To justify government restrictions on bodily autonomy, anti-abortion advocates have emphasized the traumatic psychological effects of abortion. Pro-life crusaders often pin their political position to questionable statistics, like those from a much criticized 2009 study which concluded women who have abortions experience a 138 percent higher risk of mental health problems than women who have given birth. But according to research from a new five-year study of nearly 1,000 women, there is no evidence to back up such claims.
Starting one week after their subjects sought abortions, the authors of the study published in JAMA Psychiatry tracked participants every six months for five years, assessing each woman's psychological health and the impact her choice to have an abortion had on her life. Out of the group, 273 women received first-trimester abortions, 452 received second-trimester abortions, and 231 were denied abortions because their pregnancies had advanced past their clinic’s legal limit to perform the procedure.
Speaking to The New York Times, one of the researchers M. Antonia Biggs concluded that “women denied an abortion have more anxiety, lower self-esteem, [and] less life satisfaction than women who are able to get an abortion." However, by six months to a year, the mental health of these women approximated that of women who did have an abortion.
"This study does indicate that denying women the right to have an abortion based on the faulty assumption that we are preserving their mental health is clearly a misguided notion."
Dr. Claire Dowdle, a licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a non-profit serving women, children and families tells Bustle that the results of this study are not surprising. "Part of what makes an experience anxiety provoking or even traumatic is a perceived or real lack of control," she explains. "Although both groups are experiencing similar levels of depression, we’re seeing greater levels of anxiety in the group that is denied having an abortion and is therefore no longer given a choice."
Despite this, every individual processes their experiences differently, so it is important not to over-generalize. "It may be true that for some women, aborting a child can be a traumatic experience," Dowdle says. "However, for other women this may be an empowering choice, one that allows them to have more control over their lives and that is ultimately better aligned with their present and future resources. But this study does indicate that denying women the right to have an abortion based on the faulty assumption that we are preserving their mental health is clearly a misguided notion."
Now more than ever, reproductive rights are under siege. Our president-elect has spoken out in favor of punishing women who have abortions, and his chosen vice president has supported measures which require the burial or cremation of any tissue from a miscarriage or abortion. As the upcoming administration prepares to roll back Roe v. Wade, women's health advocates and activists are mobilizing across the country, and input from the scientific community is vital to this process. To protect the mental health of women, studies like this one are important to take into account when states decide what kind of psychological counseling, invasive procedures, and long waiting periods are required before women are granted permission to have the procedure they seek.
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