The Debate Over Access: Studies Suggest Abortion Has Minimal Effects on Mental Health of Mothers
In recent years, the discussion surrounding abortion access has inevitably brought up the topic of mental health. Lawmakers who propose limiting abortion access do so in part due to the belief that abortion negatively affects mental health. As a result, research has been done to examine a possible link between the two. Over time, studies have compared women who had abortions to those who chose to give birth. However, some experts believed the two groups were so different that little could be learned from comparing them. Additional studies failed to account for whether or not women had prior psychological issues.
The recent Turnaway Study, published in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry, found that women who had abortions are not worse off psychologically than those who initially were looking to abort but gave birth at the end. Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco followed nearly 1,000 abortion-seeking women from clinics across 21 states for five years, starting in 2010 and publishing findings in December 2016.² Participants were interviewed twice a year by phone about their mental and physical health, social support, and family relationships among other categories. Measurements such as life satisfaction and self-esteem were based on a self-reported scale from one to five, with five representing “extremely high.”² To measure anxiety and depression, researchers asked subjects about the number of symptoms they exhibited in the previous week. The study participants fell into three research groups. The first group, the “turnaways”, were women who sought abortions but had passed the gestational limit of the clinic and thus turned away. Of the turnaway group, some sought out abortions elsewhere and some ended up giving birth. The second group, the “abortion comparison group”, were women who sought abortions within two weeks of the clinic’s limit and thus received an abortion. The third group, the “first trimester abortion group”, was comprised of women who received abortions in their first trimester. The third group enabled researchers to highlight possible differences between women who received earlier rather than later abortions.³
The researchers found that at the beginning of the study as well as up to five years later, those who received an abortion did not experience increased low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression compared with those who were not able to obtain the procedure.² However, being denied an abortion correlated with worsened mental-health for up to a year after attempting to get the procedure.¹ Women who were turned away reported lower self-esteem, anxiety, and lower life-satisfaction than those who were able to get abortions. Additionally, the findings showed that women receiving third-trimester abortions were not affected more than those receiving abortions earlier. The researchers concluded “the effects of being denied an abortion may be more detrimental to women’s psychological well-being than allowing women to obtain their wanted procedures.”²
This study has important implications. 22 states in the US require women to participate in counseling sessions that explain the possible psychological effects of abortion.¹ A sizable component of the argument to restrict abortion access relies on the possibility that abortion causes adverse mental health effects. Studies like the Turnaway Study contradict this notion in that the data show that denial of the procedure is correlated with negative psychological effects. This study and others serve the essential role of delineating a politically and religiously charged issue.
Belluck Pam, “Abortion is Found to Have Little Effect on Women’s Mental Health,” The New York Times, Dec 14 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/health/abortion-mental-health.html?smid=pl-share&_r=1
Khazan Olga, “A New Study Says Abortion Doesn't Harm Mental Health,” The Atlantic, Dec 14 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/12/abortion-doesnt-cause-anxiety-or-depression/510575/
“Turnaway Study,” UCSF Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, http://www.ansirh.org/research/turnaway-study