Indiana's Anti-Choice Law Stigmatizes Abortion And Mental Illness

Anti-abortion activists are using people with disabilities as a scapegoat to further restrict abortion.
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Last week, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed Senate Enrolled Act 340, an anti-abortion law requiring physicians to report to the state any physical complications with the procedure, like uterine perforation, infection or blood clots.

It also requires doctors to report any psychological or emotional issues that are at all connected to the abortion. The 26 possible “abortion complications” listed include “psychological or emotional complications including depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety and sleeping disorders.”

The law, which proponents claim is designed to protect patients, is rooted in the anti-abortion myth that abortion causes depression and other mental illnesses. Despite the absence of a proven connection between depression and abortion, anti-abortion advocates are determined to sow misinformation and enshrine that myth in law.

The function of this new abortion restriction is to connect mental illness with abortion, in the hope that the stigma of both will further taint abortion care and thus impede access to reproductive health care. In linking abortion with mental illness in the public imagination, anti-abortion activists are using people with disabilities as a scapegoat to further restrict abortion. Rather than ensure the people of Indiana have the health care they need for both, this law ostracizes people with disabilities and people who’ve had abortions. People who live at the intersection of these two groups ― like me ― are doubly attacked.

“The law, which proponents claim is designed to protect patients, is rooted in the anti-abortion myth that abortion causes depression.”

I spent the years after high school cycling through what I would later learn were manic and depressive phases of bipolar disorder, lasting three to four months each. At the time, it felt like I was highly productive and prolific, and then extremely depressed and dysfunctional. For years, the irregularity took a toll on my life and relationships, and impacted my education.

I found out I was pregnant shortly after my 25th birthday. At the time, I was caring for my father, who I would soon lose to a brain tumor and a stroke. I knew that I was in no mental state to care for a child; I could barely take care of myself. In choosing abortion, I had the support of my partner and my parents and I was able to easily get an abortion in Texas. (Today, I might not be so lucky; Texas has enacted so many anti-abortion restrictions since then.) My decision to have an abortion was simple, and once I was no longer pregnant, I was able to keep taking care of myself.

With the support of my family, I spent the following years addressing my mental health issues. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I worked with my doctors to find the right medication; it took a few trials and errors, but I was able to get better because I could focus solely on my mental health. Without abortion, that would have been impossible.

Anti-abortion politicians, like the ones who passed Indiana Senate Enrolled Act 340, see things differently. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA) “the prevalence of mental health problems observed among women in the United States who had a single, legal, first-trimester abortion for non-therapeutic reasons was consistent with normative rates of comparable mental health problems in the general population of women in the United States.” In other words, there’s no evidence to suggest that abortion causes mental health problems. The APA goes on to state that the risk of mental health problems is the same for a woman who has an abortion in the first trimester of an unplanned pregnancy and a woman who carries her pregnancy to term.

According to the APA, one of the predictors of negative psychological effects as a result of an abortion is due to “the perceptions of stigma, need for secrecy, and low or anticipated social support for (an) abortion decision.” Stigma created by anti-abortion advocates and policies, not the abortion procedure itself, is actually what can have an impact on our mental health. Crucially, being denied a wanted abortion is more likely to harm a woman’s mental health than having one.

“Being denied a wanted abortion is more likely to harm a woman’s mental health than having one.”

However, Indiana’s new law is consistent with anti-abortion restrictions that are passed under the guise of protecting women, but that instead force an ideological agenda into the examination room. Like so many other laws ― including one passed by Idaho the week before ― it inserts the government into the exam room and requires doctors to be suspicious of any little hint a patient might give about their lives after their abortion.

For all its purported concern about supposed abortion-induced depression, the state of Indiana does little to help women experiencing pregnancy-related depression ― a genuine documented phenomenon. In 2010, a pregnant woman named Bei Bei Shuai became depressed after her boyfriend left her and she attempted suicide by ingesting rat poison. Her friends took her to the hospital and she survived ― her newborn, delivered by Cesarean section, did not. Rather than offer her the mental health treatment she needed, the state charged her with murder and attempted feticide, and jailed her for over a year while she awaited trial and a possible sentence of 45 years. Claims that the new law is motivated by concern for women’s mental health ring hollow: their actions show little concern for people with disabilities or pregnant women, and a deep investment in stigmatizing abortion and discouraging women from seeking it.

I have been mentally healthy for the past fifteen years. I was sure of my decision to have an abortion when I was 25, and I am still affirmed in it now. That decision allowed me to finish college, graduate law school and have two children that I am now able to prioritize in my life. Far from endangering my mental health, abortion saved it.

Aimee Arrambide is a Texan of Filipino and Mexican decent, working to eliminate the stigma surrounding abortion as an abortion storyteller with We Testify, a leadership program of the National Network of Abortion Funds.


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