"Pervasive" Problems in Studies Linking Abortion to Mental Health Issues

By Rachel Walden — April 2, 2012

Earlier this month, an editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychiatric Research, along with a co-author, published a commentary critical of a 2009 article  in the journal claiming that women who had an abortion were more likely than women who did not have an abortion to experience panic attacks, alcohol and drug abuse, major depression, bipolar disorder, and other negative mental health outcomes.

The author of the 2009 article,  Priscilla Coleman, suggested the results showed that abortion had more impact on mental health problems than did childhood sexual or physical abuse, physical assault in adulthood, or rape. While Coleman does not explicitly state “abortion causes mental health problems,” she uses language like “abortion…made a significant independent contribution to…mental health outcomes” which suggests not only an association between the two, but a direct causal link.

In 2011, Coleman released a correction to the article, stating that the data had been analyzed incorrectly. The new analysis led to the author dropping panic disorder, panic attacks, new mania and bipolar disorder from the list of conditions she associated with abortion.

Other researchers (Steinberg and Finer) published their own reanalysis of the data Coleman used and were unable to replicate the results of any association between abortions and mood, anxiety, or substance use disorders, with the exception of an association between multiple abortions and substance use disorders. Steinberg and Finer also criticized Coleman for including women who may have already had mental health concerns prior to their abortions, because her analysis relied on women’s mental health diagnoses over their lifetimes rather than specifically after abortion.

The new commentary in the Journal of Psychiatric Research addresses both Coleman’s and Steinberg and Finer analyses. The editor notes that Steinberg and Finer are not the final word on the topic, and future research could do a better job of ensuring comparable groups of women and better understand how responses vary between groups of women in very different life circumstances.

About Coleman’s article, though, they write:

Based on our joint review and discussion of the debate, we conclude that the Steinberg-Finer critique has considerable merit and that the Coleman et al. (2009) analysis does not support their assertions that abortions led to psychopathology….

The fact that the evidence for adverse mental health effects of abortion was weaker in the Steinberg-Finer analysis than the Coleman et al. (2009) analysis is consistent with the conclusions of two recent reviews of the literature, both of which found that evidence for adverse effects of abortion on mental disorders is much less pronounced in higher quality than lower quality studies.

The American Psychological Association in 2008 released a report after reviewing the available evidence (through 2007) on abortion and mental health, and concluded that “the most methodologically sound research indicates that among women who have a single, legal, first-trimester abortion of an unplanned pregnancy for nontherapeutic reasons, the relative risks of mental health problems are no greater than the risks among women who deliver an unplanned pregnancy.” The APA also called methodology problems in the literature “pervasive,” and included criticisms of Coleman’s methods in many of her previous studies, such as their inclusion criteria and failure to control for prior mental health issues or other confounding factors.

With regards to past criticisms of her work published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Coleman claimed [link goes to LifeSiteNews, an anti-choice website]: “The paper is being published in a very prestigious journal, the British Journal of Psychiatry, which is considered one of the top psychiatry journals in the world. This means the paper has been extensively scrutinized by well-respected scientists and the results of studies are trusted by practitioners throughout the world.”

Unfortunately, even “prestigious” journals are not immune to publishing inappropriately conducted studies, as a look at the site Retraction Watch will illustrate. The 2011 article in the BJP by Coleman reviewed 22 studies of abortion and mental health and drew a number of comments including criticisms of Coleman’s methods, and prompted the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to issue a statement that “What this research does not fully examine is if these women had pre-existing mental health complications such as dependency issues and mood disorders before the abortion.”

Coleman has claimed [link goes to National Right to Life page] that criticisms of her research are just media bias, and “efforts to deny” a link between abortion and mental health problems “will become even less effective, because we all likely know at least one person, who has had trouble coming to terms with an abortion experience.” This statement again refuses to acknowledge the many factors (including pre-abortion mental health, and social stigma around abortion) that may contribute to a woman’s feelings after abortion, and confuses the distinction between what happens with some women and what can actually be attributed to abortion itself.

Why does all of this wrangling about details in studies of abortion and mental health matter? Because research like this is rarely used simply to allow women to make the most well-informed choices for their own lives – it is often part of an agenda of restricting choice. It matters if research suggesting a causal link between abortion and mental health problems is well done because that research is going to end up a tool for restricting women’s choices. We have seen many attempts to restrict abortion across the United States over the last couple of years. New laws requiring hospital admitting privileges for providers, requiring additional regulation and reporting by clinics, and “informed consent” laws that require providers to state false information about breast cancer risks are all enacted under the guise of “protecting” women, but the underlying agenda is prevent women from being able to readily choose abortion. That’s why these informed consent laws *never* contain information on how carrying a pregnancy to term and delivering a baby is statistically *more* dangerous for women than early abortions.

Further Reading:

Guttmacher: Abortion and Mental Health – quick facts about studies on this topic

Reuters, Journal disavows study touted by U.S. abortion foes – good overview of the current discussion

National Women’s Health Network, APA Releases New Report: Abortion No Threat to Women’s Mental Health – 2008 piece I wrote for the NWHN newsletter when the APA released their report on this topic

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