Jan. 17, 2002 -- Does having an abortion lead to long-term emotional scars? Previous studies have found that for most women the answer is no, but new findings from an anti-abortion research group suggest otherwise.
Researchers from the Springfield, Ill.-based Elliot Institute concluded that depression in a group of married women was linked to aborting an unintended pregnancy years earlier. The association between abortion and depression was not seen for unmarried women, however.
David C. Reardon, PhD, is director of The Elliot Institute, a privately-funded research center with what he acknowledges is an anti-abortion agenda. Reardon has written several books on the long-term emotional effects of abortion, and the research group has published several studies on the subject. One such study found a higher incidence of substance abuse among women who had an abortion.
Reardon says his latest research, published in the Jan. 19 issue of the British Medical Journal, is an effort to refute a widely reported 1992 study from Arizona State University. In that study researcher Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD, concluded that most women suffer no long-term mental health repercussions from abortion. The Elliot Institute researchers used the same group of study subjects that Russo used, but they measured depression scores instead of long-term self-esteem.
They found that an average of eight years after having an abortion, married women were 138% more likely to be at high risk of clinical depression than were married women who carried unintended first pregnancies to term. Among all women surveyed, however, depression scores correlated with total family income, education level, age at first pregnancy, and other variables.
"The affects of abortion can be persistent over long periods of time," Reardon tells WebMD. "Most people would not find it startling that abortion is associated with depression in the short term. But these findings may surprise those with strong pro-choice political positions who are adamant about denying that there are any long-term effects on mental health."
Russo tells WebMD that she is surprised Reardon is attacking her 1992 research. In a press release published Friday, he called her study "methodologically weak" and "a poor basis on which to build the claim that abortion has no measurable effect on women's well-being."
"These people came up with the notion of post abortion syndrome, and the agenda here is to get it recognized as a medical condition," Russo says. "Then they will be able to say that a woman who is mentally ill, or depressed, or insecure, or vulnerable is that way because she is suffering from post abortion syndrome. There was even a recent attempt to get the National Institutes of Health to study it, when there is no evidence that there is an it."
Russo says the anti-abortion lobby's characterization of her research is misleading. She acknowledges that abortion is linked to depression, but contends that other lifestyle issues like income, education level, and risk of victimization also play a role. She recently published a study finding that women who had abortions were more likely to have a history of sexual abuse and victimization, compared to those who had not had abortions. Not surprisingly, they also had higher depression scores. Russo is a regent professor in psychology at Arizona State University.
"I have had students tell me they heard Rush Limbaugh talking about my work, saying that I said having abortions raises your self esteem," she says. "That is ridiculous. Women who have unwanted pregnancies terminated by abortions are, as a group, more depressed than women who don't. But if you take away the abortion from the equation, will you still see depression? The answer is no. And I say you often still have a woman who is in trouble."