A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that women who get abortions show no signs of increased mental health problems after having an abortion – and that in fact, it’s women who are denied an abortion that suffer more greatly.
But pro-life organizations and other researchers have responded that the study doesn’t show the whole picture, and that these findings don’t mean that women don’t regret their abortions. They also counter that similar studies involving an exorbitantly higher number of women have shown the opposite results, and that everything needs to be taken into account.
“I confess I’m not that surprised at what it uncovered, and it’s important for abortion opponents to neither instantly vilify the study nor to fear what it can tell us,” Mark Regnerus, associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin told CNA.
“A sober assessment is in order.”
The study, called the “Turnaway Study” was conducted by researchers from University of California – San Francisco and tracked 956 women from 21 states for more than five years. The women – all of whom had sought abortion – were interviewed once a week after seeking out an abortion, and then every six months for that five year period.
Antonia Biggs and Diana Greene Foster, two of the researchers who wrote the study, told CNA in a statement that in their study, women who were denied abortions had more mental health repercussions – like anxiety, lower self-esteem and less life satisfaction, in the short-term than women who had abortions. The study also found that by six months these rates of mental health consequences were similar. Both groups of women had “similar levels of depressive symptoms over the entire five year period,” of the study the researchers commented.
“We found no evidence of increases in mental health problems after having an abortion,” they added.
Critics, however, say that the relatively short length of the study doesn’t account for women who come regret their abortion many years later, nor does it mean that a lack of depression or other mental health effects means that women don’t experience regret.
Ana-Maria Dumitru, director of Medical Students For Life, told CNA that other studies have come to opposite conclusions. Dumitru pointed to a study by Dr. D Paul Sullins of the Catholic University of America published earlier in 2016 followed more than 8,000 women for over 13 years.
“The Sullins study confirmed that even after controlling for over twenty possible variables, there’s still a clear, significant increase in the relative risk of mental health disorders for women who have abortions.” These risks, she added were compared to both live birth and miscarriage outcomes. Other studies from New Zealand and Norway also showed similar increased risks of mental health issues for women who have abortions, she added.
Regnerus helped explain some of the design of the study to CNA. He said that while abortion is not his area of study, there were some reasonable interpretations and qualifications to be made of the findings from a social sciences perspective. He said the basic design of the study was “competent,” since the researchers were able to track nearly 1,000 women over the five-year time span, and that the findings were “illuminating.”
He added that it’s reasonable to expect that women who do not see abortion as wrong would experience abortion differently. “Some, of course, may come to think differently about their abortion weeks, months, or even years later. Others seem not to,” he said.
Regnerus also noted that “no study can do it all,” and that there are some indirect effects between abortion and emotional consequences that the study could not assess. The professor also pointed out that regret and depression “are two different things,” and the study doesn’t delve into women’s regret about their abortions “and that’s fine because it’s not a study of regret.”
The professor also pointed to flaws in the study that might be overlooked by most casual readers. Regnerus noted that there was “a good deal of sample selection bias – only 32 percent of women approached actually participated, leaving us to wonder if there are differences between they and the 68 percent who didn’t.”
Furthermore, the study was unable to keep track of 42 percent of the original participants. Regnerus added that while these kinds of sample selection bias and challenges in collecting data are difficult to avoid in studies, particularly on a subject like abortion, they do introduce unknowns into the study.
Regnerus said that the study’s focus on near-term emotions such as anxiety or self-esteem “are too tangled up in the emotions of the event, the circumstances surrounding pursuing an abortion,” and said he thought it was a “leap for the authors to draw sensible conclusions” from such data.
What was more noteworthy, he commented was the study’s tracking of depression over the five year period, which remained constant. “The ability to track the direct effect of abortion on depression longer-term,” he noted, “is this study’s contribution.”
“It is unreasonable to presume that every abortion conducted in the United States – and elsewhere, for that matter – will make the woman who sought it troubled or sad over the long run,” Regnerus added.
“It does for plenty, no doubt. We hear about it. On the other hand, we hear of accounts to the contrary.”
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life said that in her experience, even in cases where there is regret and suffering, those feelings can lead to more positive states of healing.
“Abortion takes the life of one and often wounds the life of another,” Mancini told CNA. “Some women only come to discover such deep wounds after many years, sometimes decades,” she said, pointing out again that the study only covered a five-year span.
“My personal experience in working with women who regret abortion is that when a woman honestly faces the truth of what’s happened, she suffers tremendously, but this in turn is the first step to finding real and lasting hope and healing.”