In South Dakota, doctors have to tell people seeking abortions that they face an increased risk of suicide after the procedure. Pregnant Texans have to be handed “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet that says people who get abortions can become suicidal. And a new Indiana law requires doctors to report any psychological or emotional issues connected to abortion, including depression and suicidal ideation.
Nationwide, dozens of states have laws like this, implying patients who get an abortion will likely become suicidal — and they’re not evidence-based.
A new, landmark study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry undermines the anti-abortion argument that people who get the procedure agonize over it and so contemplate self harm. Researchers with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco followed nearly 1,000 women from 30 different clinics and learned women who had abortions had similarly low suicidal thoughts and feelings as those who were denied it. It’s the only study that compares these groups.
“This paper overcomes methodological shortcomings of previous literature,” said Dr. Antonia Biggs,a social psychologist researcher at ANSIRH and lead author of the study. “The big challenge with doing this kind of research is ideally you would have a randomize design where you assign people to a group, but you can’t do that with abortion.”
Studies that link abortion and increased suicidal thoughts don’t account for things like mental illness that put people at a higher risk. Or the study compares two very different groups, like patients who have an abortion to those who want to give birth. It doesn’t make sense to compare these groups because when someone decides to have an abortion, there are likely financial or relationship impediments to childbirth — situations that someone who decides to have a child isn’t facing, said Biggs.
So with that in mind, researchers with ANSIRH tracked the experiences of dozens of women, accounting for their mental health history, at three distinct stages in their pregnancy: those who received an abortion within two weeks of the clinic’s gestational cut-off time (452), those who had the procedure within the first-trimester (273), and those who were turned away because they were over the clinic’s gestational cut-off time (231).
After interviewing these women by phone one week after their abortion visit, researchers found 1.9 percent of the 452 women who had an abortion further into their pregnancy and 1.3 percent of the 231 women who were turned away reported suicidal thoughts. And as researchers called every six months over five years, they noticed symptoms declined significantly to 0.25 percent and 0.21, respectively. (By the end of the five years, researchers were only able to speak with 556 of the original women interviewed.) Women who ended their pregnancies later were no more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than those who had first-trimester abortions.
The study did not analyze the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among gender minorities who receive abortions.
This study is just the latest analysis from ANSIRH’s Turnaway Study, which aims to look at mental and physical health, as well as the socioeconomic outcome of unintended pregnancies. The objective is to contribute thoughtful analysis to the abortion debate.
Ideology typically dictates abortion policy. State-sanctioned counseling laws, which require doctors to tell patients misleading risks associated with abortion, gained traction in 2012 when Arizona passed one as part of an ominous anti-abortion bill. As of May 2018, 35 states have forced counseling laws on the book. And experts with the Guttmacher Institute have described them as “informational manipulation” as they “inappropriately seek to steer a woman’s decision.” The Turnaway Study backs up this point because if these laws aren’t rooted in science, why else are doctors asked to do this?