A long time ago, pro-lifers realized that humanizing the unborn was not always an effective strategy, so they adopted other rhetorical and legislative strategies to protect the unborn. One such strategy has been to appeal to women’s self-interest by documenting the emotional pain that many women face after obtaining an abortion. (The Silent No More Campaign has been very effective at this.) In Sunday’s Washington Post, Brenda Major responded to this strategy by arguing that it is based on faulty science.
The article makes three specific points. First, Major argues that the best available research indicates that abortion fails to increase the likelihood of mental-health problems. Second, studies that do show a correlation between abortion and mental-health problems wrongly compare women whose pregnancies were unintended (and resulted in abortion) with women whose pregnancies were intended. Finally, the powerful testimonies of regretful post-abortive women cause people to overestimate the frequency with which post-abortive women suffer from depression.
Major’s analysis is flawed. It is true that a task force commissioned by the American Psychological Association found that abortion does not increase the incidence of mental-health problems. However, the policy positions put forward by professional academic organizations don’t necessarily reflect a scholarly consensus or even the best available research. In many cases, it is relatively easy for a small group of academics with a specific agenda to influence the decisions made by an academic organization.
Additionally, while some studies show that abortion does not increase the likelihood of depression, many of them suffer from selection bias. Namely, women who do not regret their abortions may be more likely to admit having had an abortion than those who do regret them. Furthermore, one of the specific studies Major cites, the Oregon State study, appeared in a journal published by the Guttmacher Institute and analyzed only 69 girls who’d had abortions, too small a sample to make definitive conclusions.
Major also underestimates the quality of the research contradicting her conclusion. In the past year alone, studies analyzing the mental-health effects of abortion have appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals, including The Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, Journal of Pregnancy, and The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. These studies find evidence that women who have had abortions are at greater risk for health problems ranging from PTSD to depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
And the article’s second claim is incorrect. Many of these studies do not simply compare women who have had abortions to the rest of the population but rather hold constant a range of factors including income, marital status, and previous mental-health problems. It may be impossible to make perfect comparisons between women who resolved unintended pregnancies through abortion and women who carried their unintended pregnancies to term, but some of the differences between these cohorts can be held constant and meaningful insights can be obtained.
As for Major’s final claim — that “emotionally evocative” stories by a minority of women who regret their abortions cause people to overestimate the frequency of these experiences — I would note first of all that she fails to subject the websites and blogs of women who do not regret their abortion experiences to the same criticism or scrutiny. Furthermore, even if severe emotional or psychological difficulties are relatively uncommon, the powerful testimonies of post-abortive women, many of whom had no serious psychological problems prior to their abortions, should give Major and other abortion proponents pause.
As usual, the pro-life movement cannot seem to get a fair shake from the mainstream media. This piece comes on the heels of a New York Times Magazine puff piece on new fellowship programs designed to encourage young physicians to perform abortions. However, the pro-life movement should take heart. The fact that the mainstream media is willing to invest a considerable amount of energy into mainstreaming abortion and abortion providers nicely demonstrates the quiet effectiveness of the pro-life movement in turning public opinion away from abortion.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.