By Rebecca Bowers

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Results of a new study of almost 400,000 women indicate that having an abortion does not increase the risk for depression in women. The publication comes at a time when many state policies restricting abortion access in the United States have been justified by claims that abortion causes women psychological harm.

  • According to a 2008 report from the American Psychological Association, the best indication of the state of a woman’s mental health following an abortion is the status of her mental health prior to the abortion.
  • Of the 20 states that include information on the risks of abortion, eight states (Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia) include information that stresses negative emotional responses.

Results of a new study of almost 400,000 women indicate that having an abortion does not increase the risk of depression for women.1 The publication comes at a time when many state policies restricting abortion access in the United States have been justified by claims that abortion causes women psychological harm.

Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health and colleagues looked at data that identified a cohort of women who were born in Denmark. The study included a total of 396,397 women.

An analysis of the data shows 4.4% of women had no children and had a record of at least one abortion in the first trimester, 18.2% had at least one childbirth and no abortions, 3.4% had at least one abortion and one childbirth, and 74.1% had not given birth and had not had an abortion. For 59,465 women (15.0%), records indicated a first use of an antidepressant.

In looking at the data, researchers noted that women who had a first abortion had an increased risk of a first-time prescription for an antidepressant when compared with women who had not undergone an abortion. The risk of first-time prescription for antidepressant medication was similar to the year prior to and following an abortion. Although giving birth was related to a lower chance of receiving an antidepressant prescription, the likelihood of receiving a prescription increased after the birth of a child and rose for five years after childbirth. Researchers identified previous mental health care and prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antipsychotic medications as the strongest predictors of new prescriptions for antidepressants.1

Julia Steinberg, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Science in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, says policies founded on an idea that abortion negatively affects the mental health of women are “misinformed.”

“Abortion is not causing depression,” said Steinberg in a press statement. “Our findings show that women were not more likely to suffer from depression after an abortion compared to beforehand.”

Women may experience a range of emotions after an abortion; many report feeling satisfied or relieved.2 Research indicates that teens are no more likely than older women to experience negative mental health outcomes after an abortion.3 According to a 2008 report from the American Psychological Association, the best indication of the state of a woman’s mental health following an abortion is the status of her mental health prior to the abortion.4

Check States’ Policies

A statewide policy analysis from the Guttmacher Institute indicates that of the 20 states that include information on the risks of abortion, eight states (Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia) include information that stresses negative emotional responses.

Inaccurate information can be detrimental for women. Results from a 2014 study suggest that among women seeking an abortion in Utah, the proportion who falsely believed that abortion causes depression or anxiety increased from 24% to 34% after they received inaccurate state-developed counseling on the mental health risk of an abortion.5

In Texas, women are given a booklet warning them that they are at increased risk of becoming suicidal if they have an abortion. New research from the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a collaborative research group at the University of California, San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, has found no evidence that women who have abortions are at higher risk of developing symptoms of suicidal ideation than women denied abortions.6

REFERENCES

  1. Steinberg JR, Laursen TM, Adler NE, et al. Examining the association of antidepressant prescriptions with first abortion and first childbirth. JAMA Psychiatry 2018; doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0849.
  2. Major B, Cozzarelli C, Cooper ML, et al. Psychological responses of women after first-trimester abortion. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2000;57:777-784.
  3. Warren JT, Harvey SM, Henderson JT. Do depression and low self-esteem follow abortion among adolescents? Evidence from a national study. Perspect Sex Reprod Health 2010;42:230-235.
  4. American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion. Report of the APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, 2008. Available at: https://bit.ly/2JNTU4Y. Accessed June 22, 2018.
  5. Berglas NF, Gould H, Turok DK, et al. State-mandated (mis)information and women’s endorsement of common abortion myths. Womens Health Issues 2017;27:129-135.
  6. Biggs MA, Gould H, Barar RE, Foster DG. Five-year suicidal ideation trajectories among women receiving or being denied an abortion. Am J Psychiatry 2018; doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18010091.