Misleading Guttmacher Study Downplays the Psychological Effects of Abortion

by Michael J. New

Last month, the Guttmacher Institute released a study that received considerable praise from the mainstream media. This study purportedly finds that teens who undergo abortions are at no greater risk for depression than teens who choose to give birth. Not surprisingly, Guttmacher has spun these results to denigrate both parental-involvement laws and laws requiring counseling prior to an abortion.

Priscilla Coleman, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green University who has published a number of studies in peer-reviewed journals documenting the negative psychological effects of abortion, has authored a very persuasive critique of the Guttmacher study. For one thing, Coleman finds fault with the small sample size. The researchers were able to analyze the psychological health of only 69 teens who reported having abortions — too small a sample to make definitive conclusions.

Coleman also criticizes the measure of depression the authors used. The authors of the Guttmacher study used a self-reported self-esteem measure. However, the use of professional counseling for psychological problems is a more valid measure of depression or psychological distress.

The Guttmacher study’s data comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed adolescents in grades 7–12 beginning in 1994–95, asking the same cohort questions every few years. The authors compared the psychological health of teens who had abortions between Wave 1 (1994–1995) and Wave 2 (1996) to teens who became pregnant and gave birth during this time.

About 7,500 girls answered both the Wave 1 and the Wave 2 surveys. Since the annual teen abortion rate for those years was approximately 30 per 1,000 teen girls, we would have expected approximately 225 girls to have had abortions between Wave 1 and Wave 2. However, the researchers were only able to analyze 69 teen girls who reported obtaining an abortion. This raises serious questions about the reliability of the survey. Furthermore, it seems likely that girls who were psychologically healthy might have been more willing to report their abortions than girls who were psychologically distressed. This further skews the results.

Overall, there is a significant amount of evidence, both anecdotal and in public-health journals, about the negative psychological effects of abortion. In a country where abortion remains legal, it would be heartening to see an organization like Guttmacher make meaningful efforts to assist women who are suffering with the aftermath of abortions, instead of pretending these problems do not exist.

Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.