Postpartum depression, a psychological illness caused by hormonal shifts occurring after childbirth that can lead to reactions ranging from irritability to sadness to despair, is an issue that’s garnered a lot of media attention of late. Brooke Shields’ battle with the disease, chronicled in her best-selling book Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, has helped bring about an improved discussion of this previously taboo phenomenon.
This is a positive development. The feelings of depression and hopelessness women sometimes experience after the birth of a child need to be acknowledged, understood, and treated in order for all child bearers to reach their full potential as mothers and as women.
Regrettably, though public consciousness of the negative psychological reactions new mothers may experience is growing, scant attention is paid to the profound feelings of sadness and despair that often follow the other life-changing pregnancy outcome: abortion.
Post-Abortion Syndrome, a variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a subject of considerable controversy.
While Planned Parenthood and other abortion advocates generally assert that the emotional effects of abortion are “largely positive,” others maintain — backed by mounting evidence — that the emotional risks to women who abort are profound and wide reaching.
IT’S BEEN NEARLY 20 YEARS since Surgeon General C. Everett Koop concluded that research on the psychological effects of abortion was entirely inadequate for drawing any general conclusions about either the efficacy or the dangers of abortion.
Since then, important empirical research has been conducted that points to a significant correlation between a woman’s abortion experience and subsequent psychological maladjustment.
For example, a Canadian study found that a higher number of abortions were correlated both with poor long-term health and with the need to obtain professional help in dealing with the losses.
Another study in the non-partisan American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse reported an increase in substance abuse experienced by post-abortive women. Women who had no history of substance abuse prior to their first pregnancy were, on average, twice as likely to abuse alcohol, more than twice as likely to abuse marijuana, and nearly three times as likely to use cocaine, as women who did not abort. In fact, there have been dozens of recent studies confirming the strong association between abortion and subsequent drug and alcohol abuse, which, in turn, are strongly correlated with depression.
In another study that accounted for prior mental health problems, post-abortive women were found to be much more likely to attempt suicide. Gissler et al. discovered that while the mean annual suicide rate among Finnish women was 11.3 per 100,000, the rates associated with women who obtained an abortion (34.7) were significantly higher than in the population.
What’s more, research indicates that minors who abort may be at even greater risk than the female population at large. A host of studies conducted over the past 10 years show girls who abort are at increased risk of substantial psychological reactions and even clinical depression. For example, a 2000 study by Reardon and Cougle found that long-term psychological effects were more common among women who had an abortion as an adolescent than among those who had carried an adolescent pregnancy to term.
Finally, in a study I conducted last year (which appears in the current issue of the Georgetown Public Policy Review), I compare the long-term psychological consequences of teenage abortion with those of teenage childbirth.
I found that while at first glance early experiences of abortion and childbirth were similar as regards to their effects on women’s long-term psychological health, when additional statistically significant variables were accounted for, such as pre-disposition to depression, physical health, and life satisfaction measures, early childbearing proved not to be a determinate of long-term depression. On the other hand, even after accounting for a wide-range of significant variables that affect depression, an early abortion experience was still associated with a higher level of adult depression symptoms.
What this means is that if a woman who gave birth as a teen was depressed years later, it was usually due to dire financial straits or relationship problems and not to the fact that she bore a child at an early age. Conversely, if a woman who aborted her first child as a teen was depressed years later, it was probably not due to financial difficulties, poor physical health or a negative sense of efficacy. Instead, her depression could be linked directly to the abortion experience itself.
Also, I found that on average, all else being equal, a woman who aborted at or before the age of 20 had a depression score 15 percent higher than a woman who did not become pregnant as a youth.
These results make sense because while most cultures have slowly come to consider abortion as a normal and acceptable part of reproductive women’s health care, the real psychological effects that aborting one’s child has on a mother can never be completely avoided.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE PUBLIC IS largely unaware of these important findings, and, even worse, doctors still rarely inform women considering abortion about the strong abortion/depression link.
Congressman Joe Pitts from Pennsylvania wants to do something about this. Last year he introduced House Bill 4543, the Post-Abortion Depression Research and Care Act, which would have amended the Public Health Service Act to authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services to expand research with respect to post-abortion depression and post-abortion psychosis.
Some of the authorized activities included research relating to the causes of negative reactions, the development of improved diagnostic techniques, and education programs for health care professionals and the public.
H.R. 4543 would have also provided grants “for projects for the establishment, operation, and coordination of effective and cost-efficient systems for the delivery of essential services to individuals with post-abortion depression or post-abortion psychosis and their families.”
The legislation’s principle objective, however, was to provide funding for a comprehensive, non-partisan national research project to determine the incidence and prevalence of cases of post-abortion conditions, the severity and duration of such cases, and to establish whether abortion causes depression.
Regrettably, little action was taken on this bill last year, and it died while under review in the House of Representatives subcommittee on Energy and Commerce.
Given what is at stake with this issue — not only the lives of over one million babies, but also the health and lives of over one million women and their families — the Post-Abortion Depression Research and Care Act needs to be re-introduced this year and made law so that we can give women the information they need to make truly informed choices.