Mental Health and Abortion: How data disputes common misconceptions about the procedure’s psychological impact
July 31, 2022
Over the past several decades, abortion has become an increasingly mediatized, politicized, and polarizing topic in the United States. The context for this debate surrounding a fundamental component of healthcare leads to the spread of misinformation, an all-too-common pattern for hot button issues in the United States. One such issue centers on the mental health consequences of abortion. Despite a considerable number of studies and much data that categorically dispel the myth that abortion regularly results in severe mental health issues, this misconception persists; it is even used as a central argument by those promoting anti-abortion agendas.1
One recent study aimed at exploring the subjective and objective experiences related to abortion is The Turnaway Study. This 10-year longitudinal study led by Dr. Diana Foster, followed two groups of women who sought abortions and were similar to each other demographically and representative of the population who seek abortions in the United States. However, one critical difference between the groups was the fact that the women in one group were denied the abortion they wanted and the women in the other group were able to obtain legal abortions. 2 While mental health was not the focal point of the study, several important patterns emerged in the data that align closely with the body of literature on the psychological effects of abortion.
The study employed a series of biannual mental health check-ins starting one week after either receiving or being denied an abortion. Using validated measures, researchers aimed to identify presence or absence of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress in participants. For those terminating an unwanted pregnancy, relief was the most common emotion reported 1 week following.3 On the other hand, for women who were denied an abortion, sadness was the most common emotion reported 1 week after.4 Thus, unsurprisingly, indicators of mental distress were initially higher among those who were denied abortions.4
At the five-year mark women who terminated a pregnancy continued to report relief. Sadness and other symptoms of depression in those who were denied abortions generally subsided. 4 There were also no long-term observed variations in depression, anxiety, PTSD, self-esteem, life satisfaction, drug abuse or alcohol abuse between women who received and women who were denied an abortion.4 Ultimately, study findings show that mental health of women in both groups improved, clearly demonstrating that “women are resilient.” The results show that receiving an abortion generally has inconsequential effects on mental health as severe negative emotional responses to the procedure are far and away the exception, not the rule.4
It is not surprising that there are some women who experience feelings of psychological distress after an abortion. However, these experiences are rarely the result of the abortion itself , Instead they stem from a lack of social support, excessive exposure to anti-abortion protests and media, and pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.5,6 Thus one can argue that the highly politicized and polarizing nature of the procedure, stigma against women, social inequality and insufficient mental health care are the true culprits in contributing to adverse mental and emotional effects of abortion in the United States.
The Turnaway Study, completed just slightly in advance of the Supreme Court’s elimination of the constitutional right to abortion, clearly and overwhelmingly suggests that the mental health impact of abortion is generally positive and the denial of the procedure is more likely to result in temporary mental and emotional distress. Despite the findings from this study and the larger body of abortion and mental health literature, legislation surrounding the procedure continues to demonstrate blatant disregard for medical and scientific research. One example is a law recently passed in Indiana requiring healthcare providers to report “any of dozens of physical or psychological conditions,” including anxiety and depression, that present within 30 days of having an abortion. Because such conditions have various potential causes of origin, laws like these will inevitably lead to an increase in mental health diagnoses incorrectly linked to abortion and further the spread of dangerous misinformation.7 Ultimately, legislations and restrictions of this sort are truly not in the interest of preventing women’s mental illness but rather in the interest of preventing women’s autonomy.
- Major, B., Appelbaum, M., Beckman, L., Dutton, M. A., Russo, N. F., & West, C. (2009). Abortion and mental health: Evaluating the evidence. American Psychologist, 64(9), 863–890.
- Talbot, M. (2020). The Study That Debunks Most Anti-Abortion Arguments. The New Yorker. Retrieved July 5, 2022, from https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-study-that-debunks-most-anti-abortion-arguments.
- Rocca, C. H., Samari, G., Foster, D. G., Gould, H., & Kimport, K. (2020). Emotions and decision rightness over five years following an abortion: An examination of decision difficulty and abortion stigma. Social Science & Medicine, 248, 112704. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112704
- Foster, D. G. (2021). Mental Health. In The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a thousand women, and the consequences of having–or being denied–an abortion. essay, Scribner.
- Biggs, M. A., Rowland, B., McCulloch, C. E., & Foster, D. G. (2016). Does abortion increase women’s risk for post-traumatic stress? findings from a prospective longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open, 6(2).
- Major, B., Appelbaum, M., Beckman, L., Dutton, M. A., Russo, N. F., & West, C. (2008). Report of the APA task force on mental health and abortion. PsycEXTRA Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/e582472010-001
- Wilkinson, T. (2022, July 15). Dr. Caitlin Bernard Was Meant to Write This With Me Before She Was Attacked for Doing Her Job. The New York Times.