Having An Abortion Doesn't Negatively Affect Women's Mental Health, But Here's What Does
The platform of anti-choice advocates usually prioritizes the potential life of a fetus over the life of an existing woman carrying said fetus. When these arguments have turned briefly toward advocating for women, the justification is often that abortions are distressful and dangerous. The most comprehensive study on the longterm effects of abortions has revealed that having an abortion doesn't have a negative impact on mental health — but being denied access to one does.
A study from the University of California San Francisco — the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind to date — followed the outcomes of nearly 1,000 women who were seeking abortions over a five-year period. Each of the women who participated in the study were interviewed once a week starting when they first sought an abortion, and were followed up with every six months for the next five years.
Researchers found that, while having an abortion didn't have a negative longterm impact on a woman's mental health, being denied access to an abortion did. Women who were seeking an abortion, but were ultimately unable to have one, had "more anxiety, lower self esteem, and less life satisfaction," the study's author, M. Antonia Biggs, told TIME.
This study was actually part of an even larger study, the Turnaway Study, which aims to evaluate the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a woman's life. One of the most common arguments against abortion stems from the previously understudied theory that abortions cause irreparable psychological harm to a woman. As it stands now, many states require women to undergo counseling or psychiatric evaluations if they seek an abortion, according to the New York Times.
The idea that having an abortion will cause a woman to have increased depression and anxiety is steeped in the bias of those who assert it — those who conveniently forget for the sake of argument that an unplanned, unwanted, pregnancy can also have devastating psychological and physical consequences. In those cases, an abortion is a life-changing — if not life-saving — intervention.
The study from UCSF found that, for women who were denied an abortion, levels of depression and anxiety were higher than those of the women who were able to have the procedure when both groups were interviewed a week after they started seeking an abortion. Previous studies, although not great in number, have found that the highest levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms, and lowered self-esteem were reported just before an abortion took place, but steadily decreased once the procedure was performed. Other studies have shown that a significant number of women report feeling relieved after having an abortion.
Then there are those who assert that abortions will cause irreparable physical damage as well, including infertility. When abortions are performed in clinical settings by licensed physicians, or via treatments prescribed and monitored by a medical professional, they are safe and do not cause infertility or other complications commonly ascribed to them. Pregnancy can be dangerous for some women who have various physical and mental conditions, as noted by the National Institute of Health. Some women seeking an abortion may be doing so not because they don't want the pregnancy, but because to carry the pregnancy to term would endanger their lives, or the life of the fetus. Women who have been raped, or are victims of incest, may be dealing with the psychological and physical trauma of those experiences, and may be unable to cope with the physical, emotional, psychological, and socioeconomic realities of a pregnancy.
What is true is that an abortion is not an entirely risk-free procedure, neither is an appendectomy. In fact, risks associated with appendectomies include those of general anesthesia, which is usually not required for an abortion. If it is required, the procedure does not last very long, and a person would be under anesthesia for considerably less time than required for other common procedures.
Abortion complications, including subsequent infertility, are far more likely when an abortion is performed at-home, or by a non-licensed person — which would also be true if you were attempting to remove your own wisdom teeth, or had a friend stitch up a cut on your leg instead of going to the emergency room.
Access to safe and legal abortion is currently under threat, which means more women may find themselves taking risks in order to have one. As it stands now, the process of procuring an abortion depends largely on location: states have different rules governing access to abortions. Ohio just banned abortions at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and other states may follow suit. While many are concerned that president-elect Donald Trump's administration may seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protects abortion on a federal level, individual states have been proposing — and imposing — new regulations on abortion, and may continue to dismantle access state by state. President-elect Trump acknowledged in his first post-election interview with 60 Minutes that women "may have to go to another state" if abortion access is widely disrupted.
The stress women in these studies felt prior to obtaining an abortion was likely due to a combination of socioeconomic, physical, and emotional factors. An unplanned, unwanted pregnancy combined with disparity in access, not to mention the potential financial burden, certainly creates a complex picture. One that researchers acknowledge has not been widely studied, and that needs more research to fully understand both the impact of unplanned pregnancies on women, as well as the detriment to women when the government attempts to regulate her body, her right to choose, and her options when it comes to reproductive health.