The lead author of a major study into the effects of abortion and the mental health of women says it is important that New Zealand further researches the health consequences of abortion. Professor David Fergusson says that it verges on the scandalous that while abortion is the most common medical/surgical procedure faced by young women, around the world research into the benefits and risks of abortion has been limited, flawed and controversial.
The study, reported last month, is part of a longitudinal Christchurch Health and Development study which started in Christchurch nearly 30 years ago with 1,265 people born in 1977.
The study looked at the number of times, 503 female participants had become pregnant between the ages of 15 and 25 and whether they had continued with the pregnancy or had had an abortion.
It then measured incidents of mental disorders and suicidal behaviour over the intervals 15 to 18, 18 to 21 and 21 to 25 years against such influences as socio-economic status, childhood and family, and mental health and personality factors. Other perceived influences on a woman’s decision included the educational achievement of her parents and the number of times the profile of her family had changed.
The study found that women who had abortions by age 21 had rates of later mental disorder (depression, anxiety, substance use) that were approximately one and a half times higher than those who became pregnant but did not have an abortion. These findings persisted after statistical adjustments for a series of social, family, childhood and personal factors.
The study’s authors say the study has some limitations including the quality of abortion figures which may have been under-reported. There is also a question over influential factors that the study has not been able to cover. These include the extent to which the pregnancy is seen as wanted, the degree of family and partner support for the woman’s decision and her experiences in seeking and obtaining an abortion.
‘Notwithstanding [these] limitations, the present research raises the possibility that for some young women, exposure to abortion is a traumatic life event which increases longer-term susceptibility to common mental disorders.’
The study report says its findings are inconsistent with the current consensus on the psychological effects of abortion. The American Psychological Association said in a 2005 statement on abortion that well designed studies have consistently shown that risk of psychological harm is low.
The Christchurch group says in its report, however, that the issue of the possible harmful effects of abortion on mental health ‘remains to be fully resolved’.
Professor Fergusson says the quality of the study has been questioned. Other studies have been done on bigger samples but there has not been as much information on the participants.
This study is ‘probably the most in-depth’ given that it has had access to the participants for more than 25 years.
Professor Fergusson says the grounds on which abortions are granted in this country – that having the child would be harmful to the health of the mother – are not consistent with the research on the reasons women give for seeking an abortion.
‘This research shows that the most common reasons related to the impact of unwanted or mistimed pregnancy on life course plans including education, occupation and partnership relations. Health reasons are seldom mentioned as the reason for seeking the abortion.’
Professor Fergusson, who holds a pro-choice position on abortion, said that there was a clear parallel between abortion and contraception.
‘People can choose contraception – it’s a matter between a woman and her medical practitioner. However, government agencies have a responsibility to ensure that provision of such services is safe and to advise women on possible adverse effects.’
He believed the Ministry of Health had an obligation to monitor the adverse effects of abortion and, if necessary, commission further research.
The study concluded that there was a ‘clear need for further well controlled studies to examine this issue before strong conclusions can be drawn about the extent to which exposure to abortion has harmful effects on the mental health of young women’.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health has answered Professor Fergusson’s challenge as follows:
‘There is nothing in the research that gives us reason to advise the government to change the current policy direction.
Further research is always able to be conducted into areas of health by expert groups outside of the ministry who can apply for research grants and funding. The government supports research in the area of health by funding the Health Research Council.’
Meanwhile The Dominion Post carried a report last month from a woman who had had an abortion. The woman, who was published under a pseudonym, said she could understand why women suffered mental health problems after having been through such an experience.
‘It’s women who carry the weight of the decision and women who lie on the table. And for those of us who’ve experienced an abortion, it is never an easy choice.’
She says she had nightmares after the abortion and remembers feeling as if she had no choice at the time. She was still breastfeeding her baby and her partner had threatened to leave her if she went ahead with the pregnancy. He has since refused to acknowledge her sadness or to talk about the incident.
‘It’s no wonder that women who’ve had abortions can suffer from depressive episodes later on…. Abortion is a life-changing experience. You carry the knowledge that you ended a life. It doesn’t ever really go away.’ (The Dominion Post 21 01 06)
Fr John Carde who works on Project Rachel, counselling women about abortion, agrees it is like an untreated toothache for a lot of people – men and women – it keeps coming back.
He says when an abortion has taken place, Project Rachel tries to meet the need of the human heart. This is a very real need – it’s not manufactured, he says.
‘We don’t try and heap guilt on people. People need healing rather than judgement.’
It is difficult to find the words to explain what it is that people who have gone through the abortion experience need.
People have a physical need to make reparation when we have hurt others and we have to acknowledge this physical dimension of our being.
‘If we need to reconcile with someone, we buy them a beer or give them a hug and ask their forgiveness. We don’t achieve anything if we don’t interact with them.
‘The church is very earthy. Christ came and told us that our bodies are God-designed and every bit of them is beautiful and wonderful,’ Fr Carde says.
‘So it is important to deal with something that is bothering you. We have to try to access the grace of God in whatever way we can.’
For details about Project Rachel, contact Sue Devereux, 04 4961744 or email firstname.lastname@example.org