Study: No Link Between Abortion and Depression in Teens

Jodi Jacobson

A new study using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health finds no association between abortion and either depression or low self-esteem in teens within a year of terminating a pregnancy or five years later. 

A new study using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health finds no association between abortion and either depression or low self-esteem in teens within a year of terminating a pregnancy or five years later.  The researchers evaluated the outcomes for 289 female respondents who reported at least one pregnancy between 1994–1995 and 1996, of which 69 reported undergoing an induced abortion. The authors stated that “Socioeconomic and demographic characteristics did not substantially modify the relationships between abortion and the outcomes.”

The study, entitled “Do Depression and Low Self-Esteem Follow Abortion Among Adolescents? Evidence from a National Study,” was conducted by Jocelyn T. Warren, a research associate and postdoctoral fellow, and S. Marie Harvey, chair and professor, both of the Department of Public Health, Oregon State University, Corvallis, along with Jillian T. Henderson, assistant professor, University of California, San Francisco, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health.  It will be published in the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

The context for the study was to examine claims that abortion leads to depression and regret in women. A 2008 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found no evidence that induced abortion causes mental health problems in adult women, but “because of a scarcity of evidence on teens, no conclusions were drawn at that time about the impact on adolescents.” 

Yet notwithstanding the lack of actual data linking abortion with depression, the assumption that the two are linked has been used by the anti-choice movement in the media, in legislatures and in the courts. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 34 states currently require that women receive counseling before an abortion is performed and seven of these states specifically require that women be warned of possible negative psychological consequences resulting from the procedure.

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“Paradoxically,” the authors of the new study suggest, “laws mandating that women considering abortion be advised of its psychological risks may jeopardize women’s health by adding unnecessary anxiety and undermining women’s right to informed consent.”

Indeed, so pervasive is the assumption of links between abortion and depression–and so ingrained the notion that women must be protected from their own decisions–that such links were even cited by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision upholding the ban on so-called partial birth abortions.  Justice Kennedy wrote:

“While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort. . . . Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.”

Likewise, similar memes are among the numerous unsupported arguments (such as the medically inaccurate claim of “fetal pain” at 20 weeks) that have been used to support laws further and further restricting women’s rights to determine whether and when to have a child.

In 2010, Nebraska mandated in the Women’s Health Protection Act that providers screen women seeking abortion for “physical, psychological, emotional, demographic or situational” risk factors. Providers who do not comply fully with the law will be liable for damages, including “wrongful death.”

But these assertions remain unfounded and, it is clear, ideologically driven.

Warren, Harvey, and Henderson state that the young women in their study who
had an abortion “were no more likely to become depressed or have low self-esteem within the year of the pregnancy or five years later than were their peers whose pregnancies did not end in abortion.”

Consistent with previous studies of abortion and psychological outcomes, the strongest predictors of depression and low self-esteem in this study were prior depression and prior low self-esteem.  The new study is the first to look at depression and low self-esteem as potential outcomes of abortion among a nationally representative group of teens, and the results are consistent with the findings of the earlier APA report—induced abortion does not cause mental health problems in adolescent women.

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