Study Connecting Abortion to Mental Health Disorders Debunked


Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and from the Guttmacher Institute have “decisively debunked” a 2009 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that claimed to show a link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems. UCSF’s Julia Steinberg and Guttmacher’s Lawrence Finer have shown that the 2009 study by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues did not distinguish between mental health diagnoses that women received prior to having an abortion — that, indeed, some women had had for some time — and mental health diagnoses occurring after having an abortion.

Indeed, the editor of the journal that published the 2009 study, the Journal of Psychiatric Research (JPR), has confirmed that Coleman et al.’s  findings are invalid.

Study Linking Abortion to Subsequent Mental Health Disorders Flawed From the Start

Steinberg and Finer first described the “serious methodological errors” in Coleman et al.’s 2009 study in a 2010 analysis in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science and Medicine. The results of Coleman et al.’s study were determined to be “non-replicable”; Steinberg and Finer noted that “Coleman et al.’s percentages of women with mental disorders are much too high for events occurring in the past 30 days.”

Coleman responded to Steinberg’s and Finer’s analysis on a Washington Post health blog, saying that her study’s analysis actually included “mental disorders that occurred in the past 12 months, not 30 days.” She subsequently defended her study in a March 2011 presentation to the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists; a July 2011 corrigendum in the JPR in which she said that she and her colleagues had used “incorrect weights” in their analysis but that still did not clarify exactly when mental health disorders had been diagnosed in women in the study; and a September 2011 a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP). Coleman’s BJP meta-analysis was strongly criticized in that journal “for violating several established guidelines” for conducting such meta-analyses.

No Study Has Found a Link Between Abortion and Subsequent Mental Health Disorders

Steinberg and Finer’s letter about the flawed methodology of Coleman et al.’s 2009 study appeared in the February 2012 JPR. A response from Coleman was also included in which she at last clarified that “she and her colleagues” had “used lifetime mental health diagnoses (rather than 12-month or 30-day diagnoses, as she previously stated or implied).” The reason given was that she and her colleagues had “wanted to ‘capture as many cases of mental health problems as possible.’” An accompanying critique by Ronald Kessler, principal investigator of the National Comorbidity Survey, and Alan Schatzberg, editor-in-chief of JPR, said that Coleman et al.’s use of lifetime diagnoses to study a purported link between abortions and subsequent mental health issues was a “flawed method” and concludes that their analysis should have considered

“only mental disorders subsequent to the pregnancy, again arguing for the greater relevance of the Steinberg-Finer results (which focused on recent mental disorders) than the Coleman et al. (2009) results (which considered lifetime disorders whether they occurred before or after the abortion).”

Put simply, the study by Coleman and her colleagues was flawed from the start. Coleman et al.’s efforts to buttress their “findings” after the publication of the study (should it have been published at all?) only further highlight the methodological problems of the study. As Steinberg, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF, says in a press release,

“This is not a scholarly difference of opinion; their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data. The shifting explanations and misleading statements that they offered over the past two years served to mask their serious methodological errors.”

Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, also stated that “the highest-quality studies have found no causal link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems.”

Coleman et al.’s 2009 study has been used by anti-abortion activists as well as by “federally and state-funded crisis pregnancy centers.” We can thank Steinberg and Finer for their careful work and rigorous adherence to the scientific method to refute a study whose claims are not only invalid and not at all scientific, but potentially based in ideology.

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Ms. JL M.3 years ago

I have to wonder how people who try to manipulate science in this way ever managed to get their degrees. Though results can vary from experiment to experiment/study to study, the scientific method is pretty clear and pretty fixed.

How did they NOT think this would come out and bite them in the butt?

If these people (the "flawed study people") are the future of science in America, I weep for us all!

Paul F.
Paul F.3 years ago

Many existing laws and regulations apply specifically to pregnant women. Several provisions of the Affordable Care Act offer new benefits for expecting mothers. Search online for "Penny Health" if you need affordable insurance for yourself or your wife.

Sue H.
Sue H.3 years ago

Very uncool of Ms. Coleman to skew a study just to get her article published.

Kathryn E.
Kathryn E.3 years ago

Well I think they forgot about the hormones that are rushing through the body when pg and after. Did she forget about those?

The other thing is that anti-depressants are being pushed more and more on the public. Yes people do it depressed but as much money that is involved here it seems to me if you go in feeling depressed for whatever reason your going to come out with a prescription these days.

Chad A.
Chad Anderson3 years ago

Call me cynical, but I doubt this will get the same treatment that the UK climate change emails got...

David Connally
David Connally3 years ago

@Leah H

The study you sought, mental illness after birth of an unwanted child may well exist. It is well established that unwanted children are usually failures in life. They tend to have a history of failed relationships, poor academic achievement, drug use, have children at an early age, more likely to be on welfare. Intuitively, it seems that an unwanted child could destroy two lives, the mother and the child.

It is both ironic and illustrative that right wing R's are opposed to sex education and to birth control. I say illustrative because R's seem incapable of forseeing the consequences of their policies. Cut income (=taxes) and deficit increases - who would have thunk it - restrict birth control and abortion and there will be more unwanted children and non-productive citizens who are a drain on the system..

Lydia Price

Many women suffer from grief and regret over their decision to destroy their child. Yes, Heather, I agree with you that even that many (50) years later the pain is still there. A conscious decision to end anyone's life weighs upon one's soul. So many women regret abortions. Serious depression and sense of loss follows for many years if not lifelong. The women who do suffer regret often feel that they have no one to talk to. They feel ashamed to speak to pro-lifers and are not comfortable speaking with those who are pro-choice. They carry their burden alone and in silence. Many feel abandoned by God and that they have committed an unpardonable sin. I believe that God sees one's heart and is gracious enough to forgive our weaknesses and errors. I've known women for years who kept this to themselves and then suddenly revealed how it has tormented them for twenty years. Jane B., I think you have much to learn about women and their capacity for love and ability to bear anguish in silence.

Mark S.
Mark S.3 years ago

Anything can make a person go bananas. Don't blame abortion.

Hello G.
Hello G.3 years ago

It's true me too witnessed a woman did abortion suffers and have nightmares :(

Lynne B.
Lynne Buckley3 years ago

It always was a load of drivel to link the two together. The only pity is how long it has taken this illusion to be classified as such.