Philippa Taylor

Does abortion reduce mental health risks for women? The very latest research

Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at CMF. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

abortion-mentalhealthAssessing the effect of abortion on women’s mental health is complex, controversial and findings are frequently conflicting. Yet it is essential to do so, as nearly 200,000 abortions are carried out in Britain each year, thus even minor effects on a few women will affect large numbers in total.

Weighing into these controversies this month is a new research paper by Fergusson, a well known and highly respected Professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand who has published many papers on the effects of abortion on women (and who is adamantly not ‘pro-life’). His new work, published this month in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, is a re-appraisal of previous major reviews by other people and organisations on the topic.

Fergusson’s primary aim in this re-appraisal of the evidence was find out if evidence shows that abortion reduces the rates of mental health problems in women who have an unwanted or unintended pregnancy.

Fergusson found that there is no evidence in any of the research that abortion does reduce rates of mental health problems and indeed it may lead to an increase in risks of mental health problems for women.

This is similar to the findings of Fergusson’s own research and to Coleman’s work, both of which I have commented on in Triple Helix. It is also consistent with the conclusion of the large Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) study funded by the DoH in the UK in 2011 (See my further comments here on the findings of that study).

Interestingly, what Fergusson concludes in this latest paper is something that we at CMF have been saying for sometime now, but which has not been made by someone who has carefully positioned himself as being ‘pro-choice’.  He says his conclusions:

‘…have important, if uncomfortable, implications for clinical practice and the interpretation of the law in those jurisdictions which require abortion to be authorised on medical grounds. In these jurisdictions, the great majority of abortions are authorised on mental health grounds. The present analysis suggests that, currently, there is no evidence that would support this practice.

In other words, he effectively suggests that 98% of the 200,000 or so abortions carried out in Britain each year are technically illegal!

This is because most abortions are carried out on grounds that continuing with the pregnancy constitutes a greater risk to a mother’s mental health than an abortion does. 186,000 abortions in 2011 were carried out in this country on these mental health grounds.

Even the Review of Mental Health and Abortion by the AMRC, which had many weaknesses, showed that abortion does not improve mental health outcomes for women with unplanned pregnancies and does not offer any real protection from mental health problems.

Consequently, if childbirth does not constitute a greater risk to mental health than abortion, and if abortion does not improve mental health outcomes for women with unplanned pregnancies, as Fergusson shows, then it means that doctors who authorise abortions in order to protect a woman’s mental health are doing so on the basis of a false belief, unsupported by medical and academic evidence.

Section 1 (1) (a) of the Abortion Act 1967 reads as follows:

Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith

(a)that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family…

The key words here are that ‘the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman….’

Fergusson’s unequivocal conclusion from his re-appraisal of the evidence is that: ‘It is unacceptable for clinicians to authorise large numbers of abortions on grounds for which there is, currently, no scientific evidence.

This research raises questions not just about the legality of the majority of abortions themselves but whether the doctors carrying them out are therefore committing a criminal offence too?

It also highlights yet again the need for up to date, full and accurate information to be given to all women with unplanned and/or unwanted pregnancies, who should be informed that abortion will not reduce their risks of mental health problems relative to giving birth.

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy

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