February 2011 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
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Studies Debunk Post-Abortion Syndrome Myth

Opponents of a woman’s right to choose abortion often cite the claim that women who undergo abortions suffer from mental health problems, or what they have labeled “post-abortion syndrome.” Two recent developments, however, could potentially put this anti-choice argument to rest. First, a Danish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows “no causal link between abortion and mental health problems.”[1] A second report, Perceptions of Male Knowledge and Support among U.S. Women Obtaining Abortions,” , published by the Guttmacher Institute, finds that most women who obtain an abortion have partners who are both aware and supportive of their decision, perhaps contributing to the mental health stability of women who choose to have an abortion.[2]
Although the Danish study, Induced First-Trimester Abortion and Risk of Mental Disorder, authored by Trine Munk-Olsen and colleagues, serves to confirm what an already large body of evidence has shown for some time, it is remarkable for its uncommonly rigorous and comprehensive methodology. The researchers in Denmark made thorough efforts to lend their study unforeseen authority in this field, including the use of a very large sample size (84,620 women) and a reliance on complete patient medical registries as opposed to retrospective self-reports from women (eliminating the possibility of underreported abortions, births, and/or mental health disorders).[3] Furthering the study’s credibility, the researchers strongly controlled for the incidence of mental health in women before abortion, which the Guttmacher Institute refers to as “a critical factor that many other studies do not control for sufficiently, if at all.”[4]
Nancy Shute of National Public Radio reported on the study and included commentary from Robert Blum, a former president of the Guttmacher Institute and current chair of the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Blum praised Munk-Olsen’s work, saying, “This is an extremely, extremely well done study.”[5] He added, “There is no evidence that abortion predisposes a woman to psychiatric and mental health problems. . . . There is no post-abortion trauma, post-abortion syndrome, or anything of the like.”[6]
The Guttmacher report could help to explain one factor contributing to the lack of mental health problems post abortion. The study, which was based on a sample of 9,493 women surveyed in 2008, reveals that an overwhelming majority of women who receive abortions inform their male partners with whom they are pregnant, and perceive those partners to be supportive of their decision to terminate their pregnancies.[7] Such findings are significant, as “[m]ale knowledge and support for the abortion is positively associated with women’s post-abortion well-being and adjustment.”[8] The report concludes that in order to increase social support for women who undergo abortion, it may be helpful for education and counseling efforts to include or reach out to male partners.[9] The study will appear in the March issue of Women’s Health Issues.
Studies attempting to prove the existence of a post-abortion syndrome or that women’s mental health suffers after an abortion are often politically motivated and scientifically unsound. For instance, when Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, he ordered then surgeon general C. Everett Koop to write a report concluding simply “that abortions are bad for women’s health.”[10] Such tactics continue to this day. In an October 2010 analysis, Julia Steinberg of the University of California–San Francisco, and Lawrence Finer of the Guttmacher Institute debunked the findings of a 2009 study by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues that claimed that women who reported having an abortion were at an increased risk for anxiety, mood disorders, and substance abuse relative to women who had never received an abortion. Notes Steinberg, “We were unable to reproduce the most basic tabulations of Coleman and colleagues. Moreover, their findings were logically inconsistent with other published research.”[11] She adds, “[R]esearch claiming to find relationships between abortion and poor mental health indicators should be subjected to close scrutiny.”[12]
Now that the body of methodologically and scientifically sound evidence supports the argument that abortion does not cause mental health problems in women, the Guttmacher Institute writes, “researchers should consider shifting their focus to related issues that might be more valuable to explore, such as the factors that cause women to experience mental health problems in the first place.”[13] Alternatively, researchers might explore the causes of post-partum depression. The Danish study by Munk-Olsen and colleagues also found that among those women included in the study who chose to have babies, as many as 25 percent of them experienced “severe mental disorders, including psychosis and depression after delivery.”[14] Therefore, pregnancy and delivery, rather than abortion, may pose the potential mental health risks to women.

[1] “Comprehensive New Study Finds No Causal Link between Abortion and Mental Health Problems,” Guttmacher Institute, 31 January 2011, accessed February 16 2011, <http://www.guttmacher.org/media/inthenews/2011/01/31/index.html>.
[2] “Most Women Obtaining Abortions Report Their Partners Know Of and Support Their Decision,” Guttmacher Institute, 1 February 2011, accessed February 16 2011, <http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2011/02/01/index.html>.
[3] “Comprehensive New Study Finds No Causal Link Between Abortion and Mental Health Problems.”
[4] Ibid.
[5] Nancy Shute, “Abortions Not Linked to Mental Health Issues,” National Public Radio, 27 January 2011, accessed 16 February 2011, <http://www.npr.org/2011/01/27/133237875/study-abortions-dont-cause-mental-health-issues>.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Rachel K. Jones et al., Perceptions of Male Knowledge and Support among U.S. Women Obtaining Abortions (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2010), 2.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 3.
[10] Nancy Shute, “Abortions Not Linked to Mental Health Issues.”
[11] Rebecca Wind, “New Study Debunks Research Suggesting Abortion Leads to Mental Health Problems,” Guttmacher Institute, 13 December 2010, accessed February 16 2011, <http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2010/12/13/index.html>.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Comprehensive New Study Finds No Causal Link Between Abortion and Mental Health Problems.”
[14] Shute, “Abortions Not Linked to Mental Health Issues.”