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.