The Complicated Link Between Abortion and Mental Health

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After, say, arcane changes in the tax code, abortion is the least fun topic of public conversation in America today. The opposing sides of the reproductive-rights debate are like estranged in-laws after a few too many drinks at Thanksgiving — in a family in which each side believes the other is full of murderers.

So I’m going to say this quickly in the hope that it might provide a snapshot of where the debate over abortion and mental health stands — and then duck: a new study from Oregon State University has found that teens who have abortions are no more likely to have mental health issues, like depression, than teens who carry their babies to term. (More on What the U.S. Can Learn from the Dutch About Teen Sex)

Wait, wait. This contradicts studies, some from pro-life organizations, that suggest that women do tend to have worse mental health after abortions. The Oregon folks suggest that this is because women who have a number of unintended pregnancies have worse mental health to begin with.

Using the data from the new study, the Guttmacher Institute, which is pro-choice,  suggests that state laws requiring counseling about possible mental health repercussions after abortion might “jeopardize women’s health by adding unnecessary anxiety and undermining women’s right to informed consent.”

This contradicts the advice of the Royal College of Physicians, which having been asked by the British Government to look into the correlation between mental health and abortion did a literature review in 2008, and said … the results were inconclusive and further study was needed. But it added that “adequate and appropriate information regarding the possible risks and benefits to physical and mental health” were crucial.

The American Psychological Association argued, also in 2008, that there was no correlation between terminating a pregnancy early in the first trimester and mental illness in adults, but then did note that in studies conducted in Australia, New Zealand and Finland, some correlation had been found. (More on Health Check-Up: Women & Health)

Perhaps the most definitive of these was the 30-year longitudinal study of women by Otago University in New Zealand that found that “evidence is consistent with the view that abortion may be associated with a small increase in risk of mental disorders.” This study adjusted for pre-existing conditions, and it noted that “other pregnancy outcomes were not related to increased risk.”

In other words having an abortion can make some women mentally unstable. But apparently not all women, and not all teens.

Can we at least agree on that?