Abortion and Mental Health 


A New Zealand researcher has found significant ties between having abortions and experiencing mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse (Hat Tip to BreakPoint). The study (pdf) was well formulated and the effects, in some dimensions, rather large. This in spite of the fact that in New Zealand, every abortion is preceded by discussions with counselors, and most are performed for the purpose of protecting the woman's mental health.

The researcher, whose personal "pro-choice" bias was shaken by the study, went to four journals before he could find one who would publish it; he suspects it was because of the "controversial" nature of the topic. In New Zealand it could undermine the legal basis for abortions.

A spokesperson for the American Psychological Association has responded that they nevertheless support abortion as a civil rights matter. 

Previous studies of this nature have had mixed results (see the literature in the linked study). The methodology in this one is improved over previous studies in that the research sample were part of a large longitudinal study group with pre-pregnancy mental health data on hand, other covariant factors were well accounted for, and women who had not been pregnant were included in the sample.

The study concludes with this remarkable criticism:

These findings are inconsistent with the current consensus on the psychological effects of abortion. In particular, in its 2005 statement on abortion, the American Psychological Association concluded that “well-designed studies of psychological responses following abortion have consistently shown that risk of psychological harm is low...the percentage of women who experience clinically relevant distress is small and appears to be no greater than in general samples of women of reproductive age” (American Psychological Association, 2005). This relatively strong conclusion about the absence of harm from abortion was based on a relatively small number of studies which had one or more of the following limitations: a) absence of comprehensive assessment of mental disorders; b) lack of comparison groups; and c) limited statistical controls. Furthermore, the statement appears to disregard the findings of a number of studies that had claimed to show negative effects for abortion (Cougle et al., 2003; Gissler et al., 1996; Reardon & Cougle, 2002).

On the basis of the current study, it is our view that the issue of whether or not abortion has harmful effects on mental health remains to be fully resolved. Certainly in this study, those young women who had abortions appeared to be at moderately increased risk of both concurrent and subsequent mental health problems when compared with equivalent groups of pregnant or non-pregnant peers. While it is possible to dismiss these findings as reflecting shortcomings in the assessment of exposure to abortion or control of confounders (see above) it is difficult to disregard the real possibility that abortion amongst young women is associated with increased risks of mental health problems. There is a clear need for further well controlled studies to examine this issue before strong conclusions can be drawn about the extent to which exposure to abortion has harmful effects on the mental health of young women.

You have to be familiar with the restrained caution of psychological research writing to feel the full effect of this. Criticism in such language is very unusual. Coming as it does on such a controversial topic, and actually contradicting the lead researcher's prior biases, it is especially significant.

Thus the discussion with the APA referenced above: why have they so consistently reported that abortion can be so good for women? Warren Throckmorton asked APA spokesperson Nancy Felipe Russo, and received this answer:

Dr. Russo pointed out that in 1969 the APA adopted the position that abortion should be a civil right. She added, "To pro-choice advocates, mental health effects are not relevant to the legal context of arguments to restrict access to abortion."

 According to Dr. Russo, pro-choice researchers have a different agenda. "To someone who believes that the decision to have a child is a personal decision, protected by a right of privacy, evidence about negative effects of abortion is important, but for a different policy goal -- to provide women accurate information so they can make informed choices in their pregnancy decisionmaking process."

We could interpret this (the first paragraph in particular) as simply saying the evidence doesn't matter (Russo reportedly even said that!), mental health is secondary to free choice, and we'll support what we please.

Is abortion a civil rights matter? Certainly. Whose rights? Pro-life advocates like myself recall there are two people involved in every abortion, and one of them dies.

Next question: is the APA a civil rights organization? Should civil rights trump their advocacy for mental health? What's really going on here politically, anyway? 

Posted: Fri - February 24, 2006 at 08:23 AM           |


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