Distress After Abortion Linked to Increased Mental Health Problems, Study Finds

New Findings Indicate 85 Percent of Women Have Negative Reactions After Abortion 

Springfield, IL (Nov. 8, 2009) — A new study on mental health problems after abortion has found that 85 percent of women reported negative reactions to abortion, putting them at higher risk for mental health problems.

The paper, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that more than 85 percent of women who aborted reported at least one negative reaction to abortion, such as such as sorrow, grief, regret or disappointment; and approximately 35 percent reported five or more negative reactions.

The high numbers are of concern because the paper also found that the risk of mental disorders among women who had negative reactions to abortion was 40 to 80 percent higher than among women who didn’t abort.

The results came from an ongoing survey that tracked women in the Christchurch area of New Zealand from birth to age 30. A subsample of about 530 women were given questions about their pregnancy history and mental health outcomes, including being asked whether the pregnancy was unwanted or unplanned, and their initial reaction to the pregnancy at the time.

Overall, more than 86 percent of women who had abortions also reported at least one positive reaction, such as feelings of relief, happiness or satisfaction. When the responses are broken down into categories, however, more women were likely to respond “not at all” when asked if they felt happiness (58 percent “not at all” vs. 23 percent “very much”) or satisfaction (60 percent vs. 20 percent) about the abortion.

The research team concluded that “many women experience a mixture of both positive and negative emotions about having an abortion,” but said that that the results don’t support the belief that abortion is better for women than unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. 

“There is no evidence in this research that would suggest that unwanted pregnancies that come to term were associated with increased risks of mental health problems or that abortion mitigated the risks of mental health problems in women having unwanted pregnancy,” the authors noted.

Supports Previous Findings on Mental Health and Abortion

The latest findings follow two other studies led by the same researcher that also linked abortion to higher rates of mental health problems.

In 2005, they published findings showing that young women who had abortions subsequently experienced higher rates of suicidal behaviors, depression, substance abuse, anxiety and other mental health problems.

A second study in 2008 found that women were 30 percent more likely to experience mental health disorders after abortion than they were for other pregnancy outcomes. As with the current paper, this study found that women who continued an unwanted or mistimed pregnancy did not experience a significant increase in mental health problems–challenging arguments from abortion advocates that abortion is better for women than carrying an “unwanted” pregnancy to term.

Abortion Not As Safe as Presented, Authors Say

In the 2005 paper, the authors were critical of the American Psychological Association’s claim that abortion does not pose mental health risks for most women. The study’s lead author, Prof. David Fergusson, who has described himself as pro-choice, has been an outspoken critic of the APA and has called for more research into the safety of abortion.

Last year, Fergusson published an editorial supporting the position of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the U.K., which said that the evidence suggests that abortion can increase mental health problems for some women. He also criticized a report by an APA task force that dismissed research linking abortion and mental health problems and which claimed that abortion is generally safe for most women.

The Legal Implications

The findings of these studies could have an impact on the the legal status of abortion in some countries, the researchers noted.

For example, British law only allows abortion when the risks of physical and psychological injury from continuing a pregnancy are greater than if the pregnancy is aborted. And in New Zealand, more than 90 percent of abortions are done under a provision in the law that only allows abortion when “the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the woman or girl.”

In the current paper, the authors noted that “this evidence raises important questions” about the practice of performing abortions “on the grounds that this procedure will reduce risks of mental health problems in women having an unwanted pregnancy.”

“Currently there is no evidence to support the assumptions underlying this practice, and the findings of the present study suggest that abortion may, in fact, increase mental health risks among those women who find seeking and obtaining an abortion a distressing experience,” they stated.

Besides the 85 percent of women reporting negative reactions in this study, other evidence suggests that many women do, in fact, find this experience distressing.

A survey of American women who had abortions found that more than half said they felt rushed or uncertain about abortion and 64 percent reported feeling pressured by others to abort. Sixty-five percent of the survey respondents reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that they attributed to their abortions, with slightly over 14 percent reporting all the symptoms for a diagnosis of PTSD.

Providing Real Help for Women in Need

Frequently, when a woman or girl is pregnant in a crisis situation, those around her–including medical personnel, mental health professionals, her family or partner, and others who are in positions of authority–believe that abortion is the best, or only, solution to protect her mental health and well-being. Some may even pressure, coerce or push her to have an abortion because they believe it will be best for her.

These findings suggest that abortion is likely to be far more damaging to the woman or girl than continuing the pregnancy would be, even when the pregnancy is unplanned or unwanted.

Further, the evidence points to the need for health care providers and abortionists to screen women and girls for coercion and other known, statistically-validated factors that put them at risk for mental health problems after abortion. Such screening would help put an end to abortions that are unwanted, unsafe and unnecessary and would help protect the rights of both women and their unborn children.


Source: David M. Ferugsson, L. John Horwood and Joseph M. Boden, “Reactions to abortion and subsequent mental health,” The British Journal of Psychiatry 195: 420-426 (2009).

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