Published October 29, 2005
New research challenges the idea that having an abortion raises a woman’s long-term risk of depression.
Abortion opponents have long argued that women often suffer depression and other mental health problems as a result of having abortions; those on the other side of the debate say there is little clinical evidence to back up the claim.
Much of the research has involved data from an ongoing study of women who were between the ages of 14 and 21 at recruitment in 1979. The findings have differed depending on who was doing the investigating.
Back and Forth Debate
In a 1992 study, Arizona State University researcher Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD, analyzed the study population and concluded that most women suffer no long-term mental health repercussions when they abort an unintended first pregnancy.
A decade later, David C. Reardon, PhD, looked at the data in a different way and concluded that abortion is linked to later depression.
Reardon found that an average of eight years after having an abortion, married women were 138 percent more likely to be at risk for depression than married women who chose to carry unintended first pregnancies to term. The association was not seen among unmarried women.
At the time, Reardon told WebMD that his research was intended to challenge Russo’s earlier findings. Reardon is director of The Elliot Institute, a research group with what he acknowledges to be an anti-abortion agenda.
In the new study, published in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal, Russo and colleague Sarah Schmiege challenge Reardon’s challenge of her original research.
Russo tells WebMD that Reardon’s work was flawed because it misidentified women who had unwanted pregnancies and excluded teens.
“Younger women tend to have the least support and the fewest financial resources,” she says. “All of these things combine to make the consequences of having a child early in life much greater than having a child later on.”
The New Analysis
A total of 1,247 women in the ongoing study who aborted or delivered an unwanted first pregnancy between 1970 and 1992 were included in the latest analysis. The women were interviewed over several years.
Russo and colleagues found that, for the most part, women who aborted a first pregnancy had the same risk for later depression as women who chose to give birth. The one exception was women who gave birth prior to 1980, when they were still teenagers.
These women were found to have a significantly higher risk of depression than women who had abortions and women who gave birth in their 20s.
The researchers conclude that, “under the present conditions of legal access to abortion, there is no credible evidence that choosing to terminate an unwanted first pregnancy puts women at higher risk of subsequent depression than does choosing to deliver an unwanted first pregnancy.”
According to the figures from the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the CDC, half of all abortions in the U.S. each year are performed on women under the age of 25, and one in five involves teenagers.
Reardon acknowledges that his research says nothing about the impact of abortion or giving birth on teens. But he contends that the evidence linking abortion with later depression and other adverse events in older women is strong.
“Nothing in the new analysis refutes our original contention that women who have abortions after adolescence are at greater risk of depression,” he says.
Roe v. Wade Revisited?
But Stanley Henshaw, PhD, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says none of the research is conclusive because teasing out the impact of abortion on later mental health is almost impossible.
The Alan Guttmacher Institute is a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis, and public education. Its mission statement says the organization has the aim of protecting “the reproductive choices of all women and men in the United States and throughout the world.”
Henshaw says Reardon and colleagues are intent on showing that abortion is linked to adverse psychological outcomes in large part to provide a legal foot in the door for overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
“They are trying to make the argument that when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade they didn’t know all of the harms that abortion would cause women,” he tells WebMD. “They have published a dozen studies purporting to show that abortion is associated with negative mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety and suicide. But if you read the fine print, all of them say that the link hasn’t been proven.”
By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Schmiege, S. and Russo, N. British Medical Journal, Oct. 28, 2005 online edition. Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD, regent’s professor, Arizona State University. WebMD Medical News: “Abortion Linked to Depression.” Stanley Henshaw, PhD, senior fellow, Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York City. David C. Reardon, PhD, director, Elliot Institute. Alan Guttmacher Institute, CDC.