Claims that women who choose to have an abortion experience subsequent mental health problems don’t have a valid scientific basis, according to the results of a new study published in the journal PLOS-One.
Researchers tracked hundreds of women who had abortions at 30 different U.S. clinics between 2008 and 2010. The participants were followed for three years after the procedure, completing semiannual phone surveys on their thoughts and feelings about their abortions. At the end of the study period, 95-99 percent of the women reported that terminating their pregnancy was the right decision for them. Moreover, feelings of relief outweighed any negative emotions, even three years after the procedure.
“Claims that women suffer from psychological harm from their abortions, and that large proportions of women come to regret their abortions over time, at least in these data, are simply not true,” lead researcher Dr. Corinne Rocca, an epidemiologist at the UC-San Francisco, told Live Science.
Though there’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that abortion is linked to a heightened risk of mental health problems, this claim is often used by anti-abortion advocates to justify passing additional restrictions on the procedure. Seven states, for instance, have mandatory counseling laws that require pregnant women to receive information about abortion’s negative psychological consequences before they’re allowed to proceed. Some of those materials specifically reference “postabortion traumatic stress syndrome,” a supposed psychological disorder that isn’t recognized by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association.
The new study was spearheaded by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, or ANSIRH, a think tank based at the University of California, San Francisco that’s conducting extensive research on women’s experiences attempting to obtain abortion care. Data for the analysis on women’s emotional responses to abortion came from ANSIRH’s “Turnaway Study,” an ongoing project following nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions in 21 different states. According to the group, this represents the first U.S. study to systematically evaluate “the mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic consequences of receiving an abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.”
Researchers examined both women who had first-trimester abortions and women who had procedures after that point. When it came to women’s emotions following the abortion, or their opinions about whether or not it was the right choice, they didn’t find any meaningful difference between the two groups. In other words, positive feelings like relief were the predominant emotions experienced by women who’ve had an abortion, regardless of the timing.
“Women in this study overwhelmingly felt that the decision was the right one for them: at all time points over three years, 95 percent of participants reported abortion was the right decision, with the typical participant having a greater than 99 percent chance of reporting the abortion decision was right for her,” the authors concluded. “Women also experienced reduced emotional intensity over time: the feelings of relief and happiness experienced shortly after the abortion tended to subside, as did negative emotions. Notably, we found no differences in emotional trajectories or decision rightness between women having earlier versus later procedures.”
The findings build on previous data from the Turnaway Study, which support the same conclusions about mental health and abortion. In 2013, the researchers published the results from interviews conducted just one week after women had an abortion; at that point, too, the vast majority of women said they felt it was the right choice for them. The most common emotion they reported was relief.
External factors can influence the emotions that women experience after an abortion, according to the ANSIRH researchers. They found that women who ended a pregnancy that was planned — which typically occurs after they discover serious fetal health defects — reported more negative emotions, as did women who perceived more abortion stigma in their community. Women with more social support, meanwhile, reported fewer negative emotions.
This is in line with the most recent report from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, which concluded that “interpersonal concerns, including feelings of stigma, perceived need for secrecy, exposure to antiabortion picketing, and low perceived or anticipated social support for the abortion decision, negatively affected women’s postabortion psychological experiences.” In other words, abortion itself does not harm women’s mental health — but anti-abortion tactics and the climate they create certainly do.
The researchers note that there are steps we can take to ensure the mental well-being of women who decide to undergo an abortion — that is, if those who so eagerly bloviate about the supposed risks of harm due to abortion actually care about such a thing. “Individualized counseling for women having difficulty with the abortion decision might help improve their emotional welfare over time,” they wrote. “Efforts to combat stigma may also support the emotional well-being of women terminating pregnancies.”