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Abortion May Be Less Traumatic Than Childbirth, Study Finds

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As the abortion wars heat up once again, there's a new study out that's sure to add fuel to the fire. A leading medical journal reports that having an abortion may be less damaging to a woman's mental health than having a baby.

The study -- which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week -- tracked 365,550 girls and women in Denmark who had a first-trimester abortion or first-time delivery between 1995 and 2007. Researchers selected females with no history of mental health problems prior to getting pregnant. They then compared the rate of mental health treatment (as measured by an inpatient admission or outpatient visit) within the 12 months after the abortion or childbirth as compared with the 9-month period preceding it.

The study found that women who had an abortion sought psychiatric treatment at roughly the same rate before and after that event, while the incidence with which women who gave birth sought counseling increased dramatically after having a baby.

Specifically, one percent of women sought help for possible mental disorders in the nine months before the abortion, while 1.5 percent did so in the 12 months that followed. On the other hand, 0.3 percent of women who gave live birth visited a psychiatrist for the first time in the nine months before birth compared to an average of 0.7 percent in the year that followed. So even though women seeking abortions are statistically more likely to have emotional problems to begin with, the study concludes they actually "suffer" less after the abortion than their counterparts who have children.

The scholars' conclusion? Contrary to popular belief (and heretofore received scientific wisdom), women's mental health is not seriously compromised by having an (early) abortion.

The study has not been immune to criticism. A papal advisor and neonatologist, Dr. Carlo Bellieni, for example, argues that the researchers should only have studied women who sought counseling and got a diagnosis, since there are lots of potential reasons one might seek counseling following childbirth that don't necessarily rise to the level of mental illness. Nor, according to Dr. Bellieni, does the study account for women who "hid" their abortions and avoided care. Finally, Dr. Joe DeCook, director of operations for the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, argues that in focusing on the comparative well-being of the two groups of women in the short run, the study may discount the long run effect of abortions, which may be more adverse.

These are all valid issues. (Although with regards to the last point, I'd argue that we ought to pay more attention to and study the long-term adverse mental health effects of having unwanted children.) But the researchers were constructing a study and they had to start somewhere. And they have already begun work on a new study looking at the risk of recurrence of a mental health disorder following an abortion.

According to Brenda Major, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a leading scholar in this field, "One of the things that was nice about these data was that it was more rigorous than most that I've seen."

This study is good news for those who believe we need to look at the hard facts around abortion rather than crafting policy based on emotions. But it's also particularly well-timed for the current political moment.

According to my colleague David Gibson, 2011 is a propitious moment for the pro-life movement politically. They have more allies in Congress, more allies in state governments, and a public opinion that is evolving towards greater, rather than less, restrictions on abortion.

The pro-life movement has used the idea of abortion and regret as one of its primary selling points in its efforts to stamp out abortions entirely, or at the very least, to make them prohibitively costly to obtain. This is evident in laws like the one adopted by Oklahoma last year requiring patients to undergo an ultrasound and to listen to a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion.

However, if some states decide pregnant women must view their ultrasound images, let us also require these women to learn about the mental health risks that may confront them if they have an unwanted child.

Then there's the issue of first-term vs. late-term abortions. My colleague Melinda Henneberger wrote compellingly a few weeks back about the late-term abortion clinic that Dr. Kermit Gosnell was running -- apparently unregulated -- in Philadelphia. If that tale of perforated wombs and severed infant spinal chords didn't "curl your hair" as my late grandmother would say, then nothing will.

But as many people have pointed out, one of the reasons that the typically poor, typically minority female population who frequented Dr. Gosnell's clinic went there was because so many obstacles exist for poor women to obtain early abortions in the first place (e.g. mandatory waiting times, high costs.) To my mind, this new research points directly towards conducting a cost-benefit analysis of terminating pregnancies earlier rather than later. Do we really want more Kermit Gosnells on the horizon?

We can and must debate abortion rights in our country and what role -- if any -- government financing for abortions ought to play.

But let's base that debate on facts, not fiction.

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Filed Under: Abortion, Health Care, Woman Up

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12 Comments

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FooFKittlen

1)There are 1.3 million abortions each year what do you plan on doing with all the unwanted children born?

2)If your answer is place them up for adoption then why are there 115,000 children each year waiting to be adopted. (A white baby is 7x more likely to be adopted than a minority baby) Consider the fact that only 36% of abortions are to non-hispanic white women

3)Consider the fact that 69% of women who get abortions would qualify for government assistance. Right now the government pays an average of $1624 per year per child (not including delivery) on medicaid. (that totals $14,567,280,000 additional per year to cover their healthcare alone.) What program do you suggest we cut to make up this money? Are you willing to let your child's education suffer from budget cuts to make up this amount? That doesn't even factor in the amount that a child in foster care costs.

4)With the increase in 33% of the population what do you suggest that we do to prevent over population in an economy that already has problems supporting it's citizens? I think that we would have to cut down the increase in population and the only way that we could do that is by banning fertility treatments because they are people who are seeking to have a child that could be adopted, we could limit the number of children a couple could have to one or require that people who wanted to have 2 children would also have to adopt a third.

February 04 2011 at 5:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jfportis

The undenialble fact is that an abortion kills a living human being. That the Supreme Court chose not to accord that living human being the status of "person" does not change that fact. The same court in an earlier period of U.S. history refused to accord "personhood" to a slave. With respect to the study, I think in fiarness one would have to seperate whether the mental health visit was related to the birth "trauma" or the subsequent difficulties of raising a newborn child. They are infact two different events.

February 02 2011 at 11:31 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Paul

The stress of having a baby is out in the open. Abortions are seldom announced and often kept hidden, both from others and from the woman's own thoughts, and sometimes it takes time for the bad effects to surface.

Please, beware of studies like this. A little knowledge becomes a dangerous thing when you think you know more than you do. Having a baby always was stressful and is even more so in our family-unfriendly society. But having an abortion runs counter to the human spirit and the hard-wired call of women.

February 02 2011 at 6:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
johmich5

This study concludes: “The finding that the incidence rate of psychiatric contact was similar before and after a first-trimester abortion does not support the hypothesis that there is an increased risk of mental disorders after a first-trimester induced abortion.” Anyone can finance a study to “prove” anything. This study was funded by Susan Buffett , Warren Buffetts daughter who is a pro-choice activist. Abortion is big business and the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation promotes it. It is hardly an non-bias study. There are hundreds of studies that “prove” the opposite; that abortion causes harm to the mother physically and psychologically. For example: Dr. Anne Speckhard at the University of Minnesota found, "After 5-10 years 54% of mothers choosing abortion had nightmares, 81% had preoccupation with their aborted child, 35% had perceived visitations with their child, and 96% felt they had taken a human life." A survey of 1900 women who had abortions were asked "Were there any negative psychological effects... (caused) by your abortion?" 94% answered Yes and 2% answered No. A study from researchers in Sir Lanka finds women who had abortions had a 3.42% increased risk of breast cancer compared with those who kept their baby. Professor of Endocrinology at City University of New York, Dr. Joel Brind, found, “the single most avoidable risk factor for breast cancer is induced abortion.” from Brent Rooney and Byron C. Calhoun, "Induced Abortion and Risk of Later Premature Births," 8 J. Am. Physicians & Surgeons 46 (Summer 2003). Forty nine statistically significant studies demonstrate a increase in premature births or low birth weight risks in women with prior induced abortions including Brent Rooney and Byron C. Calhoun, "Induced Abortion and Risk of Later Premature Births," 8 J. Am. Physicians & Surgeons 46 (Summer 2003). There are hundreds of studies “proving” the dangers of abortion to a mothers health. These studies far exceed the number of studies that “prove” otherwise. An honest debate about abortion side effects, would most likely result in healthier woman and less abortion. Believe what you will, but you don’t need a study to prove that abortion is a serious medical procedure that terminates human life. There is nothing good about that.

February 02 2011 at 1:58 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
johmich5

This study concludes: “The finding that the incidence rate of psychiatric contact was similar before and after a first-trimester abortion does not support the hypothesis that there is an increased risk of mental disorders after a first-trimester induced abortion.” Anyone can finance a study to “prove” anything. This study was funded by Susan Buffett , Warren Buffetts daughter who is a pro-choice activist. Abortion is big business and the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation promotes it. It is hardly an non-bias study. There are hundreds of studies that “prove” the opposite; that abortion causes harm to the mother physically and psychologically. For example: Dr. Anne Speckhard at the University of Minnesota found, "After 5-10 years 54% of mothers choosing abortion had nightmares, 81% had preoccupation with their aborted child, 35% had perceived visitations with their child, and 96% felt they had taken a human life." A survey of 1900 women who had had abortions asked "Were there any negative psychological effects... (caused) by your abortion?" 94% answered Yes and 2% answered No. A study from researchers in Sir Lanka finds women who had abortions had a 3.42% increased risk of breast cancer compared with those who kept their baby. Professor of Endocrinology at City University of New York, Dr. Joel Brind, found, “the single most avoidable risk factor for breast cancer is induced abortion.” from Brent Rooney and Byron C. Calhoun, "Induced Abortion and Risk of Later Premature Births," 8 J. Am. Physicians & Surgeons 46 (Summer 2003). Forty nine statistically significant studies demonstrate a increase in premature births or low birth weight risks in women with prior induced abortions including Brent Rooney and Byron C. Calhoun, "Induced Abortion and Risk of Later Premature Births," 8 J. Am. Physicians & Surgeons 46 (Summer 2003). There are hundreds of studies “proving” the dangers of abortion to a mothers health. These studies far exceed the studies that "prove" otherwise. An honest debate about abortion side effects would most likely result in healthier woman and less abortion. Believe what you will, but you don’t need a study to "prove" that abortion is a serious medical procedure that terminates human life. There is nothing good about that.

February 02 2011 at 1:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mattscho007

Good article really. Just a few objections. 12 months = 1.33 * 9 months So the numbers for the before and after 9 month segments should be; For abortion Before: 1%, After 1.13%. For live birth; before: 0.3% after: 0.53%. Also, aren't the majority of women who receive abortion poor? So then wouldn't they be less likely to seek care for mental health conditions due to cost? Further research could focus on the severity of mental health conditions experienced by the two groups.

February 01 2011 at 10:21 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
gcar77

"Although with regards to the last point, I'd argue that we ought to pay more attention to and study the long-term adverse mental health effects of having unwanted children."

There is twice you bring up "unwanted" children. Yet this study has nothing to do with it and your point you seem to be trying to make is that you either have an abortion, or you have an unwanted child. Which is ludicrous. Even if you don't want the child, but don't get an abortion, you can give the child up for adoption. Yet strangely (or not so strangely) you have no interest in the mental health of those mother that give children up for abortion.
Also something major missing from the study is why the women sought psychiatric help. Most of the women who went ahead with live birth may have done so because of stress or relationship issues while most of the women haveing abortion may have done so for depression.

February 01 2011 at 10:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
patti

DId they ever think that raising a child can be a bit stressful?

February 01 2011 at 8:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mdln72

I see so many problems with this study - one already noted, that it doesn't take into effect the stress of raising a baby over a period of a year as opposed to recovering from a one-time event, having a baby. Also, does it account for the possibility that women who have abortions may not have the resources to seek psychological counseling that women who can "afford" to have children do? Also, does it compare women who have had abortions with women who have had "unwanted" babies? Too many apples and oranges.

February 01 2011 at 3:33 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mdln72's comment
mdln72

Correction - I meant "one time event" of having an abortion, not having a baby.

February 01 2011 at 3:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rann948

Denmark? LOL Loose ladies inc.? No worries, do your drugs openly, spread your legs whenever,get an abortion, no problem. All those Scandinavian countries make sex the alternative to having a productive, interesting life. A study from them is a joke.

February 01 2011 at 12:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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