Why do so many researchers dismiss women’s negative abortion experiences?


A meta-analysis published in 2011 in the British Journal of Psychiatry reignited a debate about abortion and its effects on mental health. Research psychologist Dr. Priscilla Coleman combined the results of 22 studies, and her review found that women who obtain abortions are 81 percent more likely to experience mental health problems than women who have not aborted. The multiple-study analysis included data on 877,181 women from six different countries, conducted between 1995 and 2009. 

Higher rates of mental health problems associated with abortion

In each of the 22 studies used—even ones that purported to show that abortion does not have any emotional side effects—higher rates of mental health problems were found among post-abortive women. The rates of anxiety for women who had aborted pregnancies were found to be 34 percent higher than women who carried to term. Depression among post-abortive women was 37 percent higher, and heavier alcohol use was 110 percent higher. Marijuana use was 230 percent higher in women who had abortions, and suicidal behavior was found to be 155 percent higher. 

Though women who had abortions were found to be 55 percent more likely to struggle with their mental health than women who did not abort, Coleman’s study was met with opposition. However, dissent to research similar to Coleman’s typically has not refuted these findings but has instead resorted to avoidance strategies and deflection.

Research on abortion tends to be biased

This is because much of the research surrounding abortion tends to be plagued by bias. In 1967, the American Psychological Association took the stance that abortion was a “civil right.” There was no evidence such a procedure improved a woman’s mental state, and it was merely assumed that terminating an unexpected pregnancy would reduce stress.

Once abortion was legalized, there were only a few studies published that assessed a woman’s emotional well-being after an abortion. However, most of these studies asked women how they felt a few hours after the abortion had taken place, and the ones that followed up with women waited two weeks at most before inquiring about their condition again. Most of the women declined to answer questions about their abortions. 

Since women who reported negative feelings in the follow-ups were classified as a minority, the conclusions highlighted the experiences of the women who reportedly felt fine after an abortion. This was used to support the idea that mental health benefits and abortion access were correlated.

READ: Men describe suffering from post-abortion trauma: ‘I was totally destroyed’

Researchers have long sought to discredit women’s negative abortion experiences

Challenges to this narrative arose when the women who were dismissed as a minority reached out to one another to share their stories of grief. Nancyjo Mann helped to draw national attention to the experiences of post-abortive women in 1982 when she founded Women Exploited By Abortion (WEBA), ensuring that almost every state had peer counseling programs. Combined with psychotherapist Dr. Vincent Rue defining “post-abortion syndrome” (post-abortion trauma) as a form of PTSD, abortion supporters were suddenly compelled to defend their position.

The testimonies of women like Mann were dismissed, and research uncovering negative psychological reactions to abortion was rejected in favor of research reporting no adverse effects. These studies, produced by abortion proponents, only analyzed women’s emotional state within the first few months after their abortions.

The controversy surrounding the connection between abortion and women’s mental health reached a point where politicians could not pretend to be unaware. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan tasked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop with crafting a report on the effects of abortion. Within his letter to the president, Koop stated there was insufficient data, and he could not offer a definite conclusionRather than resolve the issue, this sharpened the divide amongst researchers who were in disagreement about the effects of abortion on mental health.

Rue would have to wait until 1992 before his analysis of post-abortion trauma was finally published in The Journal of Social Issues, and it was only accepted so the journal’s editors could “bring balance to the special issue.” Rue’s paper was the only one published that was not in defense of abortion.

Researchers like Dr. Nada Stotland, who declared that post-abortion trauma “does not exist,” avoided referencing Rue in their publications intended to disprove abortion-related trauma. A case study by Stotland later revealed her shock when a former patient experienced a delayed adverse reaction to a past abortion after suffering a miscarriage. 

READ: Research shows post-abortion trauma is very real, and women aren’t alone

Coleman’s report was intended to weigh these results without any of the biases that often plagued such studies. Despite publicly declaring its support for abortion, the APA had released a report in 2008 that neglected to follow scientific protocols. Coleman attempted to remedy this by applying the same standards of evaluation used in pharmaceutical trials to studies on abortion, but abortion advocates made unfounded claims about the efforts behind her study.

One of the accusations leveled at Coleman was that her study failed to control for pre-existing mental health problems. However, this was not the case; Coleman’s study included numerous controls, excluding women with a history of inpatient psychiatric treatment and sleep disorders prior to their pregnancies. The study also controlled for pre-pregnancy self-esteem and other issues.

Coleman’s study was the first to utilize such controls for women with a psychiatric history, and the first to compare women who carried their pregnancies to term with women who had abortions. Most studies before this lacked a comparison group. 

Some have claimed that researchers like Coleman, who have identified risks associated with abortion, have not offered definite proof that it leads to a higher likelihood of mental health problems. Yet there is no proof that abortion has provided mental health benefits for women, especially not those who have spoken out about their trauma. Why are those who repeatedly tell us to “trust women” reluctant to accept negative abortion stories? 

Coleman’s meta-analysis should motivate us to seek ways we can help post-abortive women heal instead of dismissing their stories outright. 

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