By Maura Ewing
Friday, September 30, 2011
An appeals court struck a suicide advisory from a South Dakota abortion law, underscoring decades of research finding no link between the procedure and mental health disorders. But the idea of psychological harm remains active in several states.
Today, three of the 34 states that require counseling before an abortion mandate a warning of negative emotional responses. They are Michigan, Nebraska and West Virginia, says a report from the Guttmacher Institute, though only West Virginia mentions the risk of "suicidal thought or acts."
"We've seen the idea that mental health disorders are a risk of having an abortion over and over again in state legislation," said Nash. "Many times the debates are put to an end when legislators see that the research is not bearing out."
The possibility of a link between abortion and mental health disorders entered high-profile politics in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan asked then Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop--an outspoken opponent to abortion--to prepare a report on the psychological effects of the procedure. After reviewing 250 articles from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Koop in 1989 declared an insufficiency of scientific evidence to make a comprehensive conclusion and would not publish the findings.
Seeking a more clear-cut statement, the American Psychological Association in 1990 commissioned a report by the journal Science, which concluded that women who have voluntary abortions do experience severe distress, but the majority of that occurs before, not after, an abortion.
"The weight of the evidence from scientific studies indicates that legal abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in the first trimester does not pose a psychological hazard for most women," the study said.
In 2008 a task force commissioned by the American Psychological Association again found no credible evidence "that a single elective abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in and of itself causes mental health problems."
Proponents of the South Dakota bill--the state and crisis pregnancy centers--relied heavily on studies by anti-choice researchers Coleman and David Reardon, said Jennifer Aulwes, media relations director of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, based in Minneapolis, in an e-mail.
"Their research has been discredited by leading professionals and organizations in the field," said Aulwes.
The connection between abortion and suicide crept into public education during the era of abstinence-only sexual education under President George W. Bush.
One curriculum, "Me, My World, My Future," taught teens: "Following abortion, according to some studies, women are more prone to suicide," according to the 2004 Waxman Report, commissioned by then California Rep. Henry Waxman.
"What's happened is that the anti-abortion movement has found people to put out methodologically flawed studies that allege that there is a problem with mental health after having an abortion," said Jessica Arons, director of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Pregnancy crisis centers, where women are often encouraged or required to seek counseling before an abortion, may also warn women about the negative mental-health consequences. Because the centers aren't medical facilities, the information is often not regulated.
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Maura Ewing is an editorial intern for Women's eNews. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in liberal studies at The New School in New York City.
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