidence they have gathered:

Earlier studies have suggested that abortions occurring later in a pregnancy can result in more adverse mental health outcomes for women than first-trimester abortions — or that the evidence is too scarce to draw conclusions.

In this study — for all but one outcome — women in the near-limit and first-trimester groups exhibited similar levels and trajectories of mental health and well-being. Women who received first-trimester abortions initially had fewer depressive symptoms than those in the other groups, but levels among the groups converged by the six months.

However, one factor did appear to impact women’s mental health — and it may act as a damning indictment of abortion restrictions.

Abortion denial impacts mental mental health. 

This will sound obvious to many, but the mental health impact of being denied an abortion is something that anti-choice groups frequently gloss over. The reality, though, cannot be so easily dismissed.

The researchers note:

Women who were denied an abortion, in particular those who later miscarried or had an abortion elsewhere (turnaway no-birth group), had the most elevated levels of anxiety and lowest self-esteem and life satisfaction 1 week after being denied an abortion, which quickly improved and approached levels similar to those in the other groups by 6 to 12 months. These initial elevated levels of distress experienced by both turnaway groups may be a response to being denied an abortion, as well as other social and emotional challenges faced on discovery of unwanted pregnancy and abortion seeking.

Rather than suggesting that the women were not damaged by this denial of reproductive care, the researchers state that they believe the slow reduction in harm over six months and a return to good health is likely a testament to the resilience of women in the study. Regardless, it is a stress that leaves them particularly vulnerable.

The researchers note that their study had several major strengths, including the long-term overview it was able to provide. However, as with many studies detailing abortion access and care, there were weaknesses.

The rate of women dropping out of the study was quite high — a loss of 42 percent of the sample. People with worse mental health outcomes may have withdrawn and, therefore, biased the results.

While abortion opponents might say this is reason to disregard the study, there is no proof that a higher retention rate would have helped their cause. After all, it could have showed yet more evidence for the harms of abortion denial.

Nevertheless, abortion opponents contend that five years isn’t enough time to see the impact of abortion and offer that “many” women suffer psychological harm and suicidal ideation 10 years down the line. There is no independent large-scale evidence that supports this contention, however.

Regardless, this research — at the very least — throws into serious question the counseling mandates states like Kansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, use as a barrier to abortion access. Simply put, there is no research to show that those restrictions are necessary – and a significant body of work to show that they, in fact, harm the women they claim to be trying to protect.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

100 comments

Leong S
Leong S9 months ago

noted.thanks

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Marie W
Marie W9 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Nang Hai C
Nang Hai C9 months ago

tks

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Leong S
Leong S10 months ago

noted. thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim V10 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Tony Camilleri
Tony Camilleri10 months ago

Abortionists are MURDERERS.
Play safe and you won't get pregnant.

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Gina M. H
Gina H10 months ago

When rape is no longer rampant and those men responsible for those acts of violence, the need for abortions will reduce greatly. This includes men taking advantage of underage girls. I have to wonder just how many of those religious right hypocrites are rapists/sexual abusers. Birth control is a two-way street and for those guys that want to have their fun without losing out on "the natural feeling" by refusing to use condoms, perhaps they should at least get a vasectomy if they don't want to support the children they help create. Not that it would help prevent STDs. Serial rapists and pedophiles should be either kept behind bars permanently or euthanized. The latter being the most cost effective solution both financially and socially. I have seen far too many repeat offenders get out and continue their assault on society. Not to mention the fact that rape culture is alive and well in our government. I have to agree with Darlene B. that social justice and education would go a long way to reducing the need for abortions.

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Darlene B
Darlene B10 months ago

By advocating for more abortions as population control you might as well be advocating for sterilization. Advocating for conscious birthing and birth control would be a better way to balance out the population. Education and social justice will always result in better solutions. Unfortunately, abortion is a necessary choice in today's world but creating a better world will result in fewer abortions, not more.

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Marija K
Marija K11 months ago

JT Smith: ''This will undoubtedly sound cruel...but there needs to be more abortions rather than less.''

--Or to be more safe, there need to be less pregnancies - because for example, the number of abortions would increase with the number of unwanted pregnancies. People generally need to reexamine and abandon the idea of bringing new life into existence.
Guess what's more cruel than this proposal? Imposing life upon someone that will inevitably suffer and cause suffering until they die for the sake of adding to the gene pool.

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JT Smith
JT S11 months ago

This will undoubtedly sound cruel and hypocritical coming from an ordained minister who values life such as myself, but there needs to be more abortions rather than less. Even ignoring the fact that most people who claim to be pro-life are really pro-birth, this planet is desperately overpopulated NOW and is becoming more so by the minute. It's that overpopulation that's the primary driver behind climate change, food waste, negative environmental impacts, and wars for resources. God will solve these problems, but not in any ways that you're likely to enjoy.

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