APA report: Abortion is not a threat to women's mental health

Can't say the same for all the quackery to the contrary.

Published August 13, 2008 1:10PM (EDT)

This just in from the American Psychological Association: "'Post-abortion syndrome,' post-smashmortion schmyndrome."

According to the latest draft of its new report -- a comprehensive analysis of published English-language, peer-reviewed studies on the topic since 1989 -- abortion does not in and of itself pose a threat to women's mental health.

Specifically: "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." ("Nontherapeutic" as in elective; see Page 11 of the draft.) And: The prevalence of mental health problems observed among those women "was consistent with normative rates of comparable mental health problems in the general population of women in the United States." (Note: The report draft was the most up-to-date version available at press time. APA associate executive director of communications Kim Mills told Broadsheet that the APA's governing body is expected to vote to accept a final draft later Wednesday morning.)

Yes, the report acknowledges, some women may experience grief and sadness, even "clinically significant ... depression and anxiety" following an abortion. Of course some do. But, it notes, "following an" does not equal "caused by." No smoking-gun study found more than correlation or persuasively separated abortion's emotional aftermath, such as it may be, from other co-occurring risk factors including poverty, exposure to violence and history of substance use. What does seem to predispose women to some degree of emotional fallout? Termination (for medical reasons, say) of a wanted pregnancy, pressure from others to end the pregnancy, and the perceived need to keep a termination secret because, ahem, of the stigma associated with abortion.

Speaking of which, the report comes at a time when -- as noted in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal -- the focus of the abortion battle is shifting from "what goes on inside a woman's womb" to "what goes on inside her head." Result: The prevailing "abortion hurts women" view now peddled by antiabortion advocates. WSJ paraphrase thereof: "A woman may think she wants to end a pregnancy, may even feel relief when she does, but she will suffer for it later. So the state has a duty to stop her." (By the same reasoning, it has been noted, women -- what with the postpartum depression and all -- should be prevented from giving birth altogether.)

This new approach is not just P.R. Studies (and "studies") of post-abortion psychological fallout have had serious legal impact of late. They helped abortion opponents, and the Supreme Court make the case ("case") that, as the WSJ puts it, "the state must restrict abortion to protect women's mental health." State, as in South Dakota, for one, where a spanking-, and punishing, new mandate requires doctors to inform a woman seeking an abortion that she has "an existing relationship" with the fetus that is protected by the U.S. Constitution (this did not come up on "Schoolhouse Rock"!), that "her existing constitutional rights with regard to that relationship will be terminated," and, fingers crossed behind back, that "abortion increases the risk of suicide ideation and suicide." Antiabortion activists there are using the same view to drum up support for a broad abortion ban slated for the ballot in the fall.

No abortion advocate will say that every woman who has an abortion does a jig and throws a party. (Nor, do I think, should anyone be cornered into solemn, self-evident, politically driven proclamations that abortion is a serious emotional decision, that women have feelings, etc., etc.) But interestingly, the WSJ notes that in 35 years of providing abortions, Susan Hill, a clinic director based in Raleigh, N.C., said "she has noticed that 'women today need less counseling, less psychological care than they did in 1973,' when abortion was legalized but still carried an enormous stigma. Ms. Hill, who runs clinics in five southern states, has tried offering postprocedure counseling sessions -- but very few women show up, she said. 'They want to get past it and move on with their lives.'"

In any regard, there's something both repellent and dimly heartening about the abortion-hurts-women gambit and its perceived traction. Over under "repellent": Fuck you and your "studies" and all your contemptuous, contemptible -- and utterly transparent -- "we care about WOMEN" sanctimony. You were so much more convincing, sympathetic, even remotely defensible (at least on an individual level) when it was about saving babies. Over under "dimly heartening": We're the ones who've been on the rhetorical defensive ever since you guys trademarked the term "life." But did you notice that you are the ones using our language now? Much as we've been criticized for "making it about women" when a potential human life hangs in the balance, well, as far as this shift in message is concerned, looks to me like we made it about women.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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