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Does Abortion Traumatize Women?

Does abortion leave some women severely emotionally traumatized? That question has been the focus of a long bitter debate, with some claiming that abortion can cause a syndrome similar to post-traumatic stress disorder dubbed "post-abortion syndrome."

A new study out today is wading back into this hot-button question --and concludes that research exploring this issue remains unreliable and politically slanted.

In 1989, then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop concluded in a letter to President Reagan that the politics of abortion had skewed scientific research into this question, leaving the evidence inconclusive. Over the years, other reviews have found any emotional toll of abortion is the result of normal stress and coping. The American Psychological Association reached similar conclusions earlier this year.

In the new study, Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and his colleagues combed through the scientific literature published on the subject since 1989. Of the more than 700 articles the researchers found, the team identified 21 they considered the best based on a variety of standard scientific criteria, including whether the study involved at least 100 subjects, followed subjects for at least 90 days and compared the women who had abortions to those who did not. The researchers then rated the studies based on whether they used an appropriate comparison group, used valid mental health measures, took pre-existing mental health status into account, and controlled for potentially confusing factors and other measures.

In the December issue of the journal Contraception, the researchers report that the highest quality studies tended to produce neutral results--finding that women who had abortions tended to fare no better or worse emotionally than those who did not. In contrast, the studies the researchers deemed the weakest "consistently" tended to find women who had abortion suffered emotional distress.

Based on the findings, the researchers conclude: "In the 20 years since Koop's review, scientists are still conducting research to answer politically motivated questions... If the goal is to help women, we are obligated to base program and policy recommendations on the best science, rather than using science to advance political agenda."

Anti-abortion groups, however, dismissed the new paper. Moira Gaul of the Family Research Council, for example, said the analysis itself was politically motivated and flawed. She says the researchers failed to include studies that did find an association and did not properly apply their own criteria to rating the studies they did include. She called for the federal government to fund new research into this issue.

What are you thoughts? Would anyone feel comfortable sharing their experiences?

By Rob Stein  |  December 4, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Women's Health  
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I had an abortion about 18 months ago. It was possibly the biggest and hardest decision I've ever made. Do I believe I made the right choice for my circumstance? Absolutely. Was it easy? Not on your life. Did I go through a period of darkness or depression? Yes, but it began when I first learned I was pregnant, not when I made the decision. In fact once I made my choice, I felt like I could finally begin to deal and cope with my roiling emotions. My absolute disappointment in the father. My absolute disappointment in myself. No one forced me to make the choice, I own my choice. Just like no one forced me to engage in activity that led to my pregnancy. That also was my choice. I thought of the potential joys and sorrows of birthing and raising a child with very little support from the father and I knew it would not be an easy road. Possible but not easy. I thought of the potential grieving on my part and judgement from others if I had an abortion. An equally difficult but different road. So I made my choice.

Do I feel I was emotionally tramatized? No. I did mourn make no mistake, however I have not had any disabling depression as a result. My most tramatizing moment came when the father contacted me about a year ago after 8 months of complete silence from his end. When I told him there was no baby, he seemed relieved and almost cheery. That he made light of my decision and never gave myself or the future of the child one thought until he broke up with his girlfriend and decided "he missed me" is what tramatized me. That he could be so selfish angered me. I do not fear becoming pregnant or raising a child or having to examine my circumstanced should I face this same difficult choice. I fear meeting more men like him. I believe getting involved in another relationship with the same dynamics that led to my pregnancy would be much, much more tramatizing than having another abortion. I can live with my choice and thinking about it or re-examining the circumstances that led to having an abortion does not make me run the gambit of emotion anymore nor has it for a while now. I don't think about it daily anymore and when I do, I still believe I made the correct decision.

Just my 2 cents here.

Posted by: palmettogrl | December 4, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Also, isn't the rate for post-abortion depression the around the same as postpartum depression? Just asking.

Posted by: palmettogrl | December 4, 2008 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Yes, abortion does traumatize women -- especially the females that are aborted. There are two victims in every abortion.

Posted by: southardsm | December 4, 2008 12:32 PM | Report abuse

The review failed to include three new studies all showing abortion leads to significant mental health problems for women.

Last week, Dr. Priscilla Coleman, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University, and her colleagues published a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research showing the link exists. See

The research team found induced abortions result in increased risks for a myriad of mental health problems ranging from anxiety to depression to substance abuse disorders.

The number of cases of mental health issues rose by as much as 17 percent in women having abortions compared to those who didn't have one and the risks of each particular mental health problem rose as much as 145% for post-abortive women.

For 12 out of 15 of the mental health outcomes examined, a decision to have an abortion resulted in an elevated risk for women.

"What is most notable in this study is that abortion contributed significant independent effects to numerous mental health problems above and beyond a variety of other traumatizing and stressful life experiences," they concluded.

Earlier this week, researchers at Otago University in New Zealand reported their findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry and found that women who have abortions have an increased risk of developing mental health problems. See

The study found that women who had abortions had rates of mental health problems about 30% higher than other women. The conditions most associated with abortion included anxiety disorders and substance abuse disorders.

Abortions increased the risk of severe depression and anxiety by one-third and as many as 5.5 percent of all mental health disorders seen in New Zealand result from women having abortions.

A third study, from a team at the University of Queensland and published in the December issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, found women who have an abortion are three times more likely to experience a drug or alcohol problem during their lifetime. See

The study showed that women who had experienced an abortion were at increased risk of illicit drug and alcohol use compared with women who had never been pregnant or who gave birth.

Posted by: sertelt | December 4, 2008 1:10 PM | Report abuse

There's also the argument that women who are predisposed to mental instability or have addictive personalities are more likely to be in positions and make decisions leading to unplanned pregnancies and possibly abortion. This would then be supported by the studies linking abortion to depression. Remember that correlation does not equal causation.

Also, I really do want to see a comparison of rates of diagnosed postpartum depression to diagnosed post-abortion depression. I really think they are much more similar than anyone is willing to admit.

Posted by: palmettogrl | December 4, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Palmettogrl, I will tell you that 16 years after having an abortion and with 2 happy, healthy daughters being raised in a stable relationship, you should never regret doing what is right for you and by extension any children you may have. I feel awful for the children who have the misfortune to live with parent(s) who were not ready or interested in being parents... The other side of the equation southardsm refers to.

Posted by: flabbergast | December 4, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I had an abortion 12 years ago, and have no regrets. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew immediately I'd have one. I was young, single, and not in love with the man I was with. I couldn't imagine him in my life forever, tethered to me because of the baby. Even though right away I knew what I needed to do, it was not easy by any means. It was a profoundly sad and painful experience. I felt guilty, and stupid, and angry. I mourned the loss and eventually got over it. So many of my friends have had similar experiences. They are are well and balanced, some are now moms--and very happy. Today I have a beautiful daughter, who is my joy. When I got pregnant with my little girl, I was ready that time to be a mom. I love being a mother. It suits me. I have no regrets.

Posted by: daughter121 | December 4, 2008 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I have known four women in my life who have had abortions. I'm sure there are more, but they never cared to share such personal information. Of the four, I believe two suffered no ill affects. They have gone on to have healthy relationships and gorgeous children. The other two had issues; of those two one of them had serious issues relating to the abortion. She never got over it and never forgave herself for it. Later in life she was not able to get pregnant again and viewed the abortion as the single biggest mistake of her life.
I used to wonder why women who had abortions wouldn't consider carrying the baby to term and then offering it up for adoption to a childless couple. But for some women maybe carrying the baby and giving it away would prove almost as traumatizing. But at least the stigma of aborting a child would be avoided.

Posted by: kate19 | December 4, 2008 8:09 PM | Report abuse

In the 1970's I had two abortions. I did not at the time question my decision, nor have I since. I already had one child; I was divorced and had no family support and depended entirely upon myself for earning a living. I suffered no depression nor regrets. I had a successful career and a good life. I met and married a man six years younger than I. He knows and understands about the abortions. We have been most happily married for 23 years. I am so thankful that I made the decisions which were best for me at the time.

Posted by: ANNON2 | December 4, 2008 11:21 PM | Report abuse

My story was that my birth control failed. It was a one-nighter with an old and dear friend. I talked with him about our options, but he was living on nothing while supporting an ex-wife and their two kids. He had nothing to give and I respected that he was upfront about it.

Could I have made it work? Maybe. But I wasn't going to do it alone.

Could I have carried to term and gone the adoption route? I struggled with this, as I worked for a foster care agency at the time that was devoted to keeping kids within their families when their parents were unable to parent. In other words, you don't give up your baby -- it's yours or else your family can raise it, but no strangers are allowed in the equation.

Although my personal situation (working 70-hour weeks and no support network) was the ultimate deciding factor (and it was a quick decision), working for a pro-life and pro-family organization that would frown upon adoption squashed any "maybe" thoughts I might have had about not having the abortion.

But was I screwed up for life because of it? Hardly. I was annoyed that I had to have the mandatory counseling session. I almost punched one of the protestors who tried to get in my way. I wanted this over and done with so I could resume my life.

The only real change in me was immediately afterward. I noticed I'd developed a very angry streak. Everything grated on my nerves for a while -- mostly people who thought the world should revolve around their problems and issues while I was strong enough to deal with something so incredibly big, all on my own.

My physical healing took a while, which was an inconvenience, and sure there were moments where I could have used a friend to help me suss out the crap that was popping up in my head, which was mostly that how could I at (then) age 27 not have my life together enough to have even contemplated keeping it?

I'm 34 now and my life is still a mess. I still work 70-hour weeks and I travel a lot on business. I would not be able to work/travel as much as I do if I had a child. And now my mother is living with (read: dependent on) me. I'm stretched to the financial and mental breaking point from THAT. Can you imagine how terrible a child's life would be in this mix?

I'd like to be a mom, sure. But I want a life partner first and foremost. And it is only within a strong, equal partnership that I would even consider wanting to bring a child into the world.

In any case, I hope we can stop having this debate on a federal level, and certainly on a federal FUNDING level, when we could be using this time and money to ensure that the people who ARE in this world are safe, warm and healthy.

Posted by: dcwriterdawn | December 5, 2008 12:05 AM | Report abuse

I agree with palmettogirl that I'd like to see a study comparing postpartum depression with depression following an abortion. I've never had an abortion, but following the birth of my first child, I had panic attacks so bad that I seriously considered killing myself. If I had not already been under the care of a mental health professional, I think I might have done it.

I love my daughter very much, but the process of pregnancy and childbirth were the worst experience I've ever had, bar none.

For that matter, being a parent is incredibly difficult, no matter how much you want and work for a child. (I went through IVF to get my daughter and she still makes me want to scream on a regular basis.) Women who have an abortion may get depressed afterward, but parenting is a much harder proposition, I'll bet.

Posted by: marag | December 5, 2008 8:03 AM | Report abuse

I stumbled upon this article while looking for something else and feel compelled to comment. Thirteen years ago I had an abortion, feeling that I could not financially nor emotionally support a child at that time. I have since married the father of that baby and we have four wonderful children. There is not a day, however, that I don't ponder the fate of my decision to terminate my first pregnancy, and have gone through a lot of stress and grief in the process. As I rock my one year-old to sleep at night, I think of the baby whose life I chose to end, what he or she would look like now- if he or she is better off having not been born when I was ill-prepared to raise it?

In the end, I believe that the trauma many women feel over abortion depends on their ability to adequately justify, to themselves, their role in ending a life, and their belief in their right to do so. Personally, I go back and forth on the issue- the abortion I had in the mid 90s was heartbreaking in large part because the Dr. who performed it was a pervert and came onto me, as I was sobbing uncontrollably, just before emptying the contents of my uterus. Many women (and men) are probably unaware that even in this day and age, in our country, where abortion is legal, it can still be a barbaric procedure and can be very victimizing.

I also found that the trauma I experienced was exacerbated by the seemingly flippant manner in which I was treated by the staff of Planned Parenthood, an organization which, as a feminist, I had supported and believed in, but which let me down when I had to make this life-altering decision. I found that the organizations I turned to wanted me to be absolute about my feelings-and were in no way able to cope with my confusion- they either wanted me to definitely be ready to abort or definitely be sure I was not going that route. There was no counseling which didn't have a slant one way or another-so really, I was on my own.

In pursuing adoption of older children last year, and hearing the compelling and heartwrenching stories of children who are unwanted and abused, I would have a hard time weighing the trauma of my abortion experience with that of children caught in the nightmare which is this country's foster-care system. While abortion is certainly a terrible reality, no matter which side of the political spectrum you find yourself, the 500,000 children currently without permanent homes in the U.S. is the scourge of this nation, and an issue, of epidemic proportions, which deserves to be a priority for all of us, pro-life or pro-choice.

Posted by: rockbottommama | December 6, 2008 10:29 PM | Report abuse

"Emotional distress" is a pretty broad term and I think it's fair to say that life causes it. As I heard a performer at a pro-choice rally say once, "No one wants to get up on that table." But they choose abortion over either giving it up for adoption (how can anyone who has ever been pregnant call that an easy choice? to live with that degree of care, the stir of fetal movement, the responsibility for so long and then to live your life knowing that the being you created is somewhere else?) or derailing goals (education, profession) because of a conglomeration of cells. It is not a baby. It is not. It has the potential to become one. (And in fact traditional cultures often say pregnancy begins with "quickening"--the first movement--after which my comfort with the morality of abortion drops.)

And, yes, I have personal experience with the phenomenon. My two beautiful, cherished, wanted children would not be alive today if either of those two zygotes that had resulted from birth control failure were not terminated. I have no guilt, only relief that I live in a country where I have the legal right to decide when to become a mother.

Posted by: kittkicks | December 10, 2008 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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