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More Misleading Research about the Mental-Health Consequences of Abortion



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On Wednesday evening, The New England Journal of Medicine released a study which purports to show that first-trimester abortions do not increase a woman’s risk of mental disorders. This study utilized data from Denmark, specifically the Danish National Register of Patients. It compared a cohort of women who had given birth with a cohort of women who submitted to abortions during the first trimester of their pregnancy. The findings indicate that compared to giving birth, obtaining an abortion did not increase the likelihood that women would seek psychiatric treatment for a mental disorder

Priscilla Coleman, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University is one of the nation’s leading scholars of the mental-health consequences of abortion, and she has found a number of methodological shortcomings in this particular study. First, this study’s conclusions are largely based on the fact that the cohort of women who submitted to abortions experienced similar (but high) rates of mental-health problems both in the months before the abortion and in the months after the abortion took place. However, that does not negate a causal link between abortion and mental health. A number of academic studies find high levels of stress among women considering an abortion. Furthermore, it should be noted that the cohort of women who had abortions were more likely to experience mental-health problems than either the cohort who gave birth or the cohort who never became pregnant.

There exist other methodological shortcomings as well. This study lacks controls for other factors that might affect the likelihood of psychological disorders including pregnancy wantedness, coercion by others to abort, marital status, income, education, and exposure to violence. Additionally, there is also evidence that women with psychiatric histories are at increased risk for post-abortion mental-health problems. However, these women were excluded from the study. Finally, the results follow women for only one year post-abortion or -childbirth. There is significant evidence suggesting that the negative psychological effects of abortion may not surface for several years.

It should also be noted that this research was funded by a grant from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. This foundation was formed by investor Warren Buffett and named in honor of his wife after her death in 1994. This foundation has been very active in supporting abortion rights. Over the years, Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has donated millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood. In fact, donations from the foundation have enabled dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics to add abortion to their services. Furthermore, this summer, an article in The New York Times Magazine indicated that two new programs designed to train and encourage young physicians to perform abortions were funded, in part, by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation.

Furthermore, this is not the first time that The New England Journal of Medicine has used its reputation to advance liberal causes. In the spring of 2010, shortly before the vote on health-care reform, the journal published a superficial analysis of Massachusetts abortion trends. This was to argue that providing insurance coverage of abortion would not increase abortion rates. However, sophisticated statistical techniques were not used and there was just simply too little data after the enactment of Commonwealth Care to seriously analyze its effect on abortion rates in Massachusetts. Overall, it is unfortunate that such a prestigious and high-visibility journal is often deciding to place greater emphasis on ideology than scholarship in its editorial decisions.

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.

update: This has been corrected since its original posting.



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