Do Women ‘Regret’ Abortions? New Study Helps End Debate

“We find that the negative emotions experienced at the time of the abortion wane/decrease significantly over 3 years afterwards. Notably, relief remains the most common emotion.” (Photo: Getty Images)

New research has found that more than 95 percent of women who have received an abortion have no regret about it, feeling that their decision was the right thing for them. Researchers found no difference in mental health outcomes between women who had first-trimester abortions and late-term abortions.

Thirty-five states currently require some for of mandatory counseling for a woman before an abortion can be performed, seven of which require a woman be told of possible psychological responses to abortion, stressing negative emotional responses such as “postabortion traumatic stress disorder”, a term adopted by pro-life supporters but has not been accepted by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association, and is basically debunked by this study.

The study, commissioned by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a think-tank at the University of California, San Francisco, confirms thirty years of research explicitly pointing towards there being no adverse mental health effects from abortion.

“As we note in our 2013 paper on women’s emotions one week after the abortion, we found that many women experience negative emotions (anger, sadness, guilt, regret), as well as positive emotions (relief, happiness), with relief predominating,” Corinne Rocca, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco and part of the ANSIRH research team, tells Yahoo Health, noting that in the team’s new research, “we find that the negative emotions experienced at the time of the abortion wane/decrease significantly over 3 years afterwards. Notably, relief remains the most common emotion.”

In 2011, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) in London reviewed all studies about the emotional effects of abortion that had been published in English between 1990 and 2011; from this, they concluded that it is an unwanted pregnancy that increases a woman’s risk of problems with her mental health. AMRC researchers also deduced that a woman with an unwanted pregnancy is as likely to have mental health problems from abortion as she is from giving birth.

Related: What One Woman Wants Lawmakers to Know About Her Late-Term Abortion 

The AMRC team also found that the factors that do increase a woman’s risk of mental health problems after abortion are pressure from a partner to terminate a pregnancy, negative attitudes about abortion, and negative attitudes about a woman’s experience of abortion.

In other words, the stigma around abortion is more dangerous to a woman’s mental health than abortion itself.

The ANSIRH researchers came to a similar conclusion, finding that it was women who perceived abortion stigma in their community (as well as those who terminated a planned and wanted pregnancy after the discovery of fetal abnormalities) that experiences for negative emotions.

“There is definitely a perception in public discourse over abortion that later abortion is more emotionally difficult than abortion in the first trimester, which is when over 90 percent of abortions in the US are done,” says Rocca. “In fact, as we note in the paper, the possibility that women having later procedures might be more likely to regret their abortions was part of the Supreme Court’s justification for upholding a 2007 law banning a later abortion procedure. Our findings do not support this conclusion at all. Instead, we found that the emotions felt by women having abortions near gestational limits and women having first-trimester procedures reported the same levels of emotions; both experienced declines in negative emotions over time; and “decision rightness” was high among both groups.”

Most dramatically, the ANSIRH team also found that the predicted probability that 99 percent of women will ultimately report that abortion was the right decision for them at all time points in a three-year span following having received an abortion. The researchers also reported that “being in school and working at the time of the pregnancy was associated with far higher feelings of decision rightness.”

Related: Women Face Harder Path to Abortion as States Extend Waiting Period

The researchers also drew an important — albeit nuanced — conclusion about the often politicized conversation surrounding abortion and women’s mental health, stating that, “Certainly, experiencing feelings of guilt or regret in the short-term after an abortion is not a mental health problem; in fact, such emotions are a normal part of making a life decision that many women in this study found to be difficult.” That is, it is critical to not misinterpret emotions that come with normal life experiences as being negative side effects of abortion.

“Abortion has become an increasingly politicized topic in the US,” notes Rocca. “Groups interested in making it harder for women to get abortions have used the mental health damage argument to forward legislation restricting access. I think part of the reason these arguments perpetuate and continue to shape public perception has been the lack of rigorously conducted research examining the topic….Our study was very unique in that we are following hundreds of women seeking abortions at 30 facilities across diverse parts of the US over years to prospectively assess emotional and mental health outcomes. And, our findings do not support claims that abortion causes harmful psychological problems.”

Read This Next: Medical Abortion Can Be Safer and Easier for Women — So Why Follow Old Protocols?

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