By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL Director of Education & Research
Over the past few days, we’ve been publishing a series on abortion’s negative health consequences bases on a report by bioethicist Dr. Gregory Pike for the British pro-life group, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The report itself is available here.
In Parts One, Two, and Three, [here; here; here] we looked at some of the negative physical associations that are connected to abortion – a higher rate of maternal mortality, connections to intimate partner violence and sex trafficking, and effects on subsequent children conceived and born after the abortion.
Today, in our fourth and final story, we look at abortion’s psychological impact.
People generally understand that drugs and surgery come with risks, so they are not entirely surprised that chemical and surgical abortions sometimes come with serious or even fatal complications.
But what about psychological aftereffects? If the unborn child were nothing more than an undifferentiated mass of tissue, one wouldn’t expect there to be any lasting repercussions (at least not for the woman).
But women living in the modern age have seen the ultrasounds, heard the heartbeats, and witnessed the marvels of fetal development in living color on video screens. They know that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being and their participation in that unjust action can weigh heavy on their hearts and minds.
This is why, when Dr. Pike looks beyond the industry’s promotion of abortion as a positive, affirming choice and examines the studies that measure actual psychological outcomes, he finds evidence of a lot of deep pain.
Grief and Regret
Pike looks at a 1998 study of U.S. college students who had abortions or were the men whose partners had abortion. He found a third[!] of both men and women expressing regret and saying they were uncomfortable with the decision. A third of both also indicated that they experienced a sense of longing for the child they lost, often specifically using terms like “child” or “baby” to describe their loss.
All the college students in a 2013 Canadian study described significant grief three years after their abortions.
Though some try to argue that the issue is the loss of a baby in general–whether by abortion or miscarriage–Pike cites a 2005 study in which researchers found women having abortions continued to experience elevated levels of avoidance, guilt, shame at five years after the abortion. This was not seen among women who had miscarried.
Pike found one study trying to shift the blame for women’s emotional difficulties following abortion to “social disapproval, romantic relationship loss, and head versus heart conflict.” Interestingly enough, Pike points out, the women in this study were recruited from an abortion talkline. Even there, about half of the callers could not be recruited because they were “judged too distraught.”
Tied to Depression
Those who are familiar with studies of post-abortion reactions will not be surprised to see Pike’s citation of David Fergusson’s 2006 showing a strong link between abortion and depression. That study found 42% of women who’d had an abortion experienced major depression in the four years prior to the interview. This rate was 35% higher than the rate of depression found among women who continued their pregnancies. The study also showed more anxiety disorders among the aborting women.
A 2008 follow up study by Fergusson’s team confirmed his earlier findings, showing that women having abortions experienced mental disorders 30% more often that those who had not.
Pike adds the results of a 2016 American study which found a 30% increased risk of depression and a 25% elevated risk of anxiety. According to Pike, the author of that study estimated that “approximately 10% of the prevalence of mental disorders comes from abortion.”
Signs of Post Traumatic Stress
Abortion researchers have lately admitted that abortions may indeed be associated post traumatic stress. Their evasion is to say that the concern should be directed to those women with “advanced pregnancies, a history of previous traumas, mental health problems, and adverse psychosocial profiles.”
This admission is significant. However Pike cites data that show the concern is broader and deeper–that these are more than mild, short term annoyances for a handful of patients. One 2013 study of aborting Canadian students listed by Pike showed that all reported symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and that those symptoms remained elevated even after three years.
Further, Pike shares details from a 2011 French study comparing surgical against chemical abortions. The expectation probably was that there would be no evidence of psychological trauma, particularly at earlier gestations, or that if there was, it would be found with surgical rather than chemical abortions. Why? Because chemical abortions are supposed to be less troubling for women since they are performed earlier and are presumably less violent (women who have had these abortions know that this is not necessarily so, given how painful and violent chemical abortions may be).
In fact PTSD scores were found at just six weeks out and actually turned out to be higher for women having the chemical method. This early manifestation is remarkable, given that post traumatic trauma sometimes takes months or even years to fully manifest.
Link to Substance Abuse
Higher rates of substance abuse among aborting women should not be surprising, given what we know about post traumatic stress following abortion.
A 2004 U.S. study showed that when a woman’s first pregnancy was unintended, she had a greater risk of substance abuse if she aborted that child. A 2005 American study Pike cites connected substance abuse directly to abortion. When looking at previous pregnancy loss (which included abortion, stillbirth, and miscarriage), it was only abortion that was associated with an increased risk of substance abuse during pregnancy.
Pike says that multiple subsequent studies showing this connection are perhaps indicative of the turn to substance abuse “as an attempt to cope with emotional loss.” He speculates, “It may be that of all the mental health problems related to abortion, substance abuse might contribute most to the community health burden.”
Pike shares the conclusion of two studies showing that women undergoing abortion have a higher risk of psychiatric admissions than those carrying their babies to term. A 2002 California study found aborting women over-represented in treatment categories that included bipolar disorder, schizophrenic disorders, and neurotic depression.
Sleep disorders were also more common among aborting women. Several studies have found relationship problems among couples where there had been an abortion, Pike says, manifesting itself in sexual dysfunction. There is evidence that some women attempt a “replacement pregnancy” to make up for the child that was lost, where, Pike offers, “a subsequent pregnancy may be considered a way of resolving grief and stress about an abortion.”
Dealing with the Deniers
Pike and SPUC are aware of researchers who deny or minimize the link between abortion and psychological trauma. What they’ve done in this report is to share study after study showing unambiguous connections.
One common weakness of the counter studies, like the famous “Turnaway Study” from UCSF (the University of California, San Francisco – sometimes known as “American’s Abortion Academy”), is their problematic study samples.
Pike notes that over and over, these studies had low response [participation] rates. One study denying an association between abortion and mental trauma suffered by “managing to recruit only 18.3% of the women asked to participate.”
In another study concluding that there was no link between abortion and post-traumatic stress, 56% of women asked to participate refused while and another 49% dropped out at the three month mark. This left only 29% of the original sample.
These low participation rates raise what Pike terms “a significant risk of selection bias.” “When a sample is self-selected in this way,” Pike writes, “there is every reason why women who have reacted adversely to the abortion would not wish to participate.”
The results would be significantly skewed if the only women who are responding or staying with the study are those who did not have problems, while the others drop out in order to avoid reliving the trauma.
This is one of the issues Pike raises with the Turnaway Study, which we have dealt with extensively elsewhere (www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/news/2013/01/takeaways-from-the-ucsf-abortion-turnaway-study-5/#.WgR8cWhSxPY). That study, whose findings have been published in at least 27 different papers arguing that abortion is connected to positive social and psychological outcomes, was supposed to follow the outcomes of women who aborted versus those who sought abortions but were “denied.” (They were denied because they were too far along for the abortionist to handle, there were legal barriers, etc.)
Pike points out that only 37.5% of women agreed to participate in the study at the time of their abortion or when they were turned away. Another 15% did not take the baseline interview.
Thus, Pike says, only 31.9% of women asked began the study, and only 22% remained five years later. “It would be unsurprising,” notes Pike, “if those wishing not to participate would include those potentially most affected by the abortion, either initially or subsequently.”
Other problems with such studies involve the timing of the surveys. Pike notes, as we have before, that surveys asking about anxiety immediately before and after the abortion are likely to find some sort of immediate reduction, that is, some feeling of initial “relief” that their problem is “solved.”
However that reaction may differ greatly once the woman has left the validating atmosphere of the clinic and goes home with her thoughts and ponders what has been done and to whom. And Pike points out that “a few months or even years may be too short a time frame” to follow and measure psychological effects.
Study results can also be thrown off by women not admitting to past abortions, notes Pike. “[S]tudies that relay on self-report about current or past psychological health risk memory recall bias and/or distortion due to cognitive dissonance in relation to a memory that is too painful to relive.”
Women Must be Informed
Pike concludes that “abortion is associated with a wide range or adverse physical and psychological outcomes.”
Even where the full causal chain between the abortion and the trauma or injury has yet to be laid out, Pike says “Women are entitled to be made aware of all the associated risks.”
Given the stakes and given that women seeking abortion are often ambivalent, says Pike, “it is imperative that health professionals provide all relevant information.”