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Study Debunks Theory of "Post-Abortion Syndrome"

Written by Jodi Jacobson for - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

A study published this fall in the leading journal Social Science and Medicine found little support for the "abortion-as-trauma" framework pushed by anti-choice advocates who claim that a woman who chooses to terminate an unintended and untenable pregnancy is at higher risk for mental health problems because of the procedure, including everything from depression to suicide.

In fact, authors of the new study, conducted by Julia R. Steinberg (Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, University of California) and Lawrence Finer (Guttmacher Institute) attempted--and were unable--to replicate results from an earlier study by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues (2009).

Using the US National Co-morbidity Survey (NCS), write Steinberg and Finer:

Coleman, Coyle, Shuping, and Rue (2009) published an analysis indicating that compared to women who had never had an abortion, women who had reported an abortion were at an increased risk of several anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders.

But, Steinberg and Finer continue, "[Coleman's] results are not replicable."

That is, using the same data, sample, and codes as indicated by those authors, it is not possible to replicate the simple bivariate statistics testing the relationship of ever having had an abortion to each mental health disorder when no factors were controlled for in analyses.

Replication involves the process of testing research results and is a critical factor in developing evidence because it helps assure results are valid and reliable, helps identify the variables that may play a role in research findings, can be used to test the application of results to the real world, and may suggest new avenues of research to further refine scientific findings.

“We were unable to reproduce the most basic tabulations of Coleman and colleagues,” says Steinberg, postdoctoral fellow at UCSF, in a statement.

“Moreover, their findings were logically inconsistent with other published research—for example, they found higher rates of depression in the last month than other studies found during respondents’ entire lifetimes. This suggests that their results are substantially inflated.”

(See another article debunking anti-choice mental health claims on which we reported in November.)

The authors carefully examined the question of whether abortion is a causal factor in mental health outcomes or whether pre-existing mental health conditions may be co-factors in unintended pregnancies leading to abortion. Read more

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