August 12, 2008

APA Task Force Finds Single Abortion Not a Threat to Women's Mental Health

Calls for better-designed future research

BOSTON—There is no credible evidence that a single elective abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in and of itself causes mental health problems for adult women, according to a draft report released Tuesday by a task force of the American Psychological Association.

The APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion reached its conclusions after evaluating all of the empirical studies published in English in peer-reviewed journals since 1989 that compared the mental health of women who had an induced abortion to comparison groups of women, or that examined factors that predict mental health among women who have had an elective abortion in the United States. The task force, formed in 2006, was charged with collecting, examining and summarizing the scientific research addressing mental health factors associated with abortion, including the psychological responses following abortion.

The report was to be presented Wednesday to the association's governing Council of Representatives at APA's Annual Convention in Boston.

The task force observed that many of the studies published during the period reviewed suffered from serious methodological problems. Thus, it focused most closely on those found to be most methodologically sound to arrive at its conclusions. Inconsistencies in findings reported by published studies were judged to reflect differences in study quality and failures to control for potentially confounding factors.

"The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy, the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion or deliver that pregnancy," said Brenda Major, PhD, chair of the task force. "The evidence regarding the relative mental health risks associated with multiple abortions is more uncertain."

The task force found that some studies indicate that some women do experience sadness, grief and feelings of loss following an abortion, and some may experience "clinically significant disorders, including depression and anxiety." However, the task force found "no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors."

The report noted that other co-occurring risk factors, including poverty, prior exposure to violence, a history of emotional problems, a history of drug or alcohol use, and prior unwanted births predispose women to experience both unwanted pregnancies and mental health problems after a pregnancy, irrespective of how the pregnancy is resolved. Failures to control for these co-occurring risk factors, the task force noted, may lead to reports of associations between abortion history and mental health problems that are misleading.

The report noted that women have abortions for many different reasons and within different personal, social, economic and cultural circumstances, all of which could affect a woman's mental state following abortion. "Consequently," the task force wrote, "global statements about the psychological impact of abortion can be misleading."

According to the report, women terminating a wanted pregnancy, who perceived pressure from others to terminate their pregnancy, or who perceived a need to keep their abortion secret from their family and friends because of stigma associated with abortion, were more likely to experience negative psychological reactions following abortion.

The task force noted that despite the importance of understanding the mental health implications of abortion compared to its alternatives – motherhood or adoption—very few studies included appropriate comparison groups for addressing this issue. One of the task force's chief recommendations is for better-designed, rigorously conducted future research on the topic to "help disentangle confounding factors and establish relative risks of abortion compared to its alternatives."

The task force's conclusions are consistent with the conclusions of an APA working group that conducted a similar review of the literature published prior to 1989. Results of that review were published in Science in 1990 and in the American Psychologist in 1992.

Members of the APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion:

Brenda Major, PhD, chair
Mark Appelbaum, PhD
Linda Beckman, PhD
Mary Ann Dutton, PhD
Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD
Carolyn West, PhD

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 148,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.