Abortions Have Little Effect On Women’s Mental Health, But Denial Could Be Risky

A new study suggests that abortion may not necessarily be a deterrent to a woman’s mental health, contrary to what anti-abortion advocates have suggested. But if a woman is denied a chance to have one, it may affect their well-being, resulting in poorer self-esteem and life satisfaction, and triggering anxiety.

According to a report from AlterNet, anti-choice advocates are serious on trying to convince women that abortion and mental illness may be linked to each other. There are even nine states where it is legal for doctors to “scare” women into not going through the procedure by advising them that abortion is linked to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, among other mental health issues. But the new research stresses that abortion doesn’t trigger these problems. Rather, it’s the denial of a chance to get an abortion that could cause mental health problems, according to University of California San Francisco associate researcher M. Antonia Biggs.

“In this study, compared with having an abortion, being denied an abortion may be associated with greater risk of initially experiencing adverse psychological outcomes,” said Biggs in a press release quoted by Forbes.

“These findings do not support policies that restrict women’s access to abortion on the basis that abortion harms women’s mental health.”

Biggs and her fellow researchers had enlisted a total of 956 women from 30 abortion facilities across 21 states between January 2008 and December 2010. The women had an average age of 25 and were given a phone questionnaire a week after they had requested an abortion at their respective centers. They were then given subsequent interviews twice a year for the five years that followed.

Some of the women were turned away from their centers due to gestational limits, or a threshold point in their pregnancy where they wouldn’t be able to get an abortion once past that timeline. As such, the new paper, which appears in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is alternately known as the “Turnaway Study.”

At the time of the first one-week interview, women who were denied a chance at an abortion had a greater chance of suffering from mental health issues, specifically anxiety, than the women who were allowed to have one. Those who weren’t allowed to have their babies aborted and still didn’t have the babies were four times likelier to suffer from anxiety than women who got an abortion while close to the gestational limit. Anxiety levels went down across the board for all groups over time, except the group where the women weren’t allowed to get an abortion and still kept their babies.

Self-esteem and life satisfaction was worse for the women turned away and denied an abortion, but interestingly, both metrics improved over time for all of the groups, save for the group where the women had first-trimester abortions. The researchers believe that may be due to financial problems, poor timing, having existing children, partner issues, and other reasons women commonly give when they seek an abortion.

“The experience of an unintended pregnancy may cause women to contend with their circumstances and reflect on their lives. When relationships and financial situations are thought to be insufficient to support a pregnancy, this feeling of deficiency, rather than the decision to abort or the procedure itself, may be the cause of lowered mental health indicators.”

Once the five-year period had ended, it was the women who went on to give birth after not being allowed an abortion who had the highest number of depression symptoms, though Forbes noted that this was limited due to a lot of the women dropping out of touch by the end of the study. Approximately seven percent of those women had depression, as to less than four percent for those who had an abortion or were turned away at first but suffered a miscarriage or had an abortion elsewhere.


AlterNet pointed out that several states have staunchly maintained their anti-abortion stances, even relying on “poorly designed” and “unconvincing” studies that link mental illness to abortion. These studies, AlterNet writes, compare women who have abortions with women who give birth without any issues, thereby resulting in a case of apples vs. oranges. Approximately two-thirds of women who give birth had planned pregnancies, while almost all women who chose to get an abortion had unplanned pregnancies.

According to Biggs, the new study is a case of comparing apples to apples.

“Previously, we didn’t have great evidence on the impact of abortion on mental health outcomes, so one could argue that we didn’t know. I feel that this study design is so strong, by comparing two very similar groups of women. It provides very solid evidence of what the effects of abortion on women’s mental health are.”

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