“Postabortion trauma syndrome” is described by anti-abortion campaigners as a common mental health problem experienced by women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. However, the results of a new study published in PLOS ONE suggest there is no evidence for this syndrome. In the study, 95% of women who had abortions said that it had been the right decision for them.
The results of the new study are part of the large, ongoing Turnaway study, conducted by a research group and think tank at the University of California, San Francisco, known as Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH).
A total of 30 abortion clinics across several states were involved in the study, and the researchers spoke to almost 1,000 women who attended these clinics between January 2008 and December 2010. Of these women, 667 women – who had abortions either within the first trimester or within 2 weeks under the clinics’ gestational age limits – were followed for 3 years, completing semiannual phone surveys on their thoughts and feelings about their abortions.
The average age of the participants at the start of the study was 25 years old. About one third of the participants were white, one third were black, 21% Latina and 13% comprised of other races.
More than half of the participants said that the decision to have an abortion had been difficult or very difficult. Sixty-two percent of the participants were already raising children, and 14% had a history of depression.
Both immediately following the procedure and over 3 years later, 95% of women who had abortions maintained that having an abortion had been the right decision for them. What is more, positive emotions – such as relief and happiness – were found to outweigh the negative emotions associated with having an abortion, such as regret, sadness, anger and guilt.
Women in the study whose partners were not involved in the decision-making process reported being more confident that their decision to abort was right, compared with women whose partners were unsure about or opposed to terminating the pregnancy.
The study reports no significant differences in emotional response between women who had abortions in the first trimester and those who had abortions later. There were also no reported differences between the beliefs of these two groups as to whether having an abortion had been the right decision for them.
According to ANSIRH, this finding “challenges the common assumption that later abortion is more emotionally difficult.” In addition, the study found that all emotions linked with abortion decreased in intensity among both groups over time, as they thought about the abortion less.
Six months after having an abortion, participants on average thought about the abortion “sometimes.” By 3 years after the procedure, however, the participants reported thinking about it “rarely.”
Furthermore, comparing the mental health outcomes of women in the study who had abortions and those who carried unwanted pregnancies to term, the authors found that both groups reported similar levels of anxiety and depression, leading ANSIRH to conclude that “there do not appear to be mental health problems caused by abortion.”
Explaining why this is important, the think tank says:
“Courts, including the Supreme Court, have based their decisions to restrict abortion rights on assumptions that women suffer poor mental health as a consequence of abortion and that women having later abortions are more likely to regret their decision than women having earlier abortions. The notion that many women regret their abortions is also used to justify passing of state laws mandating waiting periods and state-scripted counseling before abortion.”
The researchers believe their results are strengthened by the relatively large sample size of the study, which drew participants from diverse geographical regions and across gestational ages. Only 7% of the participants dropped out of the study during follow-up.