Fighting back against long-held stereotypes about the inherent shame and grief that supposedly comes with obtaining an abortion, a study published in PLOS-One last week has found that 95 percent of women surveyed felt their abortion was the right choice to make, even when reflecting back on the decision over three years later.

The current study’s results were derived from the larger (and still-ongoing) Turnaway study conducted by the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) group, a “collaborative research group and think tank at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health,” according to the ANSIRH website. The Turnaway study has been intended as a comprehensive look into the lives of women who become unintentionally pregnant, specifically detailing the "mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic consequences of receiving an abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.”  

Between January 2008 and December 2010, nearly 1000 women who visited one of 30 different abortion facilities in numerous states were recruited for the Turnaway study, receiving extensive interviews during the original visit and follow-up interviews every six months for a period of five years. Participants were bunched into one of three groups: those who received a first trimester abortion, which the majority of women seeking abortion do; those who received an abortion one day to two weeks before they legally would no longer be able to obtain one, depending on state laws (a small majority of states currently place that limit at 24 to 26 weeks, with the most restrictive limit seen in the study at 10 weeks); and those who had barely missed the cut-off limit and were denied an abortion — the titular turnaways.

For the purposes of the current study, the researchers examined the responses of 667 women who obtained either a first trimester or near-limit abortion, with the latest follow-up interview conducted in February of 2014. Though not all participants continued to diligently respond to every interview session, 93 percent went through with at least one follow-up.

“Women in this study overwhelmingly felt that the decision was the right one for them: at all time points over three years, 95 percent of participants reported abortion was the right decision, with the typical participant having a greater than 99 percent chance of reporting the abortion decision was right for her,” the authors concluded. “Women also experienced reduced emotional intensity over time: the feelings of relief and happiness experienced shortly after the abortion tended to subside, as did negative emotions. Notably, we found no differences in emotional trajectories or decision rightness between women having earlier versus later procedures.”

Also of note, but hardly surprising, was the finding that it was the stigma of abortion in their community and lower social support afterwards that predicted the most negative emotions surrounding their abortion, though there was also more regret voiced for women who had been pregnant previously or had more difficulty with their decision at the time. Women who were working or in school were likely to be more secure with their decision, as well as those who hadn’t included the potential father in the decision-making process.

These results are particularly important in the cultural battle about abortion rights, with the authors shrewdly noting that political and legal arguments have been made to further restrict abortion access by advancing the idea that women often regret their decision to abort — a claim that even before this latest study has been backed up with little empirical evidence.

While the authors are upfront about the finding that a quarter of the women surveyed expressed some degree of negativity over their abortion, they also explain these emotions are a perfectly reasonable reaction for some to have and don’t invalidate the reality that abortion is nearly always seen as the right choice to make. “Results from this study suggest that claims that many women experience abortion decision regret are likely unfounded,” they concluded.

They also suggest steps we can take to ensure the mental well-being of women who decide to undergo an abortion, should those who so valiantly pontificate about the risks of harm due to abortion actually care about such a thing. “Individualized counseling for women having difficulty with the abortion decision might help improve their emotional welfare over time,” they wrote. “Efforts to combat stigma may also support the emotional well-being of women terminating pregnancies.”

Source: Rocca C, Kimport K, Roberts S, et al. Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study. PLOS-One. 2015.