Abortion or Birth of Unintended Pregnancy Affects Subsequent Substance Abuse: New Study

Springfield, IL (June 21, 2004) — A new study published in this month’s American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse strengthens the case for a causal connection between abortion and substance abuse. The study found that among women who had unintended first pregnancies, those who had abortions were more likely to report, an average of four years later, more frequent and recent use of alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.

Researchers from the Elliot Institute and Bowling Green State University examined a nationally representative sample of women, including 749 women with unintended first pregnancies and 1,144 women who had not yet been pregnant. The effects of age, race, marital status, income, education, and psychological state prior to the pregnancies were statistically removed. All the data was drawn from the widely respected National Longitudinal Study of Youth which is administered by the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University.

Women who had abortions had higher subsequent substance use rates than both women who had never been pregnant and women who carried their unintended pregnancies to term. Delivering women were not generally different from their never-pregnant peers, with the exception that they used alcohol less frequently. According to the study’s lead author, David Reardon, Ph.D., this latter finding suggests that giving birth, even to an unwanted child, may produce a protective effect arising from the mothers’ increased sense of responsibility to their babies.

The researchers report that the elevated rates of substance use among women who had abortions might be linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and unresolved grief which have been measured in other studies of women with a history of abortion. “It seems most likely that we are looking at a cluster of interrelated reactions, not a simplistic, isolated, cause and effect reaction,” Reardon said.

At least 21 previous medical studies had already shown that women with a history of abortion are more likely to subsequently use more drugs and alcohol than other women. But this is the first study to compare women who had abortions to women who carried unintended pregnancies to term.

Reardon says this comparison is important since some have theorized that the link between abortion and substance abuse may be incidental. “According to this theory, factors related to unintended pregnancies, not abortion, may explain the link to substance use,” he said. “These new findings however, show that a history of unintended pregnancy alone is not linked to higher rates of substance use. The link only appears when the unintended pregnancy is aborted.”

These conclusions are consistent, Reardon says, with the reports of women who attribute their substance use problems to emotional problems stemming from their abortions. “Not all women who have abortions face substance abuse problems,” said Reardon. “And abortion may be unrelated to the substance use patterns of some women. But this data support the views of women who report that their abortions caused or aggravated substance abuse or other psychological problems in their lives.”

Reference: Reardon DC, Coleman PK, Cougle JR. Substance use associated with unintended pregnancy outcomes in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2004; 26(1):369 – 383.

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