omnibus omnia

UK psychiatrists say abortion harmful to women’s health

In Abortion, Culture War, Debate, Ethics, Feminism, Health, Human Rights, News, Opinion, Politics, Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, Science, Suicide, Values on April 30, 2008 at 20:10

Abortion could pose a psychological health risk, says the British Royal College of Psychiatrists on the basis of recent studies that, among others, point to the heightened suicide rate among women who’ve had abortions. It had previously stated that there was “no evidence” that abortions caused psychiatric problems, but it now admits this finding to be based on “inconclusive” research data. This is according to the National Catholic Register, whose article states that:

[O]n March 14, Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a surprising statement that women could be at significant risk for psychiatric disorders following abortion…

[R]ecent studies have likely influenced the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ turnabout. A large Finnish study published in the British Medical Journal in 1996 found a six-fold increased risk of suicide rates among women who had had abortions.

Another study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry in 2002 examined 173,000 California state health records and found that women were 63% more likely to receive mental care in the 90 days following an abortion than giving birth. They are also significantly more likely to be treated in the four years the study followed for mental illness including neurotic depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

And in 2006, a major longitudinal study at the Christchurch School of Medicine in New Zealand found that women at 25 years of age who had an abortion were subsequently more likely to suffer “depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviors and substance use disorder”…

For more, see the article.

For my part, I must say I’m surprised it took the Royal College this long to admit the ambivalence of the research evidence, and I’m disturbed at the previous failure to inform women of the possible (whether probable or not depends on further findings) mental health risks associated with terminating pregnancy. My experience with friends who’ve undergone abortions suggests that the situation is much more complicated than a simple out-and-exit, and I’m glad that the College has acknowledged the fact.

At the same time, I think we in the pro-life movement should be wary of immediately trumpeting this as conclusive evidence of the psychological evils of abortion, since, to begin with, natural science promises no more than probability in its conclusions, so empirical findings have to be verified intersubjectively. On the other hand, we may be thankful that the Royal College’s statement serves to undermine the optimistic dogmatism of, ironically enough, the pro-abortion movement, and to stress the need for further study.

Whether this influences either side of the abortion debate is a different question. Pro-choicers, being of the belief that abortion is a moral right, would be loathe to surrender the “right” to abortion notwithstanding its possible risks; while pro-lifers know and believe that killing a human being is wrong regardless of its material consequences: Murder doesn’t become right simply because the perpetrators and accomplices don’t “get affected”. I only which that our most helpless sisters and brothers didn’t have to die from our social indecision…

Related posts: Why we are not “pro-choice” (part 1 of 2), Why we are not pro-choice (part 2 of 2)

  1. Sadly, this study won’t mean much to the general public – there’s a demonstrated risk of depression with any surgery. Unless you go out of your way to hide those study results, of course. But god wouldn’t want us to lie to people.

  2. As the saying goes-There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The semi-ironic statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, and succinctly describes how even accurate statistics can be used to bolster inaccurate arguments.

    The best predictor of post-abortion mental health is a woman’s health prior to the abortion.

    Organizations, like Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists (who didn’t even do the study, and evidently are unaware of the problems with these older studies, and also unaware or more current and accurate studies) are susceptible to political and special interest pressure. The best example of this is the case study of the the change in status of homosexuality in the DSM-IV –accomplished without any supporting studies, but more of a reaction to the growing political power of the GLBT lobby).

    There is a current study (more recent, and accurate since it takes factors, other than pregnancy termination, that may also contribute to mental health problems.
    I would recommend you know what you are talking about before you encourage people to jump on the bandwagon, that use scare tactics and threaten women’s autonomy by citing “statements” that women ignore, don’t know, or are misled as to what is in their best interests, thus proving that she is incompetent to make these decisions.
    That is the end game since the Pro-life lobby has failed with every other tactic.

    The new study in BMJ Public Health (which can be found at- examines depression in women and the relationship of past abortions to the condition. This new report is particularly interesting because it attempts to control for the effects of sociodemographic factors and considers the women’s experiences of intimate partner violence, recognizing that multiple factors may impact a woman’s mental health.

    Although the study focuses on Australian women (if it’s OK to use Finnish women, there should be no objection), it may be of interest to readers in other countries, especially in the light of recent, strong-arm and dishonest attempts by anti-choice groups to promote the existence of a so-called “post-abortion syndrome,” or causal link between abortion and depression, which has thus far been unsupported by the medical evidence.

    In the new study, researchers surveyed Australian women ages 18-23, collecting data on sociodemographic variables, reproductive history, and intimate partner violence. The women also completed depression scales and questions about past diagnosis of depression, with a follow-up survey conducted four years later.

    Before controlling for other variables, a previous pregnancy termination or having two or more children was associated with an increased risk of depression.
    However, when the researchers controlled for those other factors, there was no longer an association between abortion and depression, and the increased odds of depression for those with two or more children dropped to be ALMOST INSIGNIFICANT.

    The authors found that, even after controlling for sociodemographic factors, experiencing intimate partner VIOLENCE had a significant effect on the odds of depression, suggesting that is VIOLENCE A MORE IMPORTANT FACTOR THAN EITHER ABORTION OR CHILDBEARING WITH REGARDS TO WOMEN’S HEALTH.

    Where are all the religious agencies that address domestic violence and date rape. If they are concerned about women’s mental health (this would be a good faith way to show it) they would be more effective putting energy toward these issues.

  3. Thanks to all for the comments.

    To Lucy: Thank you especially for a substantive and well-reasoned comment and for the link to the Australian study; and I agree on the need to refrain from hasty conclusions in view of the methodological considerations you pointed out. I must only point out that the study you noted, though it seems to take a sound approach to all possible variables in the sample group, still requires further corroboration through other empirical studies.

    Note however its statement that factoring in socio-demographic variables (marriage/ relationship, education, location) “reduces the odds ratios associated with pregnancy termination”. (See original here.) As to this disjunctive treatment of “other” sociodemographic variables, violence, and pregnancy terminations, I must ask: Before we as readers of the study immediately conclude on its basis that abortion (and other pregnancy termination) is a negligible factor in depression, shouldn’t we also relate the its results with those on the statistical link between precisely these factors?

    To explain: The study treats poverty and violence as control factors relative to the incidence of abortion, but this is a methodological step that requires further examination. If other studies show that abortion incidence is directly proportional to violence and other sociodemographic factors–in other words, if women who have abortions tend to also be the victims of poverty and/or violence–then we may end up ignoring the possibility that poverty/violence-caused abortion qua abortion is a statistically significant factor in depression. Simply stated, it may be that poverty causes abortion causes depression, and not simply that either poverty or abortion causes it. (Of course, it may also be that I simply misunderstood the study, and if so, please feel free to correct me.)

    We can both agree, I think, that a study on the question of post-abortion depression, whichever side of the debate its results seem to favor, should not be deemed conclusive without sufficient cumulation of evidence. My point, indeed, is that in the way of all empirical research, nothing can be deemed definitive in such a way that bars further examination. To say otherwise would be to adopt a dogmatism of conclusions that has no place in scientific debate, however much even positive science needs assumptions in methodology. I look forward, therefore, to a fruitful exchange of views between both sides.

    God bless you all.

  4. You can’t make that kind of jump; well you can, but it’s the same problem.

    If you want to make claims about the relationship between things like violence, poverty, and any other factor, the study must be designed to show those things.
    I am not saying there is no relationship, there is A GOOD CHANCE THERE IS SOME RELATIONSHIP, but with the church already having a credibility problem, I think one needs to tread very lightly here.
    Either abortion is wrong because it is wrong and the church should be courageous enough to say that Truth is enough.
    Anything in addition to that WITHOUT CREDIBLE STUDIES TO SUPPORT IT, appears to be marketing Truth-it’s not strong enough to stand on it’s own, so associate it with other factors that have consumer value….like using sex to sell toothpaste.

    If the Church is sincerely concerned with these social issues, then let it demonstrate it without attaching it to an agenda…otherwise it seems disingenuous.

  5. To Lucy: Thank you for the comment. You raised 3 points, I think, that merit due response (which I’m afraid will be quite long).

    1. As to the study, you’re quite right that it’s not designed to determine the effect of poverty- or violence-induced abortion on the rates of depression; and that was indeed my point. Hence, it’s not legitimate to conclude on its basis that abortion itself has no causative link to depression, but only that poverty-independent abortion in particular does not. In short, it’s not basis enough to say that abortion is not a health risk.

    In terms of its methodology, I was questioning the idea that abortion can be comprehensively considered independent of its social context (something of which some prochoicers and prolifers are culpable). Like I said, the study treats poverty and abortion as independent factors; it assumes that either poverty or abortion tends to increase the likelihood of depression, so that (allowing for the limits of the study) if poverty causes it, then abortion does not. I think though that a contextualized study might show a different pattern–i.e., that poverty causes abortion causes depression–and that this must be studied before any hasty conclusion.

    2. As for the use of abortion studies to promote a policy objective or “agenda”: I must respond that a position may be true for more than one reason, and all those possible reasons must be considered if we are to assess an issue accurately. Also, a proof that may convince some people may not convince others differently situated, making it necessary to refer to other reasons. You’re certainly right that truth is truth whatever the consequences; but it may be proven as truth by many methods, including medical ones.

    Thus, a prolife position (e.g., that abortion is wrong) may be true for one reason (e.g., that abortion goes against human dignity or, for believers, the norms of a Deity), but it may also be true for other reasons (e.g., that abortion is harmful for medical reasons, or that it harms social policy), and all thee must be considered if we won’t commit an irrational reductionism. From an intersubjective perspective, pragmatists may be easier to convince by material reasons than by appeals to dignity (B.F. Skinner comes to mind), and so any favorable medical evidence would therefore be useful as a tool for debate.

    Thus also, I would personally defend the intellectual right of prochoicers to argue not only from a “right to privacy” (based on a reading of the Constitution or even, if I understand Dworkin rightly, from natural law), but also from the reported health hazards of pregnancy. The reason is clear: policy objectives or “agendas” do not exist in a universe separate from the one we see, and they can be backed by material evidence as well as non-material reasons like right and dignity. The only reservation is that material evidence must be proven with proper methodology and with due regard for the limits of inductive logic.

    3. As for the credibility of the Church: I must disagree with the use of this argument, since it seems to be an ad hominem argument that has no direct relevance to the issue. Whether a person is perfect or flawed has nothing to do with whether he/she is right about an issue; even a Hitler or a Stalin may be right when he denounces inequality; even a Gandhi or Mother Theresa may be wrong on civil politics.

    Since the argument was raised, however, let me say in response that while the political influence of the Church has no doubt suffered from the recent scandals, it does not affect her intellectual standing as the oldest institution that constantly deals with ethics on a theoretic and practical basis. (Nor does it affect what we believe to be her supernatural standing as a community of sinners that is also the Body of Christ and the pillar of truth [1 Tim. 3:15].) Even a non-Christian who doubts the Church and her leaders must respect her careful inquiry about these questions, even if he/she disagrees with the conclusions.

    In any case, though I never mentioned the Church in my blog post, if she did use medical reasons to defend prolife positions, it would be entirely legitimate as I explained above. Therefore God bless you, and may the debate be fruitful. I look forward to your response.

  6. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Anorak!!!!

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