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Uninformed Consent: Abortion's Mental Health Consequences

Dr. Warren Throckmorton

January 20, 2006

Recent research from Norway and New Zealand has reported an association between abortion and subsequent mental health problems. Although the two reports are not the first to suggest such a relationship, they are well designed studies suggesting that abortion may be linked to negative mental health reactions for some women.

The Norwegian study, published online by the journal BMC Medicine, compared the experiences of women who had miscarriages with those who had abortions. Six months after pregnancy termination, women who had a miscarriage were more distressed than women who had abortions. However, after five years, women who had abortions were more likely to suffer anxiety and intrusive thoughts of the event than women who miscarried.

The New Zealand study, published by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, found that mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts, were more likely to occur among women who had an abortion than those who had never been pregnant or who did not terminate their pregnancies. The study concluded, “Abortion in young women may be associated with increased risks of mental health problems.”

Are women being advised of these risks?

In exploring this question, I examined consent information developed by affiliates of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. One such informed consent form, posted on the website of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, delineates possible emotional reactions from abortion:

Emotional reaction—Most women report a sense of relief after abortion. Some women also experience sadness, guilt, or other emotional reactions, although these feelings usually go away quickly. Serious psychiatric disturbances (such as psychosis or serious depression) occur rarely and less frequently after abortion than they do after childbirth.

To help evaluate this statement, I asked David Reardon of the Elliot Institute for his review. Dr. Reardon has conducted several research investigations into the psychological impact of abortion. Most recently, in the journal Sleep, his team reported that sleep disturbances are more frequent in women who abort versus women who carry a pregnancy full term. The differences were observed up to three years post-abortion for many women he studied.

About the Planned Parenthood consent information, Dr. Reardon said, “The Planned Parenthood statement is inaccurate and misleading. Most women reporting relief also report negative reactions. Indeed, the combined number of women reporting negative reactions far exceeds the number reporting relief. Also, relief has never been carefully defined. It includes relief from fear that parents will find out about the pregnancy, relief that the boyfriend will no longer be pushing for the abortion, and other temporary advantages. The same women feeling relief from immediate problems may also experience extreme sense of grief, shame, or traumatic reactions.”

Dr. Reardon also argues that existing research has not shown any specific benefits from abortion. “The benefits are simply presumed. The promise that abortion of unintended pregnancies would reduce anxiety, depression, and child abuse has simply not been fulfilled.”

Some may disregard Dr. Reardon’s perspective because he openly describes abortion as both dangerous to women and unfair to unborn children. So I asked Professor David Fergusson, lead author of the New Zealand study, if the Planned Parenthood disclaimer information is accurate and sufficient. Professor Fergusson is politically pro-choice.

Dr. Fergusson replied that the Planned Parenthood information “is both sparse and disappointing in its presentation. Women need to be advised that compared to women who give birth, those having abortions appear to have a moderate increase in rates of later mental health problems.”

Regarding post-abortion relief, Professor Fergusson replied, “While abortion is likely to mitigate some of the adverse consequences of unplanned pregnancies, including educational disadvantage, reduced income, and welfare dependence, there is no clear evidence of mental health benefits.”

To be fair, not all experts think the potential mental health consequences of abortion warrant serious concern. Leslie Cameron of the American Psychological Association’s Public Policy Office told me that the “APA has a long history monitoring research related to psychological aspects of abortion, beginning with a policy resolution adopted in 1969, which identified access to abortion as a mental health and child welfare issue.” According to the APA, not having access to an abortion is potentially more hazardous to mental health than having one.

She pointed out that the APA examined the evidence about the mental health impact of abortion in 1989 and “should the preponderance of good science indicate a need to revise policy, APA has mechanisms in place to do that.”

The APA briefing paper on the subject says: “Well designed studies of psychological responses following abortion have consistently shown that risk of psychological harm is low. Some women experience psychological dysfunction following abortion, but post-abortion rates of distress and dysfunction are lower than pre-abortion rates.”

The APA briefing sounds very much like the Planned Parenthood statement but very different from Professor Fergusson’s assessment of the current research. His view is that “women need to be advised that there have been ongoing and as yet unresolved debates about the extent to which abortion may be associated with adverse mental health outcomes.”

It seems to me that when researchers of pro-life and pro-choice perspectives suggest that “the preponderance of good science indicates a need to revise policy,” it is time to rev up those mechanisms the APA has in place.

After all, 1989 was a long time ago.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology and a fellow for psychology and public policy in the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College (Pa.). Dr. Throckmorton is a past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association and is the producer of the documentary, I Do Exist, about sexual orientation change. His columns have been published by over 70 newspapers nationwide and can be viewed at his website.

 

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