The Skeptical Sleuth

Applying a healthy dose of skepticism to new findings about health and psychology.

Negative Mental Health Effects of Abortion

Does getting an abortion damage women's mental health?

"Study in prestigious journal shows abortion harms women's mental health" screamed the headline at an antiabortion website. The posting  went on to say that this conclusion was based on "the largest, most definitive analysis of the mental health risks associated with abortion, synthesizing the results of 22 studies published between 1995 and 2009 involving 877,181 women, of whom 163,831 had abortions."

The website provided a fairly accurate summary of the claims of Priscilla Coleman of Bowling Green State University, the author of the meta-analyses published in what the website termed the "prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry." Namely:

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 "Women who have had an abortion have an 81 percent higher risk of subsequent mental health problems compared to women who have not had an abortion.

 "Women who aborted have a 138 percent higher risk of mental health problems compared to women who have given birth.

 "Women who aborted have a 55 percent higher risk of mental health problems compared to women with an 'unplanned' pregnancy who gave birth.

 "Women with a history of abortion have higher rates of anxiety, depression, alcohol use/misuse, marijuana use, and suicidal behavior, compared to those who have not had an abortion."

Prisilla K. Coleman, PhD.
The website dismissed critics of Professor Coleman's claims: "A handful of 'pro-choice' academics continue to churn out papers attempting to show that 'the few' women who have mental health problems after abortion are those who had mental health problems before their abortion. They claim that having an abortion is better for one's mental health than giving birth to an 'unplanned' (and therefore to their mind 'unwanted') child."

And spelled out the implications of Coleman's claims:

"Health care professionals have a duty to advise patients of the benefits and risks of a procedure 'in a manner that reflects the current scientific literature,'  Coleman writes, so patients can make an informed choice. As former abortion clinic staff attest, and as journalists in the U.S. and U.K. have discovered, counselors at abortion clinics conceal mental and physical health risks—as well as the fact that the procedure will violently end a child's life—in order to sell abortions."

Hmm, so Coleman claimed that her results were so strong that health professionals should inform women seeking an abortion of the risk to their mental health they were taking on. Her claims would certainly give comfort to those who want to restrict women's access to abortion and their right to choose abortion without interference. How timely when the antiabortion forces are regrouping and going from state to state challenging women's right to choose.

But how did Coleman arrive at her conclusions? Are they scientific, based on best evidence, or do they reflect prejudgment, nonscientific beliefs intruding into the "prestigious" British Journal of Psychiatry and masquerading as dispassionate scientific findings? Was Coleman really prepared to come for a contrary conclusion if the evidence required it? Just who is Priscilla Coleman? What kind of peer review did Coleman's article receive from the "prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry"? Did something go wrong in the review of this paper? Future posts of the Skeptical Sleuth will examine these issues. For now, you can obtain single copies of the Coleman paper and access the Rapid Responses it has elicited from the scientific community. Stay tuned.

Jim Coyne, Ph.D., is a clinical health psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. more...

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