Abortion Linked to Increase in Mental Health Disorders
Springfield, IL (December 11, 2008) — Abortion provides no mental health benefits to women and increases the odds that they will develop mental health disorders, according to a new study headed by a pro-choice researcher from New Zealand and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
The study, which found that women were 30 percent more likely to experience mental health disorders after abortion than they were for other pregnancy outcomes, could have serious implications for the legality of abortion in some countries.
The results came from an ongoing survey that tracked women in the Christchurch area of New Zealand from birth to age 30. A subsample of about 530 women were given questions about their pregnancy history and mental health outcomes, including being asked whether the pregnancy was wanted or unwanted, and their initial reaction to the pregnancy at the time.
The researchers compared women who had either given birth, had a miscarriage or had an abortion. They found that, after controlling for other variables that could influence the result, abortion was associated with a subsequent increase a variety of mental health disorders, including alcohol and drug addiction, suicidal thoughts, anxiety disorders and major depression. In contrast, giving birth or having a miscarriage were not “consistently related” to an increase in mental health problems.
Most notably, the study found that women who continued an unwanted or mistimed pregnancy did not experience a significant increase in mental health problems. This challenges pro-abortion arguments that abortion is better for women than carrying an “unwanted” pregnancy to term.
“In general, there is no evidence in the literature on abortion and mental health that suggests that abortion reduces the mental health risks of unwanted or mistimed pregnancy,” the authors wrote. “Although some studies have concluded that abortion has neutral effects on mental health, no study has reported that exposure to abortion reduces mental health risks.”
While the researchers pointed out that their findings were limited based on the small number of participants who gave birth following an “unwanted” pregnancy, they said their findings did not support the argument that abortion of an unwanted pregnancy benefits women.
“[T]here is nothing in this study that would suggest that termination of pregnancy was associated with lower risks of mental health problems than birth following an unwanted pregnancy,” they concluded.
Challenging the Status Quo
In a previous paper published in 2005, the authors were critical of the American Psychological Association’s claim that abortion does not pose mental health risks for women. In fact, the lead author, Prof. David Fergusson, who describes himself as pro-choice, has been an outspoken critic of the APA and has called for more research into the safety of abortion.
Earlier this year, Fergusson published an editorial supporting the position of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the U.K., which said that the evidence suggests that abortion can increase mental health problems for some women. He also criticized a report released in August by the APA that dismissed post-abortion research and claimed that abortion is generally safe for women.
The Legal Implications
The research team was cautious about their findings, saying that the results seem to lead to a “middle-of-the-road position that, for some women, abortion is likely to be a stressful and traumatic life event which places those exposed to it at modestly increased risk of a range of common mental health problems.
But they also pointed out that their findings could have an impact on the the legal status of abortion in some countries. For example, British law only allows abortion when the risks of physical and psychological injury from continuing a pregnancy are greater than if the pregnancy is aborted. And in New Zealand, more than 90 percent of abortions are done under a provision in the law that only allows abortion when “the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the woman or girl.”
As the researchers noted, “this evidence clearly poses a challenge to the use of psychiatric reason to justify abortion” in countries where abortion can only be performed when there is evidence that pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s mental health.
In addition, the evidence that even a small group of women might be at risk for mental health providers after abortion is leading some experts-both pro-life and pro-choice-to call for better training and awareness of post-abortion issues among mental health professionals who may be in a position to help those struggling after abortion. Dr. Patricia Casey of Ireland, writing in the pages of the British Medical Journal, noted:
The findings of this study will provoke controversy, but they should not be clouded by ideology. Rather, the focus should be on identifying vulnerable groups of women and providing optimum treatment for them …
Further, even a small increase in mental health problems among some women who have had abortions points to the need for health care providers and abortionists to screen women and girls for coercion and other known, statistically-validated factors that put them at risk for mental health problems after abortion. Such screening would help put an end to abortions that are unwanted, unsafe and unnecessary and would help protect the rights of both women and their unborn children.
To view the Elliot Institute’s model bill holding abortionists liable for failing to screen for coercion and psychological risk factors before abortion, visit www.stopforcedabortions.com.
1. Fergusson, DM et. al., “Abortion and mental health disorders: evidence from a 30-year-longitudinal study,” The British Journal of Psychiatry (2008), 193: 444-451.
2. Fergusson, DM et. al., “Abortion in young women and subsequent mental health,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2006) 47(1): 16-24.