Last week, a number of media outlets including Slate and the Huffington Post were eagerly promoting a new study about women who were denied abortions. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco are conducting a “turnaway” study where they track the experiences of women who were unable to obtain abortions due to gestational age of their unborn child. The preliminary results indicate that women who were denied abortions were more likely to be suffering from both stress and economic hardship than women who were able to obtain abortions.
However, the mainstream media is missing several important details. Women were denied abortions, not because of legal restrictions, but because many clinics do not perform late-term abortions. The study tracks only a relatively small number of women — less than 200 — who were denied abortions. Additionally, the results were recently presented at an academic conference. The study has not appeared in an academic journal and hence has not gone through the peer-review process. Finally, the study — and the full results — do not appear to be publicly available.
More important, the main problem with the analysis is that it utilizes a faulty comparison. It compares a group of women who were refused late-term abortions to a group of women who, for the most part, obtained abortions early in pregnancy. This is problematic because most abortions are performed in the first trimester. Early-term abortions are less expensive, more accessible, and generally pose fewer health risks. Women seeking late-term abortions likely do so because of some unexpected developments in either their relationship or their financial situation. As such, any financial and emotional difficulties may well have predated the abortion for this cohort of women.
The media reports also make much of the fact that the women who submitted to abortions were no more likely to experience mental-health problems than women who carried their pregnancies to term. However, the study only started to interview women four years ago. A number of peer-reviewed studies find that mental health problems often do not develop until several years after the abortion has taken place. Of course, these studies typically receive scant attention from the mainstream media.