New Study Sheds Light on Experiences, Risk Factors of Women Who Struggle After Abortion

Pressure to Abort, Attachment to Pregnancy and Difficulty Making the Decision Widespread Among Women Who Suffer After Abortion

A newly-published survey of women who sought help from a crisis pregnancy center after abortion sheds light on the experiences of women who suffer after abortion. Published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (JP&S), the research came from a survey of 987 women who sought post-abortion services at pregnancy centers.

According to the survey results, responses were collected from pregnancy centers in every state in the US except for Hawaii. Among the participants, 5 percent were aged 20-29, 15 percent were 30-39, 28 percent were 40-49, 37 percent were 50-59, and 15 percent were over 60 years of age, with the oldest participant being 72. Most (85 percent) were white, 8 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were black and 3 percent were of other ethnic backgrounds. Most respondents (76 percent) were married and 41 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, with only 2 percent not completing high school.

Further, most of the women (69.8 percent) had undergone one abortion, 19.7 percent two abortions, 7.6 percent three abortions and 2.9 percent four or more abortions, with nine being the highest number. Seventy percent of the participants had been 21 or younger at the time of the abortion.

Finally, 13 percent of the women reported having sought treatment from a mental health professional prior to the abortion, compared to 67.5 percent after abortion. The use of prescription mental health drugs prior to the abortion was reported by 6.6 percent of the participants while 51 percent reporting using such prescriptions following abortion.

While the results cannot be generalized to the general population of women having abortions, and most research focuses on how many women experience psychological distress after abortion, the research team pointed out that there is a need for research examining the nature of such distress:

No previous studies of this size, using a qualitative methodology based on open-ended responses from women, who have sought post-abortion care from a crisis pregnancy center, have been conducted. Broad questions posed in a safe context were expected to bring deeper understanding of the concerns and pains experienced by women who were not able to enter and leave an abortion facility unscathed. This enhanced understanding of women most likely to suffer ill consequences should add insight into the development of substantive pre-and post-abortion counseling protocols.

Aborting to Make Others Happy

The survey found that 58.3 percent of the women surveyed reported having abortions to make others happy, and 28.4 reported that they feared losing their partner if they did not have an abortion. In addition, 73.8 percent disagreed with the statement that their decision was made without even subtle pressure from anyone around them. The survey also found that many women were attached to the unborn child and experienced great difficulty with the abortion decision, with 67.5 percent reporting that it was one of the hardest decisions of their lives.

Pressure to abort, aborting a wanted pregnancy and ambivalence about the abortion decision are all risk factors for psychological problems after abortion that have been identified in previous studies. For example, in 2008 the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, issued by a group of psychologists who supported abortion, identified 15 risk factors that included “terminating a pregnancy that is wanted or meaningful”, “perceived pressure from others to terminate a pregnancy”, “lack of perceived social support from others”, “feelings of commitment to the pregnancy”, and “ambivalence about the abortion decision”.

The researchers on the JP&S survey noted that while most of the survey participants had not exhibited or been treated for mental instability before their abortions, “a large percentage presented for their abortions with well-documented risk factors.” Indeed, they stated that many likely had abortions that were “consented but unwanted,” which was described as follows in another study:

This kind of abortion is likely unwelcome because women may perceive it terminates the potential for a new life and for new relationships. It does not matter if women feel they must choose it to best safeguard the futures of themselves, significant others, unborn fetuses, or other interests. Its harm lies in that it irrevocably terminates a potential for life that these women valued. Women in these circumstances experience the most emotional distress from regret, remorse, guilt, shame, mourning, trauma, and other painful and negative emotions. … Women who agree to a consented but unwanted abortion might choose differently if circumstances were other than what they are — if they had a healthy fetus, more economic resources, greater flexibility with employment or education, or stronger social supports to make parenthood a workable option.[1]

“A complex constellation of adverse consequences”

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that 31.6 percent of the women reported no positive aspects resulting from their abortion experience, and that of the women who did report positives, most focused on benefits connected to healing or helping others, not connected to the experience itself:

Women generally did not speak of empowerment, the ability to control their reproductive destinies, liberation from abusive partners, the need for abortion in order to be competitive in the work place, etc. To the contrary, in response to the inquiry regarding any positives that emerged, many women (nearly 32 percent) expressed no personal benefits of the experience. Scores of others reported spiritual growth, involvement in pro-life efforts, and reaching out to other women who were considering the procedure or had obtained an abortion. Such positives were not immediately realized in most cases, but rather arose from excruciating psychological distress and suffering over many years, even decades.

Asked about negative aspects resulting from the abortion experience,on the other hand, women reported the feeling of having lost or taken a life (23.7 percent), depression (14.4 percent), feelings of guilt or remorse (14 percent), self-hatred/anger at self/self-loathing/feelings of worthlessness or being unworthy of love (12.4 percent), feelings of shame (10.9 percent), addiction or alcohol/drug abuse (9 percent), feelings of regret (9.3 percent), self-destructive behaviors (7.7 percent), low self-esteem (7.6 percent), feelings of fear and anxiety (7.1 percent), and self harming behaviors, feelings of wanting to die or suicidal thoughts or attempts (6.2 percent).

About these negative experiences, the researchers wrote:

[M]any women voiced deep feelings of loss, existential concerns, and reduced quality of life, with heart-wrenching clarity. For many women, the abortion experience became a pivotal point in their lives, impacting their self-image, their personality, and their connectivity to others. …The vast majority of women did not cite only one or two negative outcomes, but instead described a complex constellation of adverse consequences, often centered on the life lost. … Coming to terms with the irreversibility of an abortion decision and integrating the choice into one’s understanding of self were viewed as necessary by a significant proportion of the respondents in order to continue their lives in a positive direction.

No Benefits from Abortion

Although the survey participants were self-selected from a group of women seeking support after abortion, other studies of the general population have also found that abortion provided no mental health benefits to women. A meta-analysis combining the results of eight studies of women who experienced unwanted pregnancies, published in 2013, concluded that “there is no available evidence to suggest that abortion has therapeutic effects in reducing the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy.”

The lead author of that study, Prof. David Fergusson, who has described himself in interviews as a pro-choice atheist, also led the research team in a 2008 study that concluded that women who continued an unwanted or mistimed pregnancy did not experience a significant increase in mental health problems. Conversely, having an abortion did not reduce women’s mental health risks. Further, the researchers noted:

In general, there is no evidence in the literature on abortion and mental health that suggests that abortion reduces the mental health risks of unwanted or mistimed pregnancy. Although some studies have concluded that abortion has neutral effects on mental health, no study has reported that exposure to abortion reduces mental health risks.

The Need for Screening

The researchers also noted that “future efforts to implement woman-centered individual counseling should incorporate the well-known risk factors described above.” Such efforts should certainly include screening women presenting for abortions for known risk factors such as those identified in the APA Task Force report and other studies.

Screening is commonly carried out before medical procedures to identify which patients are likely to benefit from a treatment and those for whom it is contraindicated. Abortion businesses, however, routinely perform abortions on women who have risk factors for mental health issues after abortion.

One study found, for example, that 64 percent of the women surveyed reported feeling pressured to abort by others, which is one of the risk factors. Other risk factors include having had a prior abortion (which would include about half of women having abortions[2]), being an adolescent (about 15 percent of abortions) and having an abortion after the first trimester (about 8 percent of abortions[3]). Other risk factors besides those mentioned above include feeling unsupported in the decision to abort, a history of prior trauma or abuse, lack of social support, having a need for secrecy, feeling guilt or shame prior to the abortion, a history of prior mental health problems, and feeling unprepared to cope with the abortion, among others.

The Elliot Institute has proposed legislation that would hold abortionists accountable for failing to screen for risk factors before abortion. Nebraska now has a statute on the books that allows an abortionist to be sued for negligence for failing to ask a woman if she is being pressured or coerced to abort, or to screen women for other statistically significant risk factors that may put them at higher risk for psychological or physical complications following an abortion.

Paula Talley, who had an abortion in 1980 and has worked to get such legislation passed in other states, said that such a law might have prevented her from being coerced to have an abortion.

“My abortion counselor never asked if I was being pressured,” she said. “Nor did she inquire about my psychological history. If she had, she should have known that I was at higher risk of experiencing post-abortion trauma because I had a history of depression. Plus, I had moral beliefs against abortion, but I was rushing into a poorly thought out decision because I was so filled with fear and panic.

“If the abortion counselor had bothered to ask the right questions, she would have seen that I was more likely to be hurt than helped by the abortion, But I was never warned. They just took my money, and my baby, no questions asked.”