Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
December 20, 2016 by Chanel Dubofsky
In 1988, then President Ronald Reagan charged Surgeon General C. Everett Koop with the task of creating a report declaring a link between abortions and decreased mental health quality. Koop didn’t deliver on the study; instead, in 1989, he sent Reagan a letter which stated that “the available scientific evidence about the psychological sequelae of abortion simply cannot support either the preconceived notions of those pro-life or those pro-choice.” Koop recommended that in order to assess the actual effects of abortion on women’s mental health, a long and comprehensive study needed to be conducted.
The notion that having an abortion will destroy you emotionally didn’t begin with the Reagan administration, and it didn’t end with Koop’s assertion that there was not enough data to prove it. Anti-choice folks claim the existence of “Post Abortion Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” indicated by guilt, anxiety, avoidance of children and pregnant women, numbness, depression, suicide, etc, after having an abortion. Although neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged Post Abortion Syndrome as being real, that hasn’t stopped the anti-choice movement from perpetuating the myth of it, particularly in crisis pregnancy centers.
In order to assess the long term effect of abortion on women’s mental, physical and socio-economic lives, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) began the Turnaway Study, the first to respond to Koop’s call for a more complex study of the relationship between abortion and mental health. The Turnaway Study recruited about 1,000 women from across the country, between January 2008 and December 2010, who were seeking abortions. These women were recruited from 30 abortion facilities and 21 states. Some got the abortion they wanted, and others were turned away––hence the name of the study––because they were beyond the gestational age permitted to obtain an abortion. On December 14, 2016, ANSIRH released the results of the Turnaway Study, which concluded in December 2015.
Here’s what the study revealed: Women who were denied an abortion were associated with mental health difficulties, specifically anxiety and depression. Women who were able to access the abortion they wanted had more positive outcomes in terms of mental health (so much for the accusation that women regret their abortions). Over the course of 5 years, however, the two groups actually reached the same place, in that the mental health of women who weren’t able to get an abortion did improve. To recap: getting an abortion didn’t negatively impact the mental health of the women who had one in the short term or the long term, but getting turned away for one did, at least in the short term.
It’s not difficult to imagine why being denied an abortion would be a crushing emotional experience for someone, especially since we know those seeking an abortion have thought about their decision and don’t end up regretting it, in spite of what anti-choice politicians believe. If you don’t want to have a child, for whatever reason, being told that you have to carry a pregnancy to term is devastating, especially if you don’t have health care, housing, or a safe and supportive partner. Whether or not you got the abortion, you probably had to take time off from work to make a doctor’s appointment, travel to get there, and find child care for the kid(s) you statistically probably have.
If you go through all of this, only to be told that you can’t have an abortion—maybe the two days it took you to travel to the clinic meant a difference in trimesters, now making the procedure impossible—it seems understandable that you might experience anxiety and depression.
The Turnaway Study noted that women’s self esteem levels were lowest just before having an abortion, but were back up after the procedure was had.
How could this dip be explained? Certainly, there’s the possibility of pre-existing mental-health conditions like depression, but let’s not underestimate the role of abortion stigma. Abortion stigma, the negative beliefs applied to those who seek and have an abortion, is where we get ideas like “abortion is dangerous and/or dirty,” “abortion providers aren’t legitimate doctors, “people who have had abortions shouldn’t talk about the procedure or their experiences,” etc. Abortion stigma can be, and often is, internalized. We probably haven’t even thought about its impact on us, and may not, until we, or someone we love, need an abortion. If we acknowledge the presence of abortion stigma, it’s not hard to figure out why someone about to have an abortion might not be feeling great, but why, when it’s over, they’re feeling better about having been able to exercise power over their own body.
The findings of the Turnaway Study verify that having an abortion doesn’t erode one’s mental health. A woman’s abortion decision should not be influenced by faux science that relies on the manufacture and perpetuation of lies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.