Abortion and Mental Health: The Link We Cannot Ignore

By Andrea Mrozek

Abortion is one of the most common surgeries performed on women in Canada. Roughly 105,000 are performed annually, 70% of them on women between the ages of 10 and 29.

Yet Canadian medical research into the health risks associated with abortion is virtually non-existent. This is in part because Canada’s debate about abortion became dominated by legal-rights talk after the
Supreme Court’s Morgentaler decision in 1988.

Despite this, new medical research continues to emerge on the subject in other nations — research that Canadian women need to consider before they put themselves at risk of unwanted pregnancy.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recently removed an old statement about abortion and mental health from its Web site, a statement that declared abortion to be largely benign. They have convened a task force on the subject, and will issue a new statement in 2008.
David Fergusson, a New   Zealand psychologist, is the author of a longitudinal study on abortion published in 2006. He tends to garner media attention because he is a self-described pro-choice atheist, not a social conservative. His work showed negative mental-health outcomes for women post-abortion, while controlling for their pre-abortion mental health.
Dr. Fergusson’s results did not just show an increase in general depression. They showed increased effects across a wide array of outcomes, including substance-abuse disorders, anxiety, suicide and suicide ideation. According to Dr. Fergusson’s work, post-abortive women show increased risk of phobia, panic attacks and fears “or just a generalized feeling of concern and anxiety at a level deemed to be clinically significant.”

He describes the irony: “99% of abortions in New Zealand are conducted on mental-health grounds. And our study suggests that this procedure may increase mental-health risks.”

Then there is Priscilla Coleman, a psychologist at Bowling GreenStateUniversity in Ohio. She thinks there is an unwillingness to consider new research done throughout the 1990s, largely because the results of that research were not in line with today’s pro-choice political environment. The topic is so volatile that many academics fear not gaining tenure if they take it on.

Since 2002, 15 of Ms. Cole-man’s studies have showed negative health outcomes for women post-abortion. Some of these outcomes include the following: an increased likelihood to use drugs generally (one study showed increased drug use during subsequent pregnancies), increased trouble sleeping and increased general levels of anxiety.

These are well-designed studies that have overcome prior flaws such as a failure to control for existing psychological problems, high participant dropout rates and a lack of wide-scale representation. Ms. Coleman also has conducted two studies controlling for the wanted-ness of the pregnancy, showing increased odds of psychological and emotional problems amongst women who aborted versus those who carried to term, even controlling the data such that all the pregnancies were unwanted and unplanned in the first place. Her work has appeared in a number of reputable journals, but has yet to be widely publicized.

The earlier “pro-choice” consensus that abortion’s impact on women was mostly benign was formed by six psychologists who studied the topic for the American Psychological Association by reviewing literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Their results were published in 1990 in Science, a highly-regarded American journal. Some women did show negative health effects. But, they asserted, those were attributable to prior mental health problems.
There was a caveat, however: There needed to be further research on longer term implications. “No definitive conclusions can be drawn about longer term effects,” the article stated.

A truly definitive study — one that no one could ignore, regardless of the political environment — would require major funding and would take years. But despite the cost, there are compelling reasons to do it, and soon. We owe it to women to learn exactly what risk they face when they have an abortion.

Andrea Mrozek is manager of Research and Communications at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. First published in The National Post, September 13, 2007. Reprinted with permission of the author.