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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.