By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research
Despite decades of evidence and countless studies to the contrary, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion confidently concluded in August 2008 that abortion did not pose a threat to women’s mental health. Priscilla Coleman, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University who has studied and published on this issue for a number of years, found the APA report deeply flawed. Prof. Coleman knew that most large, careful, well designed studies pointed to a much different conclusion.
Coleman has now published an extensive meta-analysis of the best studies on the subject in the September 1, 2011, issue of the prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry.
Coleman examined 22 of the best designed studies on abortion and mental health over the years 1995-2009 which tracked outcomes for 877,181 women, 163,831 who had experienced abortion. Coleman found that aborting women showed an 81% increased risk of mental health problems, with particular risks (e.g., substance abuse, suicide) even higher.
Moreover, Coleman’s meta-analysis showed that 9.9% of the incidence of mental health problems in the population group of aborted women was directly attributable to abortion. This also included 34.9% of suicides in this group.
By anyone’s definition, this is a substantial risk, especially considering how the APA asserted that abortion presented no real threat to a woman’s mental health.
The APA tipped its hand, however, as far back as 1969 when it adopted a resolution claiming abortion to be a civil right. Responding to a January 2006, study by New Zealand researcher David M. Fergusson (a self-described pro-choicer), which found a 50% increased risk of mental health issues among women under 21, APA spokesperson Nancy Felipe Russo, one of the members of the 2008 task force, said, “To pro-choice advocates, effects are not relevant to the legal context of arguing for policies to restrict access to abortion” (Warren Throckmorton, “Does Abortion Impact the Mental Health of Women?” Jan. 10, 2006, at www.drthrockmorton.com/article.asp?id=177, accessed 8/31/11).
Coleman notes in her own article that, independent of any bias issues, the APA report and other recent reviews that deny or downplay the connection between abortion and mental health problems suffer from a number of serious methodological errors.
Those reviews, says Coleman, tried to focus on the amorphous category of “unintended” pregnancy, an ill-defined term that admits of both degrees and vacillation as a pregnancy progresses.
Coleman also says that such reviews, for some unexplained reason, failed to include studies that examined variables such as substance abuse. In addition, in general, reviews such as the APA’s used statistically weaker studies and ignored many of the methodologically stronger studies without fully justifying their inclusion/exclusion criteria. Ironically, those are exactly the weaknesses the APA attributed to those who had found a connection between induced abortion and mental health!
The APA task force should have done as Coleman did and combined the results of the most careful studies asking similar questions in order to obtain reliable data pertaining to the magnitude of risks associated with abortion.
Coleman made sure that the studies she included had at least 100 participants, had comparison groups (e.g., women who aborted, women who did not), measured at least one mental health outcome variable (depression, anxiety, alcohol use, marijuana use, suicidal behavior), had controls for other variables that could skew results (such as demographics, prior exposure to violence or previous mental health issues), and odds ratios so that results could be appropriately combined and interpreted. These criteria yielded 22 studies published in U.S. or foreign medical journals from 1995-2009.
Looking at over a quarter of a million women, including 18.7% who had abortions, Coleman found that abortion was associated with an 81% higher risk of mental health problems. Included in this calculation are 34% increased risk of anxiety disorders, a 37% higher risk for depression, a 110% higher risk for alcohol use/abuse, a 220% increased risk of marijuana use or abuse. Frighteningly, the risk of suicidal behavior was 155% higher!
Compared to women who delivered their babies, the risk of mental health issues was 138% higher than for women who aborted. Even compared to women who carried an “unintended pregnancy” to term, the risk of mental health problems among aborting women was 55% higher.
Coleman told NRL News Today, “I firmly believe women deserve an accurate appraisal of the best available evidence and they should be making truly informed decisions. Applying basic methods of science, this quantitative review easily provides an objective depiction of the state of knowledge and it stands in stark contrast to what the APA offered a few years ago.”
While groups like the APA, Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion Federation claim that mental health issues among aborting women are rare,*Coleman says, “Women considering an abortion should know abortion may increase their risk of experiencing mental health problems as opposed to being told that there are no risks or very minimal risks, which seems to be common practice.”
www.prochoice.org/about_abortion/myths/post_abortion_syndrome.html, accessed 8/31/11.
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