Shutting Down the Debate: Abortion and Mental Health

That there are psychological consequences to having an abortion have been accepted by many in the pro-life and pro-abortion camps. The psychiatrist Professor Ian Brockington has commented: “Some [post abortion] mothers feel like criminals and brood over the dead foetus. Some find it hard to look at small babies and burst into tears when they see babies or when abortion is mentioned.”(1)

Perhaps most importantly, the “pro-choice” Professor David Fergusson reported in 2008 in the British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP) that his research shows that women who have abortions are twice as likely to suffer mental health issues and three times more likely to suffer specifically from depression than women who have either given birth or never been pregnant.

And yet there is an ideological drive to state that there are no psychological consequences to having an abortion.

In 2011, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, together with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, brought out a systematic review that claimed that there was no causal link between abortion and subsequent mental ill health. The steering group which produced the review included psychiatrists Ian Jones and Rock Cantwell.

The review relied heavily on a relatively small number of studies including one by a Danish researcher, Trine Munk-Olsen, which had been funded by the pro-abortion Susan Buffett Foundation. This study has been criticized by Professor Priscilla Coleman, of Bowling Green State University, Professor Fergusson and others. Fergusson noted that the study relied on people who had been contact by a doctor — although and it is widely recognized that women traumatized by abortion are reluctant to turn to the medical profession for help, the same profession that referred them for abortion in the first place.

Interestingly, the review did state “the rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth.” In other words, women who give birth following an unwanted pregnancy do not have more mental health problems than women who have abortion. There is no evidence, therefore, that abortion would of itself improve the mental health of the woman.

What then are we to make of the 98 percent of abortions in the UK that are carried out on the basis that abortion is supposed to improve the mental health of the woman? This is known as the mental health clause of the 1967 Abortion Act — the evidence to justify the clause may now be questioned.

Professor Coleman’s meta-analysis on abortion and mental health was also published recently in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The conclusion of her study is that there is an 81 percent increased risk of developing mental health problems after abortion, including anxiety, depression and substance misuse.

Subsequently, her study has been heavily criticized by Munk-Olsen and a number of others. James Coyne, of the University Of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, wrote that “the Coleman article should be retracted, not debated”. (So much for liberal tolerance.) He also complained that there were “anti-choice web sites” that were promoting the Coleman study and that the study gave comfort to “those opposed to giving women the right to choose abortion without interference.”

The fact that the editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry did not withdraw the article says a good deal about the high quality of the Coleman study.

However, it is worth noting that the Coleman study looked only at significant psychiatric symptoms such as depression and suicidal behaviour. There are also post-abortion women who come to doctors with feelings of guilt, numbness, intrusive memories and nightmares and the Coleman study would not have picked up on these.

These “softer” symptoms have been looked at by psychologists. For example, the psychologist Vanessa Davies wrote: “After my abortion, I became destructive and emotionally unstable, moody, tearful, lethargic. I was unable to forget or come to turns with what had happened.”(2) However, the American Psychological Association, with its strong “pro-choice” ideology, is unlikely to be interested.

In July of this year, there will be an international congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Liverpool. The abortion and mental health presentations will be given by Ian Jones, Rock Cantwell and Trine Munk-Olsen. Professors Fergusson and Coleman will not be presenting. Given that there is good evidence to show that some women are hurt by abortion, it is surprising that there will be such a one-sided presentation that aims to influence psychiatrists from many countries.

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Dr Pravin Thevathasan is a consultant psychiatrist in the UK. He is also the editor of the Catholic Medical Quarterly.

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