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The latest abortion-rights battles are “being fought less over women’s bodies than over their minds,” with several states passing laws mandating that women seeking abortions are told the procedure places them at risk for mental healthproblems, Brenda Major, a University of California-Santa Barbara psychology professor and fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, writes in a Washington Post opinion piece. According to the Guttmacher Institute, pre-abortion counseling about mental health risks is mandatory in Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Major argues that “informed choice requires accurate information. And these laws mandate that women be misled.” The laws are part of a political strategy “aimed at dissuading women from terminating a pregnancy and at making abortions difficult, if not impossible to obtain,” she continues. The strategy “distorts scientific principles, even if it uses the umbrella of scientific research to advance its aims,” Major states.

According to Major, “rigorous” scientific studies “have not substantiated the claim that abortion, compared with its alternatives, causes an increased incidence of mental health problems.” In 2008, a task force ofAmerican Psychological Association — chaired by Major — and an independent team of scholars at Johns Hopkins University reached the same conclusion. Most recently, Oregon State University researchers released a study “showing that teenagers who have an abortion are not more likely to become depressed or to have low self-esteem one year or five years later, compared with their peers who deliver,” Major notes.

Errors in Logic 

Major argues that there are “at least two logical flaws at play” in the arguments of the laws’ supporters. “The first is the confusion of correlation with causation,” she writes, noting that the “most plausible explanation for the association that some studies find between abortion and mental health is that it reflects pre-existing differences between women who continue a pregnancy and those who end one.” This difference was “willfully ignored” in April when Nebraska lawmakers passed a law (LB 594) that requires doctors to screen women prior to an abortion for risk factors that the law’s supporters say could indicate whether they might develop physical or mental problems after an abortion, Major writes.

The Nebraska law “ignores the fact that the very characteristics that predispose women to emotional or mental health problems following an abortion also predispose them to postpartum depression if they deliver or to mental health problems in general, even if they do not become pregnant,” Major argues. She adds, “Following the logic of this purportedly protective law, women wanting to deliver a child should likewise be screened to ascertain that they are not predisposed to poor mental health afterward.”

According to Major, the “second logical failing in the campaign to convince women that abortion harms their mental health involves what psychologists call the ‘availability heuristic,'” which means that “vivid, first-person accounts that can be easily brought to mind … influence our estimates of the frequency of an event more than dry, statistical data do.” The “emotionally evocative stories of a minority of women can lead people to overestimate the frequency of those experiences,” Major writes. Her research involving more than 400 women who had abortions early in pregnancy “shows that women who terminate an unplanned pregnancy report a range of feelings, including sadness and loss as well as relief.” She adds that two years after the procedure, “most women say they would make the same decision if they had it to do over again under the same circumstances.”

However, “most women feel they can’t talk about their abortions — unless they repent” because of the “stigma associated with abortion,” Major argues. “Women who think they made the right decision in having an abortion must be able to say so without fear and condemnation and without feeling that something is wrong with them,” she continues, concluding, “And women who feel sadness and regret should feel free to share their feelings as well. But their words should not be used to deceive women or to limit their choices” (Major,Washington Post, 11/7).

Reprinted with kind permission from You can view the entire Daily Women’s Health Policy Report, search the archives, or sign up for email delivery here. The Daily Women’s Health Policy Report is a free service of the National Partnership for Women & Families.


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