Study Links Depression with Abortion

Study Links Depression with Abortion

Researchers Call for More Studies on Emotional Risks of Abortion

Springfield, Ill. (May 6, 2003)– Women with a history of abortion are at significantly higher risk of experiencing clinical depression compared to women who give birth, according to a nationally representative study of 1,884 women published in the latest issue of Medical Science Monitor.

Researchers compared data for women from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) who experienced their first pregnancy between 1980 and 1992. They found that, on an average of eight years later, women whose first pregnancies ended in abortion were 65 percent more likely to be at high risk of clinical depression after controlling for age, race, marital status, history of divorce, income, number of years of formal education, and a pre-pregnancy measure of psychological state.

“This finding contributes to the growing number of studies showing that abortion is linked to elevated rates of psychiatric illness, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior,” said Dr. David Reardon, head of the Elliot Institute in Springfield, Illinois, and one of the study’s authors.

Previous research on depression rates following abortion have been of limited value due to small sample sizes and lack of information gathered prior to their pregnancies on women’s emotional state, Reardon said. These problems were at least partially resolved by using the NLSY, an ongoing nationwide interview-based study conducted by the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. Participants in the study, who were between the ages of 14 and 21 at the time the study began in 1979, are surveyed annually about issues such as their employment, education, marital status, and reproductive history.

Reardon conceded, however, that the NLSY data is still inadequate to measure the true risk of clinical depression following abortion. “Only 40 percent of the abortions that we would expect to find among a sample this size are reported in the NLSY,” he said. “This means many women who actually had an abortion were misclassified as only having had births, which would tend to dilute the results.”

Another way concealment of past abortions would effect the findings, Reardon said, is that studies have shown that the women who are most likely to conceal their abortions or experience shame are also the ones most likely to have depression. “The women who conceal their abortions very probably have higher rates of depression than those who more readily reveal their abortion history,” he said. “Given the 60 percent concealment rate in this data set, the fact that we still found significantly higher depression scores among those admitting a history of abortion suggests that the effect must be quite strong.”

A major recommendation of the study’s authors is that more research needs to be done. They note that in 1988 Surgeon General C. Everett Koop recommended a major longitudinal study to thoroughly examine the issue of abortion complications, but the study was never been done.

“Women deserve better information,” Reardon said. “Dr. Koop properly identified the way in which data could be gathered to examine all interactions between women’s physical and mental health, including not only reactions to abortion, but also to study PMS, postpartum depression, menopause, and more. The only reason we don’t have better answers to all these issues today is because Koop’s recommendation was killed in Congress.”

Reardon believes the political battle over abortion has blocked good federally funded research in this area. “Unfortunately,” he says, “some people are more concerned about protecting the public image of abortion than they are about protecting women.”

Citation:Cougle JR, Reardon DC, Coleman PK. “Depression associated with abortion and childbirth: a long-term analysis of the NLSY cohort.” Med Sci Monit, 2003; 9(4): CR105-112

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