Quick Hit: What happens to women who are denied abortions?

They’re three times more likely than those who got an abortion to be below the poverty level two years later, for one thing.

The New York Times Magazine takes an in-depth look at a first-of-its-kind study–which we’ve mentioned before–that’s trying to determine how women who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term after being turned away from abortion clinics fare compared to demographically similar women who got the abortions they wanted. Here’s what head researcher Diana Greene Foster of UCSF has found so far:

When she looked at more objective measures of mental health over time — rates of depression and anxiety — she also found no correlation between having an abortion and increased symptoms. In a working paper based on her study, Foster notes that “women’s depression and anxiety symptoms either remained steady or decreased over the two-year period after receiving an abortion,” and that in fact, “initial and subsequent levels of depressive symptoms were similar” between those who received an abortion and those who were turned away. Turnaways did, however, suffer from higher levels of anxiety, but six months out, there were no appreciable differences between the two groups.

Where the turnaways had more significant negative outcomes was in their physical health and economic stability. Because new mothers are eligible for government programs, Foster thought that they might have better health over time. But women in the turnaway group suffered more ill effects, including higher rates of hypertension and chronic pelvic pain (though Foster cannot say whether turnaways face greater risk from pregnancy than an average woman). Even “later abortions are significantly safer than childbirth,” she says, “and we see that through lower complications and low incidence of chronic conditions.” (In the National Right to Life’s five-part response to preliminary findings of Foster’s study, which were presented at the American Public Health Association conference last year, the group noted that the ill effects of abortion — future miscarriage, breast cancer, infertility — may become apparent only later. Reputable research does not support such claims.)

Economically, the results are even more striking. Adjusting for any previous differences between the two groups, women denied abortion were three times as likely to end up below the federal poverty line two years later. Having a child is expensive, and many mothers have trouble holding down a job while caring for an infant. Had the turnaways not had access to public assistance for women with newborns, Foster says, they would have experienced greater hardship.

One thing that’s clear is that aside from the very real material differences between the two groups, for the most part, “turnaways” like the young mother S. profiled in the piece, come to bond with their babies once they’re born. While this may be taken by anti-choicers as further reason to ban abortion, it’s entirely unsurprising to pro-choicers who believe that people don’t have abortions because they’re heartless monsters but because they want to do what’s best for themselves and their current and/or future kids. As Amanda Marcotte notes, “Being able to love a child who is actually here while being opposed to having the child while it’s in the womb highlights the very real difference between an actual person and a potential one.” 

The human capacity to adjust to whatever life throws at us is incredible–but that doesn’t make it any less awful that the turnaways were denied a (constitutionally protected) choice–thanks to unjust, discriminatory policies and logistical hurdles that make abortion difficult for many poor women to access before it’s too late.

Check out the rest of the piece here.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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