A scientifically rigorous study has finally been done to answer the question of whether having an abortion is likely to constitute a psychological trauma for the woman. The answer, published in the latest issue of the American Psychiatric Association's Psychiatry, is an unequivocal "no."
This has political and policy significance. The assertion, from anti-abortion groups that it does, has influenced state laws, some of which require that women have pre-abortion counseling that states that terminating a pregnancy may cause women to experience emotional and psychological trauma.
Nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions in a nationwide sample were followed for five years through interviews every six months. Those who had the procedure did not have any more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or dissatisfaction with life than those who were denied the procedure because their pregnancies were past the cutoff time at the clinic they applied to.
In fact, the only group that did have an increase in symptoms, was those who were not allowed to have the procedure. Some of those who were denied went elsewhere and subsequently had an abortion; others carried the pregnancy to term and delivered the baby. In about six months, both of those subgroups had an emotional adjustment similar to the women who had gotten an abortion at the original clinic.
The study was done by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Their methodology differed from prior studies in that it studied only women who sought an abortion and compared the emotional outcome of those who did, with those who did not, have an abortion.
Prior studies had often compared emotional outcomes of women who had abortions with women who chose to give birth -- according to the report -- "two groups considered so different that many experts said little could be learned from comparing them." Another difference was that other studies failed to account for whether women had previous emotional difficulties. The UCSF study did factor this in, using it as one criterion in choosing matching groups to compare.
There is something for both sides to like in this study. Pro-life groups can point to the fact that those women who initially sought an abortion, but were unable to have one, were not, as a group, significantly more emotionally disturbed by the experience. As Katie Watson, a bioethicist at Northwestern University said: "What this study tells us about is resilience and people making the best of their circumstances and moving on."
On the other hand, pro-choice groups now have some valid data to use in opposing state laws and in fighting court challenges that try to make abortion illegal or to impose strict limits, using the "emotional trauma" argument.
What the study does not do, of course, is settle any moral questions about abortion or even tell us anything about when "life begins." Those are philosophical, ethical, and religious questions.