WASHINGTON — Many prominent media outlets, including CNN and The Washington Post, featured a study this week, conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, claiming that five years after their abortions 84% of women felt positive or no emotions about their abortions. But pro-life researchers and groups like Silent No More and Project Rachel, which focus on counseling post-abortive women, have called into question the study’s source and methodology.
The study analyzed data from the “Turnaway” study, which collected data from women who sought abortions at 30 abortion providers between 2008 and 2010. Only 37.5% of those women eligible to participate consented, only 956 women actually completed the first round of baseline interviews, and just 71% of those women remained in the final two years of the study.
The new analysis was of the negative or positive emotions of 667 of these women five years after their abortion.
While touting this latest analysis, The Washington Post did note the criticisms of the study’s data by David Reardon, a pro-life advocate and researcher. In 2018, Reardon noted that the Turnaway study had an “abysmal” participation rate, pointing out that “only 27% of the invited women participated at the first six-month interview and only 17% participated through to the end of the five-year period.”
Reardon went on to argue that the group that did participate in the study was biased by self-selection. He cited the study itself, which acknowledged that eight days after the abortion “women feeling more relief and happiness at baseline were less likely to be lost” to the study. Conversely, Reardon said, “the women who reported the least relief (and presumably the most negative feelings) eight days after their abortions were most likely to drop out before the three-year assessment of their decision satisfaction.”
The study’s authors claimed that while the relatively low participation rate “might elicit questions about selection bias,” a 38% response rate among women seeking a “stigmatized” health service is in line with other large-scale studies. They also argued that they have “no reason to believe women would select into the study based on how their emotions would change over five years.”
The researchers behind the study are part of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a collaborative research group at the University of California, San Francisco, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, which includes as part of its mission that “all people have access to birth control, abortion, sex education, pregnancy and birth care and HIV/STI treatment — regardless of their age, ethnicity, income or where they live.”
The study’s lead author, Corrine Rocca, framed the results as “debunking the abortion regret narrative” in an op-ed for Salon where she also advised that “lawmakers who claim to care about women’s emotional health would do better to listen to the hundreds of thousands of women who seek abortion care every year and know it is the right decision.”
ANSIRH was founded by abortionist Felicia Hance Stewart. Dr. Daniel Grossman, the director of ANSIRH, also serves as a board member of the abortion advocacy group NARAL and has worked as a Planned Parenthood consultant. Additionally, Heather Gould, the project director of the “Turnaway” study, worked in the Planned Parenthood Golden Gate facility and as a consultant for Planned Parenthood Federation of America International.
ANSIRH’s other projects include “Abortion Onscreen,” which monitors depictions of abortion in TV and movies. Their findings included noting that minorities were “underrepresented” in abortion depictions and expressing concern that “television plotlines have yet to depict a character safely and effectively self-managing an abortion with pills ordered online.”
ANSIRH Communications Associate Jason Harless responded to the Register’s questions regarding the study’s objectivity and small sample size via email.
“Enrolling hundreds of participants in multiyear health studies is a universal challenge,” Harless wrote in an email, “for instance, only 24% agreed to participate in the widely-cited longitudinal Nurse’s Health Study II. We are reassured that our sample is reflective of women seeking abortion in the U.S. In a prior study, similar questions about decision rightness were integrated into the clinical intake form for all patients at a dedicated abortion facility: among the over 5,000 women who sought abortions, the percentages reporting high confidence in their abortion decision were consistent with our sample.”
In response to a question about the Bixby Center’s pro-abortion mission statement, Harless said, “The Bixby Center is an academic research center at the University of California, San Francisco. Study investigators are UCSF faculty who have Ph.D.s from accredited universities. Their work, including this research, is subject to a rigorous peer-review process before being published in academic, scientific journals.”
Pro-Life Researcher’s Perspective
Dr. David Prentice, vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told the Register that the study is “flawed,” as among the eligible women “the vast majority, over three-quarters, never participated.”
“You’re looking at low numbers, which makes your statistics suspect to begin with; and then you’re also looking at: Did they self-select?” Prentice said. “These are the women who already had a better opinion, and agreed that maybe they felt relief instead of regret, who agreed to participate and stay with the study.”
According to Prentice, “There are other studies that have used actual medical records and hard data, and those don’t agree with the results from this distorted study.” He referenced a 2017 study from Lozier Institute scholar Nora Sullivan and Dr. Eoghan de Faoite on abortions after a poor prenatal diagnosis, which “found significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and similar types of distress for those who had gone through the abortion.”
That study’s authors noted they had “reviewed 10 studies which examined the psychological sequelae of pregnant women following prenatal diagnoses of severe life-limiting conditions. Based on the available data, the authors found evidence that women who abort due to a poor prenatal diagnosis are at higher risk of post-traumatic stress and depression than woman who continue with pregnancy.”
The Lozier Institute also recently featured a 2019 study on maternal suicide in Italy, which found that “the suicide rate of women who had abortions was more than double the suicide rate of women who gave birth.”
Prentice also criticized the media’s failure to look at “conflicts of interest” on the part of the study’s authors, given their pro-abortion mission and ties. CNN, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and others made no mention of ANSIRH’s pro-abortion mission.
Silence of ‘Shame and Grief’
Mary McClusky, assistant director for Project Rachel ministry development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, told the Register that people should be cautious about taking studies like this one at face value.
“As responsible consumers of media, we should know to read beyond the headlines and ask some questions about stories like this,” McClusky said, asking if such headlines were “distracting from the real story that women across the country are turning to abortion-healing ministries.”
Project Rachel is a confidential ministry that offers post-abortion counseling. It doesn’t track the number of participants, McClusky noted, explaining that it’s diocesan-based and involves diocesan priests and a ministry team that “works together to offer a confidential help line.”
The silence that often accompanies abortion regret is one reason why headlines like those around the recent study “bother” McClusky.
“It’s so difficult for a woman to speak about abortion,” she said. Regarding the ANSIRH study’s low participation rate, she said, “Anecdotally, from my experience working with diocesan directors across the country, I can confirm that that fits what I’ve seen — because there is so much shame and grief for their unborn child that they sometimes — women — go their whole lives not telling anyone.”
She said that Project Rachel training includes “the importance of connecting to the nursing homes or hospice care in a community because sometimes elderly women at the end of their lives, as they near death, want to be cleaning house and preparing for death, and a prior abortion may be on their hearts, and they want to confess that. It may have been 50, 60 years, and they haven’t told anyone.”
“One of the crucial tasks of any Catholic nowadays is to be aware that, everywhere you go, any conversation you’re having about abortion, it’s likely, statistically speaking, that someone who’s had an abortion is listening,” McClusky argued. “That is important to be aware of; and, remember, because how we speak is going to influence whether or not they turn to the Catholic Church for help, so we’re ambassadors of mercy, and we may not even realize it because many women suffer in silence.”
Silent No More
Despite the findings of ANSIRH’s analysis, there are thousands of women who have spoken out about their abortion regret through the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. Every year these women tell their stories at the conclusion of the March for Life in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
Georgette Forney, co-founder of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign and president of Anglicans for Life, told the Register her thoughts on the study as someone who regrets the abortion she had at the age of 16 and who speaks with other women who deal with abortion regret.
“The women themselves are refuting the study, as more are coming out this year than we have ever had to say and carry signs reflecting our regret for having an abortion and ending the lives of our children,” Forney said, noting that this year alone 78 women have contacted the campaign to speak about their abortion regret.
She argued that the study’s authors are “trying to undermine the power of personal testimony that speaks of regret.”
Forney also questioned the time period of five years that the study used. She reflected that “10 years after my abortion I would have said it was a non-issue. But what about 20, 30, 40 years later? It was 19 years after my abortion that I finally faced the fact that I didn’t just have an abortion — but I aborted a child, a human being, my baby. I started grieving and seeking help at that point.”
She said, “I think they purposefully limit the depth of their research because they know the older we get the more honest we become with ourselves about both good and bad choices.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.