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New Lancet Study Fails to Disprove Abortion–Suicide Link

An imaging table at the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood St. Louis Region in St. Louis, Miss., May 28, 2019. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

Last week, the British medical journal The Lancet published a study purporting to have found no link between abortion and suicide. Researchers obtained data from more than 500,000 Danish women born between 1980 and 1998. Holding a variety of factors constant, the study found that these women were no more likely to attempt suicide after receiving an abortion than they were before having the procedure.

But a closer look at the study suggests that there is far less to it than meets the eye. First, the study analyzes only non-fatal suicide attempts; it does not analyze actual suicides. This is a key fact, and most media coverage of the study has ignored it. Additionally, the study included self-harm without the intention to die under the category of non-fatal suicide attempts. In other words, some of the suicide attempts in the dataset were not actually attempts to commit suicide.

The study only analyzes women over the age of 18, and, as a result, ignores the possibility that abortions performed on minors affect their likelihood of attempting suicide. The study also does not analyze whether abortions increase the risk of multiple suicide attempts. Finally, it only studies first-trimester abortions and does not analyze whether late-term abortion procedures affect the likelihood of suicide attempts. This is a key shortcoming, since there is a broad body of academic research demonstrating that late-term abortions increase the risk of a range of mental-health problems.

Interestingly, examining the results of the Lancet study actually reveals that it found evidence that suicide attempts increase in the first month after a woman obtains an abortion. This is true for both the group of women who had previous psychiatric contact and the group of women who did not. This finding is consistent with research elsewhere showing that abortion increases the risk of suicide. Separate studies of women in Italy and Finland both found that women who obtained abortions were more likely to commit suicide than women who carried their pregnancies to term.

Other research similarly has suggested a link between abortion and suicide. A 2012 study in the Southern Medical Journal analyzed more than 170,000 women in California on Medicaid between 1989 and 1997, who either had an abortion or gave birth to a child. Women in the group that had an abortion were 154 percent more likely than to commit suicide than women who gave birth. Finally, the 2011 meta study authored by Priscilla Coleman in the British Journal of Psychiatry identified five studies analyzing how abortion affects the risk of suicide. All five found that abortion increased suicide risk, and in four of the five, the increase reached conventional standards of statistical significance.

It should also be noted that this new Lancet study was funded in part by the Society of Family Planning, which supports legal abortion. The primary author, Julia Steinberg, has worked as a consultant for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and was affiliated with the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, which also supports legal abortion. Unfortunately, when studies on abortion are published, the potential bias of authors and funding sources receives virtually no attention from the media. Instead, media outlets report favorably on studies that claim to show abortion has few health risks, while ignoring other research demonstrating that abortion increases the risk of physical- and mental-health problems.

Michael New — Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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