Study on link between abortion, mental health
Monday 1 December 2008
Study examines link between abortion and mental health
Women who have an abortion face a 30% increase in the risk of developing common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, according to a new study from the University of Otago, Christchurch.
But the researchers, writing in the December issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, say their findings point to a “middle-of-the-road” position on abortion; they do not support either the strong pro-life or pro-choice arguments.
The study found, the overall population effects of abortion on mental health are small. The researchers estimated that exposure to abortion accounted for between 1.5% and 5.5% of the overall rate of mental disorders in the general population.
The conditions most associated with abortion included anxiety disorders and substance use. In contrast, none of the other pregnancy outcomes was consistently related to significantly increased risks of mental health problems.
However the research findings have implications for the legal status of abortion in New Zealand and the UK where over 90% of terminations are authorised on the grounds that proceeding with the pregnancy will pose a serious threat to the woman’s mental health. This study backs up other overseas research which concludes that having an abortion may be associated with increased risk of mental health problems.
Professor David Fergusson, John Horwood and Dr Joseph Boden, studied the pregnancy and mental health history of over 500 women. The women have taken part in the long-running Christchurch Health and Development Study from birth to the age of 30.
The women were interviewed six times between the ages of 15 and 30. At each of these assessments, the women were asked whether they had been pregnant and, if so, what the outcome of that pregnancy had been.
They were asked whether the pregnancy was wanted or unwanted, and whether this had caused them to be upset or distressed. Initial reactions to the pregnancy were coded on a 5-point scale, from very happy to very unhappy.
They were also given a mental health assessment during each interview, to see if they met the diagnostic criteria for major depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol dependence and illicit drug dependence.
The researchers also took into account other confounding factors which might be associated with increased risks of various pregnancy outcomes and/or mental health outcomes. These included childhood socio-economic circumstances, childhood family functioning, parental adjustment, exposure to abuse in childhood, individual characteristics, educational achievement, and adolescent adjustment.
Overall, 284 women reported a total of 686 pregnancies before the age of 30. These pregnancies included: 153 abortions (occurring to 117 women), 138 pregnancy losses (including miscarriage, stillbirth and termination of ectopic pregnancy), 66 live births that resulted from an unwanted pregnancy (or one that provoked an adverse reaction), and 329 live births resulting from a wanted pregnancy (where there was no reported adverse reaction).
This study was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand
Fergusson D, Horwood LJ and Boden JM (2008), Abortion and mental health disorders: evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study, British Journal of Psychiatry, 193: 444-451