Abortion Doesn’t Lead To Mental Illness — But Being Denied An Abortion Might

by Erika W. Smith

One of the most common “facts” anti-choicers use to defend their positions is that abortion leads to depression and other mental illness. Well, it turns not the opposite is true. A new study shows that abortion does not lead to mental illness, but being denied an abortion might.

The study, titled “Women’s Mental Health and Well-being 5 Years After Receiving Or Being Denied an Abortion” was published in JAMA Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association, and was conducted by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), based at the University of California, San Francisco. It’s part of an ongoing project called the Turnaway Study, which follows 1,000 women who sought abortions and compares the lives of those who received abortions and those who were denied them.

The study found that most women seeking an abortion had higher than usual rates of anxiety and low self-esteem, which researchers attribute to the fact that unintended pregnancy is a stressful event and the societal stigma around abortion. However, women who sought an abortion and were denied had higher levels of negative mental health outcomes than women who received an abortion. These higher levels remained for six months to a year, at which point anxiety levels neared those of women who received abortions.

“We can say strongly at this point there is no evidence of emerging mental health problems after having an abortion,” Dr. Antonia Biggs, a researcher on the study, told Salon. “The women who were denied an abortion, at the time they were denied an abortion, they do have more anxiety, lower self-esteem and less life satisfaction.”

She added, “What we found is that women are resilient, that they adapt to their current situation, and that they make the best of it. At the same time, six months of feeling anxiety or low self-esteem is not something we want for women.”

Currently, nine states have laws that require doctors to tell women seeking abortion that they’re putting themselves at risk for mental illness. As the Verge points out, this myth is the reasoning behind many abortion restriction laws, such as waiting periods and required counseling, and has even been cited as fact by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Dr. Roger Rochat, a former director of reproductive health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University, told the New York Times that the study “provides the best scientific evidence” on the subject and could be used in challenges to abortion restriction laws.

He said, “This is an incredibly powerful study. States will continue to pass laws that restrict access to abortion services and they will do it in part based on mental health effects of abortion. But the evidence of this study says that just isn’t true.”

Or as Biggs told Salon, “If we want to protect women’s mental health, this evidence shows we want to expand access to abortion, not restrict it.”

top photo: Gloria Steinem via gloriasteinem.com

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