Health Risks of Abortion, Part 2 of 3 PDF Print E-mail

Martha LeathermanThe issue of the effect of abortion on women's psychiatric health has become a political football. Both pro-abortion and pro-life advocates have found research data to support their respective positions.

For those of us who believe that God is the Author of life, the ultimate, rather than the political answer to this question is very important for three reasons. First, women considering abortion need to be able to have accurate warnings of risks to their psychological well-being. Second, in ministering to post-abortive women we need to know the degree to which the abortion might increase their risk of depression, anxiety, or even suicide. Third, we need to be able to honestly educate the vast majority of people who are not actively involved in either pro-abortion or pro-life work about the true impact of abortion on women.

Before looking at the data on psychiatric risk after abortion, we need to understand a couple of key principles regarding the validity (i.e. how much you can trust the results) of scientific research. There is a little-known problem with most scientific publications known as selection bias. This means that unpopular research is rarely funded, and even if it is funded, it is rarely published. Another principle that often limits the validity of abortion studies is "reporting bias," in which women who have had abortions do not answer survey questions truthfully. There are other biases which, along with the two mentioned above, explain why scientific research studies do not definitively answer the question as to the effects of abortion on subsequent mental health of women.

What do we know?

There are many small reports on mental illness following abortion and these studies have conflicting conclusions. The American Psychological Association convened a Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion which looked at multiple abortion studies and concluded in their report published in 2009 that overall, the risk of mental health consequences to women after a single first trimester abortion, or after an abortion for fetal abnormalities is no greater than that of women who deliver an unwanted pregnancy–with a striking exception of studies out of New Zealand, Australia, and Norway in which mental health problems are significantly higher for women who had had abortion.

The American Psychological Association study was followed by a publication in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 of the largest and most definitive analysis of the mental health risks associated with abortion ever carried out. This study and other international studies have shown:

  • Women who have had an abortion have higher risk of subsequent mental health problems compared to women who have not had an abortion, or compared to women who have given birth (either "planned" or "unplanned")

  • Rates of anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal behavior are greater in women with a history of abortion compared with those who have not had abortion.

What should we believe?

This brief overview of the available research on this question clearly shows the confusion surrounding the issue, and so what are we to believe? Even if we believe with the American Psychological Association Task Force that abortion in and of itself does not increase the risk for mental health problems in all women, we must also acknowledge (as did the Task Force) that at least some women experience significant psychiatric symptoms after an abortion. For that reason, it would be irresponsible (bordering on abusive) to ignore possible mental health outcomes of abortion, whether you are pro-life or pro-choice.

Post-Abortion Mental Health Syndromes

Counselors working with women who have had abortion report a post-abortion syndrome consisting of symptoms listed above (depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts or attempts) along with others such as nightmares and inability to bond with other children. Some of these symptoms might not appear until years after the abortion.

What You Should Do

We must always be sensitive to the fact that there are millions of women and men who are affected by abortion and these men and women are in need of love, compassion, gentleness, and above all, Christ's forgiveness, and we must model this agape love. Women in a crisis pregnancy who have had previous problems with mental illness are at particularly high risk for recurrence after either abortion or delivery of an unplanned pregnancy, so we must let all women know that abortion is not a foolproof way to solve a crisis pregnancy.

Major, B,, "APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion," 2009

Coleman, PK, "Abortion and Mental Health: Quantitative Synthesis and Analysis of Research Published 1995-2009," BJP 2011; 199:180-186

Martha Leatherman specializes in Geriatric Psychiatry. She is a member of the PCUSA, President of the Alamo Area PPL Chapter, and is a newly elected member of the PPL Board of Directors.

To read the first article in this series click the link below.

Health Risks of Abortion, Part 1 of 3



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