Abortions Don't Harm Women's Mental Health. Being Denied Them Does.

It's time to end the big lie that abortions make women depressed.
Deborah Jaffe via Getty Images

Several states around the country have laws requiring that women who seek abortion services be warned about the potential long-term mental health risks of ending a pregnancy. In Texas, for example, a new state-mandated booklet says that women report a range of emotions after the procedure, including depression, flashbacks and thoughts of suicide.

There is only one problem. It is not true.

According to a new study published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, women who had an abortion were at no-greater risk of longterm depression or anxiety five years later.

“We found no evidence that abortion causes mental health harm,” M. Antonia Biggs, a social psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco and the lead author on the publication, told The Huffington Post.

Conversely, women who were denied abortion services (because they were just past their facility’s gestational limits) reported greater anxiety and diminished self-esteem and life-satisfaction soon after they’d been turned away.

“If we’re concerned about women’s mental health, this really supports the idea of expanding access to abortion care,” Biggs said.

The new study represents the best evidence to date on the topic, Biggs argued. She and her team tracked nearly 1,000 women, recruited at 30 abortion clinics across 21 states. They spoke with them on the phone one week after they either had or were denied an abortion, and then semi-annually for five years.

In the late 1980s, then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop argued that research hadn’t yet provided conclusive data on the potential mental health effects of abortion on women. He called for a five-year study to help fill in the gaps.

Though decades have passed, the researchers say theirs is the first to respond to that specific recommendation, and it adds to a growing body of research that shows abortion does not automatically cause psychological harm.

Yet that has not stopped anti-choice legislators from perpetrating the myth. According to The Guttmacher Institute, 17 states across the country require that women receive counseling before an abortion. Among those, nine mandate that women be warned about supposed long-term mental health risks. In West Virginia, a pamphlet warns that women may experience subsequent nightmares, alcohol and drug abuse and chronic relationship problems.

Biggs said it is not her job as a researcher to change policy, but she hopes that health policies are grounded in evidence. And the evidence here is clear.

“If we want to give women the most accurate, up-to-date information,” she said, “we should not be telling them that abortion leads to negative mental health outcomes.”

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