Groundbreaking Study Follows Women Who Underwent Abortions and Those Who Were Turned Away

June 19, 2013

Women in the United States are often subject to numerous restrictions when seeking abortions, including burdensome waiting periods and gestational age cutoffs that vary depending on state. Some abortions are delayed due to a lack of funds or no insurance coverage, or a shortage of available providers. All of these factors contribute to women not being able to obtain legal abortions once they choose to do so.

Last week, The New York Times published a great article about research into what happens when women are denied abortions. The ongoing project is called the “Turnaway” study, and it involves a group of UCSF researchers, led by Dr. Diana Green Foster, a demographer and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco.

The researchers are following three sets of women: those who had first trimester abortions; those who had abortions near the gestational age limit; and those who were denied an abortion because they were just over the gestational age limit.

This research is important for a couple of reasons. First, studies looking at mental health effects after abortion often make inappropriate comparisons between women who had abortions and women who never sought them. (Anti-abortion advocates often try to cite mental health effects as a reason to deny women abortion, even though reliable evidence does not support the notion of a “post-abortion syndrome.”) These studies ultimately end up ignoring the emotional effects on women who wanted but were denied abortions.

Second, other research has not typically followed women forward in time (instead of asking them to remember) to see how they fare in terms of physical and mental health, education, employment, relationship status, and other factors. Foster is tracking the study participants via interviews conducted every six months for five years.

As the researchers explain:

The Turnaway Study is an effort to capture women’s stories, understand the role of abortion and childbearing in their lives, and contribute to the ongoing public policy debate on the mental health and life-course consequences of abortion and unwanted childbearing for women and families.

Foster’s research is increasingly relevant as states attempt to pass more restrictions on abortion access that could lead to costly delays and denied procedures. Nationally, the House just passed a ban at 22 weeks of pregnancy (20 weeks post-fertilization). It stands little chance of being enacted (assuming it could pass the Senate — highly unlikely — the president would likely veto it), but it does reflect the GOP’s intent to shrink the amount of time women have to obtain an abortion — which would lead to more turnaways.

A few publications have already resulted from the Turnaway group, mostly focusing on issues such as patient education, the effect of anti-abortion protestors, and commentary on how to reduce turnaways. It looks like some articles about denials in general and women’s emotional responses have been written and accepted by journals, but are not yet available to the public. We’ll keep an eye on those and provide an update when results are available.

In the meantime, read the full New York Times article, which describes the research in-depth and covers one woman’s story of being denied an abortion. After being turned away by a Planned Parenthood clinic in one state and a detour through a crisis pregnancy center that further pushed her past the gestational age limit, she found herself out of time, gas money, food, and other resources.

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