If you're an adult woman, have never had an abortion, and suddenly find yourself pregnant unexpectedly, will you put yourself at risk for depression if you choose to terminate the pregnancy? The American Psychological Association says no, based on a new review of the literature presented at their annual conference this week. While women who have abortions may experience feelings of grief and loss, they aren't at any greater risk of developing mental health problems like stress, depression, and anxiety over the long haul. The APA report disputes previous findings showing that such a link does exist. "These studies, for the most part, were seriously flawed," says psychologist Brenda Major, who headed the task force that issued the report. She says they didn't take into account such things as poverty, history of emotional problems, or previous drug use, all of which increase a woman's odds of developing depression or anxiety.
I've no doubt that antiabortion groups will be sending out their own missives to dispute the findings of this review. That's because the findings apply only to a specific subgroup of those getting abortions: adult women with unplanned pregnancies, choosing to have a single abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. "The evidence is less clear" for teenagers, women who have multiple abortions, and those who have abortions later in pregnancy, admits Major. The report concedes: "A teenager who terminates her first pregnancy, for example, may experience different psychological effects compared to an adult woman who terminates a pregnancy after giving birth to several children."
And lingering distress can certainly occur for those who abort later after discovering that their fetus has a severe health problem like a malformed heart. According to one study cited in the review, those who aborted their pregnancies in these cases were more likely to be grieving months later than were those who gave birth to a healthy baby whose malformation had been misdiagnosed. On the other hand, mothers who gave birth to babies who indeed had irreversible heart problems were the most likely to still be grieving.
Certain factors were found to increase the risk of lingering mental health effects ranging from higher stress levels to anxious feelings to full-blown depression:
• Being pressured into having an abortion when the pregnancy was wanted
• Not having adequate emotional support after the abortion
• Feeling the need to keep the abortion a secret from loved ones because of the stigma associated with it
I'm not certain that this issue has been completely put to rest. Well-designed studies that track women who've had abortions through the years are still lacking. And when I asked Major if there's enough evidence to state firmly that abortions don't cause lasting emotional ramifications, she said she preferred to put it another way: "From the data we have, there's no credible evidence that there appears to be any risk."