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More Evidence That Abortions Don’t Cause Depression

More Evidence That Abortions Don’t Cause Depression

A recent study of 85,000 Danish women showed no causal link between having a first-trimester abortion and increased likelihood of depression and other mental health problems. The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine, was a cohort study which examined the medical records of women who had abortions and of women who chose to carry their pregnancies to term between 1995 and 2007.

The full study can only be read by the Journal’s subscribers, but NPR reported that it found that women who chose abortion “were more likely to seek mental health treatment while they were pregnant, but didn’t need more help after having the abortion.”

In addition, the researchers saw a “sudden spike” in new mothers seeking help for psychological problems after they gave birth, suggesting that the mental health consequences of continuing a pregnancy can be as severe as ending one.

Old News

This is hardly the first study to find no causal relationship between abortion and mental health problems. Despite the claims of many anti-abortion advocates, for years there’s been a steady stream of evidence that abortion is not a sure path to depression and psychological damage.

In 2008, the American Psychological Association examined and assessed all the studies on the abortion-mental health connection that were published in English in peer-reviewed journals after 1989. They pointed out that these studies are inherently difficult because of the many different factors affecting pregnancy and decisions to terminate, and they acknowledged that because pregnancies are so varied, each woman’s experience is unique.

However, they found that “The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.” According to the best evidence, abortion was no more likely to trigger mental health problems than other stressful life events, including childbirth.

The Anti-Abortion Line: “Warping Mothers”

Even though reliable studies show no link between abortion and mental health problems in women, anti-abortion advocates regularly refer to this supposed link as if it were a well-established fact. When Representative Chris Smith introduced the “No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act” to Congress in January, he said that the bill would “ensure that the taxpayers…no longer are coerced into using taxpayer funding to subsidize the killing of an unborn child and the warping of his or her mother.”

Naturally, a mother’s mental health is not the first priority for most anti-abortion advocates, the fetus is (several anti-abortion articles I’ve read refer to the fetus as “abortion’s first victim” and the woman as “abortion’s second victim”). However, anti-abortion advocates frequently cite concern for women’s mental and emotional health to build their case for restricting access to abortions.

Ramah International, an anti-abortion Christian non-profit dedicated to “offering the hope of healing to abortion’s wounded,” lists a variety of dramatic symptoms of “post-abortion syndrome” including guilt, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide, flashbacks, disrupting the bonding process with present and future children, development of eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and “brief reactive psychosis.”

Despite the widespread insistence that abortion hurts women, even subjecting them to this frightening “post-abortion syndrome,” the theory is based on flimsy evidence. For instance, while the recent Danish study compared rates of mental health issues in thousands of women who had first-trimester abortions to thousands of those who had chosen to carry pregnancies to term, the dissertation in which Dr. Anne Speckhard elaborated on “post-abortion syndrome” was based on interviews with thirty women who were selected specifically because they had had abortions they described as “highly stressful.” While this kind of narrow, self-selecting investigation isn’t necessarily worthless — for instance, it would be useful to understand why these women had such painful abortion experiences — it doesn’t bolster a scientific argument that abortion causes depression and other mental health problems. (For more, see the APA’s report.)

Lowering Depression Risk Factors

That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t women who are depressed and distressed after their abortions. Women terminate pregnancies for many different reasons and under many different circumstances, and they have a wide variety of post-abortion experiences.

Based on their analysis of English-language studies done on the subject, the APA did identify four major risk factors that indicated a person might be more likely to suffer mental health problems after an abortion: 

  • if she felt stigmatized and believed she had little or no social support
  • if she had a history of mental health problems
  • if she had low self-esteem and insufficient coping mechanisms,
  • if her pregnancy was wanted and planned.  

So while anti-abortion activists insist that the way to protect women’s mental health is to do away with abortion altogether, or at least use mandatory ultrasounds, counseling, and waiting periods to convince women to carry their pregnancies to term, the evidence is quite different. It suggests that helping women means making quality mental health care available before, during and after pregnancy, providing social support for women whether they choose to continue or end a pregnancy, and fighting the stigmatization of abortion. 
It also means promoting family planning and contraception to limit the number of unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, anti-abortion advocates actively oppose most of these positions, seeking instead to defund organizations like Planned Parenthood and to make abortions more costly, difficult, and emotionally taxing to obtain.

Take Action

Arm yourself with knowledge: if you’re interested in learning more about this issue, I highly recommend the 2008 report of the APA’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion. It delves into the methodological problems of many studies, describes the difficulties inherent to studying abortion and mental health, explains their criteria for assessing a study, and takes the diversity of women’s personal experiences seriously.

You can also sign petitions supporting free birth control and opposing cuts in public and private abortion coverage.

If you have had an abortion and would like to talk to someone for any reason, Care2 partner Exhale runs a non-judgmental, non-ideological hotline where people who have had abortions and their loved ones can speak freely to counselors. Exhale seeks to “provide an alternative to politically motivated counseling agencies and create awareness that abortion, and having feelings afterward, is normal in the reproductive lives of women and girls.”

Related Posts

No Link Between Abortion And Depression In Teens
Republicans Introduce “No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act”
MTV’s 16 and Pregnant Takes On Abortion: One Reason Why

 

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This photo of a woman at a pro-choice rally was sourced from Dave Fayram's flickr, and is reused with thanks under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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277 comments

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2:00PM PDT on Mar 24, 2011

Everyone is different... what causes depression is different in everyone

4:26AM PDT on Mar 24, 2011

To have a child or to have an abortion the risk of depression is the same....
IF you are convince to have a child and you dont really want it....you will have more chance to have depression!
IF you are convince to have an abortion it will be the same!
People should do what they feel is correct for them and NOT to please family,friends OR neigbours....your life is yours and you have the right to decide what YOU WANT!

3:46AM PDT on Mar 18, 2011

i wish rigorous research could change bigotism, so i optimistically voted YES! however the pro-lifers are the same crowd as the creationists: they scream on about evolution and abortion in the same breath.

2:31PM PST on Mar 4, 2011

the abortion debate isn't about sanity or choice or personal freedoms or anything but rabid religiousness and power over someone else.

2:00PM PST on Mar 4, 2011

I don't think any study will sway the abortion debate. The ones who don't want to listen won't listen.

12:48PM PST on Mar 4, 2011

Madi,you felt for whatever reason that you wanted that child. You were lucky and were able to safely carry him to term and raise him. That is you not everyone can, will or should try this.
I believe that if you have made a *mistake* you do not compound it by making another. I'm glad having 4 kids worked out for you. It wasn't going to happen that way for me and I don't think I owe anyone certainly not a politician an excuse or an explanation for my decisions. I'm sorry about the depression some people get it some people don't it's just another medical problem. I'm sure you are a wonderful mother I know I am.

1:48AM PST on Mar 3, 2011

"BTW Mati Von, your post sounds like vindicated sour grapes."

Really? it wasn't meant to.

1:02AM PST on Mar 3, 2011

BTW Mati Von, your post sounds like vindicated sour grapes. I have heard so many views on abortion and what a woman should do. I've walked through picket lines while going in to get an abortion. The only strong feeling I've ever had is hate for the ignorant and wonder at the ability of people who rally to change something that is not their business. I find it ultimately passive aggressive to say that you support a woman's decision as well as say that it is on their conscience implying that it is a decision that is basically immoral. It's like saying I think rich people should make their own decisions about spending their money because the righteous wealthy will spend it decently. Anyone faced with a decision like abortion doesn't need to hear self righteous criticism like that. I am sorry you had a hard time with the pregnancies. I know this post sounds like a personal slam. It is not personal to you. It is personal to the many many people I had to hear similar stories from while I had to make an important and difficult decision. I know that when someone has a child there are no guarantees. I also know my own personal strengths and weaknesses and don't count taking care of 6 children as something I would want to do or would be able to pull off gracefully and with the same stress load as 2.

12:54AM PST on Mar 3, 2011

A 2 part response, part 2:
This article attacks a few issues. Mental Illness (a physical procedure does not a mental illness make,) Women's Rights (patronizing woman by telling them they are not strong enough to make their own decisions when pregnant,) Media Use (using the media to further an agenda by misinforming the public with repeated fiction,) and Stigma (using Mental Illness to link abortions to ages old fear of "craziness",) are a few that come to mind.
As for the poll, "Will this study change the abortion debate?" fanatics are rarely swayed by fact, common sense and rational. In fact many base their beliefs on personal convictions and misguided judgments rather than reality. So no, ignorance will not be silenced by any studies. It's like asking "Will life ever be lived without pain?"

12:53AM PST on Mar 3, 2011

A 2 part response, part 1:
One of the reasons I had abortions was because I couldn't afford a child. If it is difficult for me to support myself I am not going to bring a child into a stressed filled atmosphere. It seems that many religions foster unrealistic and thoughtless actions in their follower's faith pacts. Abortion is a physical procedure and for years I found it irresponsible that money was spent on trying to prove that it made women "crazy" or "unstable" or make "unwanted" decisions. I think that like adoptions, people who don't want to abort shouldn't and people who want an abortion should not be harassed by righteous and the religious right.
Patronizing ideas like protecting the Mother from herself and possible mental pain should only be done by the person making the decision and the person that will have to support the child. If the United States really felt that having children was that important there would be better support for the children once they were born. Instead money is spent on issues that do not promote our future, children's education, health and welfare. I would like to see anyone upset by some woman's choice to have an abortion put their money where their mouth is and help support the child they so desperately want to save. Usually it is the thoughtless idiots that want to make someone else's decision for them without having to be responsible for the decision being made.
To Be Continued...

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