Under the Hood

Abortion-Depression Link Not Established, Study Criticizes Policies Based On Misinformation

No evidence was found to suggest that abortion leads to depression in the research led by the University of Maryland School of Public Health. It is the first study to explore the risk of antidepressant use around an abortion as a proxy for depression.

The paper titled "Examining the Association of Antidepressant Prescriptions With First Abortion and First Childbirth" was published in JAMA Psychiatry on May 30.

Researchers analyzed data on nearly 400,000 Danish women born between 1980 and 1994, including information about abortions, childbirths, and antidepressant prescriptions. Findings showed the risk of antidepressant use did not change when comparing the year before and after an abortion. The risk of antidepressant use was also found to decrease as more time passed after the procedure.

"Abortion is not causing depression. Our findings show that women were not more likely to suffer from depression after an abortion compared to beforehand," said Dr. Julia Steinberg, an assistant professor of family science at the university.

Compared to women who did not have an abortion, those who did have an abortion had a higher risk of antidepressant use. But the risk was the same for the year before and the year after the abortion. This indicated that the risk was influenced by pre-existing mental health problems and other adverse experiences, not the procedure.

Previously, a 2016 study also found that abortion did not harm women's mental health. However, being denied the procedure was associated with initial psychological harm.

As a deeply divisive issue in American politics, research has indicated that support for abortion varies by age, education and religious affiliation. While 57 percent of the public believes abortion should be legal in all or most cases, certain state policies may hinder the process by enforcing waiting periods, multiple trips to the clinic, counseling, and more.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, state-mandated counseling (in 18 states) for women considering an abortion may emphasize long-term negative psychological effects of having an abortion, the ability of a fetus to feel pain, or the purported link between abortion and breast cancer.

In 2016, the Texas abortion booklet "A Woman's Right to Know" was criticized by for claiming that women who undergo abortions experience depression, suicidal thoughts, and an increased risk of cancer despite the lack of scientific evidence. The booklet also used the term "your baby" 79 times instead of the medical term "fetus."

Steinberg and co-authors emphasized that policies based on the notion that abortion harms women's mental health are misinformed.

"The English language lends itself to a confusion between mental illnesses, such as mood and anxiety disorders, with normal human experiences, such as sadness and anxiety," they wrote. "This confusion has been exploited by antiabortion activists both in scientific publications and in public policy."

On May 25, years since the death of Savita Halappanavar stirred a public debate, the Ireland referendum saw a victory for reproductive rights with more than 66 percent of voters supporting the legalization of abortion.