New study debunks link between abortion and mental health problems

Guttmacher Institute has a new report out about a study that tried to replicate the findings of research claiming a higher incidence of mental health problems among women having abortions.

In a new analysis, Julia Steinberg, of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Lawrence Finer, of the Guttmacher Institute, show that the findings of a 2009 study by Priscilla Coleman et al—which claimed that women who had reported an abortion were at an increased risk of several anxiety, mood and substance use disorders, compared with women who had never had an abortion—are not replicable.

This is a common finding with ideologically driven research. When another team of researchers attempts to replicate the results (a requirement for findings to be considered scientifically valid) they are unable to do so.

Steinberg and Finer’s analysis, just published online in Social Science & Medicine, examined the same dataset as Coleman et al. (the National Comorbidity Survey) and found that in every case, the proportions of women experiencing mental health problems reported by Coleman were much larger, sometimes more than five times as large, as Steinberg and Finer’s results. The Coleman findings were also inconsistent with several other published studies using the same dataset and sample.

This research shows that links between mental health and abortion are dubious at best–particularly when there is an attempt to correlate the two. The problem becomes that even research which is shaky at best is used politically to support legislation and promote policies, regardless of the science behind it.

Steinberg and Finer also examined other well-established risk factors for post pregnancy mental health problems, such as preexisting mental health disorders and sexual or physical violence before the abortion, and found that women who had had multiple abortions were more likely to have experienced these risk factors prior to the abortion than women who had had one or no abortions. Once they controlled for these factors, they found no significant relationship between abortion history and subsequent mood or anxiety disorders. These findings support the view that previous mental health status, and not abortion experience per se, is the strongest predictor of postabortion mental health.

That’s logical: if you have mental health problems before you have an abortion, you are likely to have them after. But claiming that abortion causes the problems? Not so fast.

Read the full report here.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure that pregnancy and having a kid would cause me far more mental health problems than having an abortion. Particularly, let’s see, anxiety.

    I think having kids (and being a stay-at-home mom) enormously negatively affected my mother’s mental health, as well, or at least exacerbated earlier problems.

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