Abortion Has No Mental-Health Impact?

Pro-lifers immediately pointed out the flaws in this Danish study. Even a ‘pro-choice atheist’ finds it questionable.

CLEAR MESSAGE. Young people and others carry a banner during the Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco Jan. 22. More than 40,000 people attended the event on the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
CLEAR MESSAGE. Young people and others carry a banner during the Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco Jan. 22. More than 40,000 people attended the event on the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (photo: CNS photo/Jose Luis Aguirre, Catholic San Francisco)

Danish researchers have released a study that they claim shows no evidence of abortion having a mental-health impact on the women involved.

“Women should be aware that going through the procedure of [an] induced abortion does not increase their risk of having a psychiatric episode within the first 12 months after the procedure,” said lead researcher Trine Munk-Olsen of Aarhus University.

Pro-life critics were swift to accuse the study of methodological flaws, as did one researcher who identifies himself as “a pro-choice atheist.”

New Zealand researcher David Fergusson said, “As a research scientist who is a pro-choice atheist and whose research suggests possible small, harmful effects for abortion, I have been concerned at the ways in which the politics of these debates has colored and distorted the interpretation of the evidence.”

The Danish study compared 84,000 women who had first-trimester abortions between 1995 and 2007 with 280,000 who had children and a larger group who did neither. Factoring out women with any prior psychiatric history, it found that 1.4% of those who had abortions made a first psychiatric visit in the nine months before the operation and 1.5% did so in the year afterwards.

Meanwhile, 0.4% of those who had children made a first visit to a psychiatrist in the nine months prior and 0.7% did so in the year after.

This prompted an Associated Press story that declared, “The research by Danish scientists further debunks the notion that terminating a pregnancy can trigger mental illness and shows postpartum depression to be much more of a factor.”

Fergusson, lead researcher in a 2008 study that interviewed women over a 15-year period and found those who had abortions 30% likelier than other women to have mental-health issues, said that the Danish study’s “greatest weakness is that it uses measures of medical contacts as a measure of psychiatric morbidity. The problem with this type of measure is that many people with mental illness do not seek treatment, and the study may have failed to detect differences for this reason.”

An American researcher who does not hide her pro-life beliefs, Priscilla Coleman, faults the Danish study for cutting off the study period for each individual a year after the abortion. A professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University, Coleman said, “They had data on these women for 40 years. Why didn’t they use it?”

Coleman said most of the mental problems that show up in women who have babies do so in the first year, while the reverse is true for women who have abortions. “They block it out at first. They self-medicate. It shows up two to six years down the line, perhaps when they decide they want a baby.”

Coleman, herself the author of several studies of abortion’s impact, also disagreed with the Danes’ key reasoning that the high level of prior psychiatric activity of women who went on to have abortions was unrelated to the abortion. On the contrary, she contended, “that measure is likely high [more than three times greater than prior to birth] because many of the women were probably in the midst of abortion decision-making when they experienced their first psychiatric visit.”

Data Misinterpreted

Coleman argued that the equally high rate of psychiatric involvement after the abortion can plausibly be explained as ongoing mental distress caused by the abortion.

Coleman also noted that while the Danes criticized other, contrary studies for failing to allow for “third variables,” their study did not allow for such variables as “pregnancy wantedness, coercion by others to abort, marital status, income, education, exposure to violence and other traumas.”

Fergusson, a professor at Otaga University in New Zealand, predicted in 2008 that his study would satisfy neither pro-life nor pro-choice camps, but contended that it undermined “the use of psychiatric reasons to justify abortion for women having unwanted pregnancies.” Fergusson has consistently, in print and in his interview with the Register, referred to his finding of a 30% increase in psychiatric problems for women who have had abortions as “small.”

Coleman, who has worked with Fergusson, suggests this is his way of removing himself from the political debate: “He’s a pro-choicer who is honest enough to report what he found even though it contradicted his own views.”

Fergusson himself says that “Issues relating to abortion and mental health have been distorted by both sides of the debate. On the one hand, pro-choice lobbyists have sought to minimize the quite substantial evidence suggesting small increases in mental-health problems amongst those having abortions. On the other hand, those with a pro-life focus have tended to exaggerate the size of these differences.”

Pro-abortion advocates hailed the Danish study.

For example, Linda Beckman, co-author of a famous 2008 American Psychology Association report that reached the same conclusion as the Danish researchers, said, “There is still some debate, but the majority of the literature is very clear on this.”

Beckman is a psychology professor at Alliant International University in Alhambra, Calif.

Another participant in the APA report, Brenda Major, also applauded the study.

“One of the things that was nice about these data was that it was more rigorous than most that I’ve seen,” said Major, a psychology professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “One would like to think it would be the final nail in the coffin that first-trimester abortion causes increased incidence of mental-health problems.”

Theresa Burke, founder of the pro-life group Rachel’s Vineyard that counsels women who have had an abortion, said the Danish study “is a perfect example of the pro-choice activism that is allowed to appear in reputable medical journals. You can no longer trust science to tell the truth.”

As a result, she said, women are not being warned of the real mental-health risks of abortion and are not being treated afterwards, increasing the chances they will have relationship difficulties, eating disorders or depression, and will choose to not have children.

Register Correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.