Risk of Psychiatric Hospitalization Rises After Abortion

Is abortion a benign experience for women? Or can it cause or contribute to emotional problems, even severe ones?

The American Psychological Association (APA), which has consistently lobbied in favor of abortion rights, has insisted that abortion is a generally benign experience that predominately brings relief to women.

Some APA members, such as researchers Nancy Adler and Brenda Major, who have both published studies on abortion’s effects on women, have charged that those who say abortion can cause emotional problems are guilty of misleading the public. Adler and others have insisted that abortion is so common that if it did cause emotional problems, the nation’s psychiatric wards would be filled with the evidence.

Now, a new Elliot Institute study published in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) shows that such evidence does exist. A review of the medical records of 56,741 California medicaid patients revealed that women who had abortions were 160 percent more likely than delivering women to be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment in the first 90 days following abortion or delivery. Rates of psychiatric treatment remained significantly higher for at least four years.

A previously published study by the same authors revealed that women who had abortions were also more likely to require subsequent outpatient mental health care. Depressive psychosis was the most common diagnosis.

Elliot Institute director David Reardon, Ph.D. said that a common complaint among participants in post-abortion recovery programs is that when they raised the issue of their past abortions while seeking mental health care, their therapists dismissed abortion as irrelevant.

“Therapists who fixate on the ‘abortion is benign’ theory, either out of ignorance or allegiance to defensive political views on abortion, are doing a great disservice to women who need understanding and support,” Reardon said. “This study, which uses objective medical evidence, validates the claims of tens of thousands of women in post-abortion recovery programs.”

Major, who was invited by CMAJ to submit a commentary on the depression study in the same issue of the journal, charged in her commentary that the implication that abortion can cause psychiatric problems is misleading.

Major argued that other factors, such as marital status or prior psychological problems, may offer better explanations for the fact that psychiatric problems are more common among aborting women. Reardon concedes that these other factors may also contribute to psychiatric illness but insists that abortion can both aggravate pre-existing problems and trigger new ones.

“Dr. Major’s commentary is a product of what I would call ‘the abortion distortion effect,” said Reardon, adding that he questioned why Major omitted any mention of her own study that was recently published in the “Archives of General Psychiatry.” The study revealed that 1.4 percent of the women interviewed two years after their abortions suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder solely attributable to their abortions.

“Even such a low percentage projected on the 1.3 million American women undergoing abortions each year would result in 18,200 cases of PTSD each year, or over a half million cases since 1973,” Reardon said. “Including other types of negative reactions would increase the overall complication rate by twenty times or more.”

In an interview with a Canadian reporter, Major called Reardon’s comparison “outrageous” and “muddy.” In response to these comments Reardon noted that the method used was exactly that previously employed by one of Major’s co-authors, Dr. Henry David, who did a similar analysis in 1981 of data from Denmark, only restricted to just 90 days. David found the same trend toward higher admission rates among women who had abortions.

“Major has never criticized David’s work.” Reardon said. “But perhaps this is because he is a vocal advocate for abortion and a colleague who has collaborated with her on dismissing the importance of his own findings. The simple fact is that David did not follow up on his own work. Now, Major and others are criticizing us for simply doing what they should have done when they first spotted evidence of elevated psychiatric admissions after an abortion over twenty years ago. Major’s outrage is a reflection of her politics. I don’t think she will ever acknowledge any research findings that run counter to her bias.”

The controversy generated by the study has helped garner coverage in the mainstraim media, which has ignored studies that highlight the negative impact of abortion. The Chicago Sun-Times and CanWest, a major Canadian syndicated news service, were among the media outlets that covered the story.

This is the seventh study Reardon and his colleagues have published on abortion complications in the last eighteen months.  Among the other studies, also published in major peer reviewed journals, one revealed that among women with an unintended first pregnancy, those who had abortions were at significantly higher risk of clinical depression an average of eight years later compared to similar women who carried their unintended first pregnancies to term. Higher rates of death and suicide and substance abuse among women who had abortions were also revealed in the other studies published by the research team

Study Citation

Reardon et. al., “Psychiatric admissions of low-income women following abortion and childbirth,” CMAJ 168(10): May 13, 2003 (read it free, online)

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