Choice Doesn’t Hurt

Does abortion cause psychological trauma? No, but judging might.

The imagined link between abortion and psychosis is just that: imaginary. But just in case we weren’t sure, last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a Danish study showing definitively that abortion does not put a woman at increased risk for subsequent psychiatric disorders.

This isn’t even news, but try saying that at the picket line. Last year’s UCSF-Guttmacher Institute study found no relationship between abortion and later mental health problems. In 2008, Johns Hopkins did a meta-analysis of studies and came to the same conclusion. The American Psychological Association’s official position is that abortion does not lead to increased risk of mental health problems, a position the association has held since 2008.

But why stop saying something just because it happens to not be true? Despite the evidence from reputable health authorities, the battle goes on. And that’s just the way the anti-choice movement likes it.

In the late ’80s, the anti-abortion movement realized that screeching about Jesus was not winning them many fans, and that most people, pro-lifers included, tended to support things like individual liberty and protecting women’s health. So instead of putting all the focus on the fetus, they added a softer, gentler, more insidious tactic: claiming that abortion hurts women. They turned the debate from one about sticky moral questions like “When does life begin?” into one about objective science and medicine, re-casting women as the vulnerable victims.

Suddenly, abortions were causing breast cancer, subjecting women to dangerous surgery, impairing fertility, and triggering a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder called “post–abortion syndrome.” If you believed the hype, women everywhere were suffering from incapacitating depression, guilt, despair, regret, and suicidal thoughts, even though not one reputable or methodologically sound study has ever supported any of these claims. At any anti-abortion rally today, the signs claiming “I regret my abortion” or “Abortion hurts women,” are likely to outnumber the signs depicting gruesomely dismembered fetuses – because it works.

Despite being medically suspect (and we’re being generous here), the mental health claim has been a successful tactic in chipping away at choice. Even the specter of these claims is enough to allow the anti-choice movement to pass laws requiring that women watch ultrasounds, receive counseling, hear inaccurate medical information, or undergo a state-mandated waiting period before having an abortion, all under the guise of concern for our welfare.

If you think the paternalistic faux concern was limited to Bible-belt senators, think again. In his majority opinion upholding the 2007 partial-birth abortion ban, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy  wrote, “The State has an interest in ensuring so grave a choice is well informed. It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns…what once she did not know.” This is for our own good, you see.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to react to an abortion. Research shows that most women report feeling relief, but some women do experience sadness or guilt. A few even experience regret. But studies have repeatedly found that the best predictor of a woman’s mental health after an abortion is her mental health beforehand. Those relatively few women who do experience prolonged grief, anxiety, or depression are more likely to have had mental health problems before the procedure, they are more likely to have less social support for their decision, and they are more likely to have been influenced by anti-choice propaganda or picketers. The stable women who were healthy and happy before they had an abortion tend to be just as healthy and happy afterward.

Choice doesn’t hurt women. Misinformation does.

Image: Joe Szilagyi