Social Science: Abortion and Mental Health

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Social Science: Abortion and Mental Health

A recent study has revealed what might be an obvious conclusion: it’s not abortions that cause mental distress in women; it’s being denied access to abortions they want or need.

This revelation, of course, comes just as newly invigorated political war is being waged against abortion access. The Republican Congress and the president-elect have vowed to repeal Roe v. Wade, and state legislators are pushing insane new bills requiring women to hold funerals for aborted fetuses and wait through arbitrary, punitive, sometimes dangerous waiting periods.

The December, 2016 study, published in by JAMA Psychiatry, followed 956 women for five years, checking in with them twice a year. Researchers found that when they first surveyed women a week after they’d either had an abortion or been denied one, both groups experienced some depression, of comparable levels. However, women who went to a doctor seeking an abortion and were turned away because they had missed their state’s gestational cut-off reported “significantly more anxiety symptoms and lower self-esteem and life satisfaction.”

The negative psychological effects of being denied abortion access only lasted about six months, whether the women ended up going elsewhere for the procedure or carrying the pregnancy to term. But the most significant finding in this study is not the distress caused by being denied abortion access; it’s the lack of distress caused by actually having the procedure.

A 2009 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry claimed to show a dramatic link between abortions and mental health risks; concluding that women who have had abortions have a 55 percent higher risk of mental health problems compared to women who carried unplanned pregnancies to term. That study, conducted by Priscilla Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, was later proved to be extremely flawed. The same journal that originally published it issued a letter explaining that they’d re-examined the data and found several inconsistencies, and a basic flaw in Coleman’s methods: she’d included all mental health issues, including those that may have been present before the women in her study had abortions.

Julia Steinberg of the University of California at San Francisco and Lawrence Finer of the Guttmacher Institute, who reviewed Coleman’s data, criticized the report’s “untrue statements” and “false claims about the implications of the findings.”

But despite the debunking Coleman’s study, pro-lifers still cling to the myth that they’re protecting women from themselves by denying them access to abortions. In true paternalistic fashion, 35 states currently require women to receive counseling before they can have an abortion, operating under the assumption that women don’t know what they really want; that they haven’t already agonized and weighed their options before deciding to go through with the procedure. Twenty-seven of these states also require that a woman wait a specified amount of time (usually 24 hours) between the counseling session and the procedure, and 29 specify information that must be given to women during counseling (anti-abortion propaganda and emotionally manipulative material about when fetuses develop eyelashes).

This new study debunks any pretense the legislators behind these counseling requirements might have about their motivations being at all about protecting women—they’re delay tactics, just another hoop for women to have to jump through, which legislators hope will prevent them from exercising their rights to decide whether or not to become mothers.

“These findings do not support policies that restrict women’s access to abortion on the basis that abortion harms women’s mental health,” the new study’s authors wrote in the summary of their findings.

Of course, this pretense is only one small part of the overall attack on women’s constitutional right to control their own bodies, but the least these legislators could do while they gut our freedoms is stop pretending they’re doing it for our own good.

Image: Logan Prochaska, CC-BY

Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.