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Abortion, Mental Health, And Other Life Outcomes

This month’s issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research contains an article debunking a controversial 2009 study (published in the same journal) which claimed to have established a link between abortion and mental health problems. Julia Steinberg, an assistant professor at UC San Francisco, was one of the critique’s authors. She says the original study was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data.”Studies of abortion are often fraught with political controversy, and this one was no exception: Its now-debunked findings undergirded laws in seven states requiring women seeking abortions to be informed of the procedure’s adverse psychological consequences. Of course, one flawed study does not invalidate an entire field of research, and the question remains: What are scholars’ other findings on the outcomes of abortion?

A 2007 study on abortion and life outcomes (as opposed to health outcomes) offers some perspective. The researchers’ data came from a longitudinal study including “492 female participants for whom full information on pregnancy history and educational, income, welfare dependence, employment and partnership outcomes to age 25 was available.” The authors examined “the relationship between pregnancy and abortion history prior to age 21 and selected social and economic outcomes at ages 21–25.” They found that, in all categories, women who did not become pregnant before age 21 fared better than those who did become pregnant but did not seek an abortion. And in six of the ten categories, women who became pregnant and had an abortion fared better than those who became pregnant but did not. The former “were significantly more likely to have attended university, to have gained a university degree and to have gained a tertiary qualification other than a university degree, and were less likely to have been welfare-dependent. They also had significantly higher mean personal income and experienced a significantly lower mean level of partner violence.” The authors note that these findings may seem to indicate that abortion led to positive outcomes in the areas they studied, but they caution that most of their findings can be explained by the fact that the women who sought abortions were already a more socially and educationally-advantaged group, even before they became pregnant. “When due allowance was made for prepregnancy factors,” they wrote, “only the educational differences between pregnant women seeking and not seeking abortion remained statistically significant.”