“There’s so much misinformation, so many myths about abortion. Abortion will lead to substance abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts; abortion is bad for your health; every woman is going to regret it,” said social psychologist Brenda Major, a distinguished professor emeritus in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Women who had an abortion in the first trimester were no more likely to have mental health problems than women who continued with an unplanned pregnancy, the APA review concluded.
The research also found no difference in mental health outcomes between a first trimester abortion and having an abortion later in the pregnancy.
Sources of misinformation
“There are states in which women are told that because they’re having an abortion, they’re at increased risk for depression, suicidal ideation, post traumatic stress disorder and more,” said Julia Steinberg, an associate professor of family science at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
In fact, the best predictor of not faring well after an abortion was a “prior history of mental health issues,” Major said. “The best predictor of substance use after an abortion was if you were already a substance abuser, and the best predictor of depression after abortion was if you’ve been depressed before you had one.”
Abortion misinformation also comes from published studies in academic journals that conclude abortion does cause mental health problems, experts say.
“The studies make it look like there is a debate, but what’s really going on is those studies are very poorly conducted,” Steinberg said. “They are not methodologically rigorous, and they don’t adhere to scientific principles.”
The 2008 APA task force published a scathing rebuke of the research quality of many studies which found mental health concerns after abortion. Studies often failed to control for factors such as rape, sexual or partner violence, or a woman’s history of prior mental disorders or substance abuse, the task force said.
“We reviewed every legitimate study that had ever been done on this topic,” Major said. “The methodological flaws in so many of the studies that are being cited as showing harm to women’s mental health as a result of having an abortion were just egregious.”
Yet this belief that abortion harms women’s mental and physical health has been used to justify “waiting period laws, two-trip requirements (in which women have to come back twice) and telling women inaccurate information around abortion medication,” Steinberg said.
Being denied an abortion
A 2020 study looked at the short- and long-term impact of being denied an abortion. Results showed women who were turned away were more likely to experience significant anxiety and stress.
“And then at the time of being denied an abortion, those symptoms go even higher. And then over time, they do dissipate,” said Biggs, an associate professor at UCSF.
After five years, the study found women denied an abortion were more likely to “live in poverty and much more likely to suffer economic hardship, including more bankruptcies, debt and challenges meeting basic living needs,” Biggs said.
Women who were turned away were also more likely to be tethered to a violent and abusive partner, and to have chronic health conditions, Biggs said. “They also lowered their aspirations (for the future), and they were less likely to achieve them,” she added.
If a woman denied an abortion had existing children under 5, those children were less likely to meet their developmental milestones, more likely to live in poverty, and less likely to have bonded with their mother, the study found.
Will these outcomes affect more women now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned?
“I’m completely overwhelmed with worry,” Biggs said. “I worry about people being able to get wanted care. Some will have to overcome huge amounts of obstacles in order to access care.
“Then there are some women whom I worry will use other less safe methods to self-manage the pregnancies or carry to term in a situation that they deem is not ideal for them,” Biggs said.
Correction: A previous version of this story attributed findings to the Turnaway Study that were from a different study by Antonia Biggs.