It’s Not Abortion That Drives You Mad, It’s the Law

Abortion probably won’t make you depressed, but the obstacles you might face in order to get one are devastating.

A new study from the Guttmacher Institute counters conservative fear-mongering about abortion’s psychological impacts. Health researchers Jocelyn T. Warren, S. Marie Harvey and Jillian T. Henderson present decisive evidence that teens who have had abortions don’t suffer emotional trauma as a direct result (tip of the hat to RH Reality Check).

The study tracked 289 women who reported a pregnancy in the mid-1990s and compared those who got abortions to those who didn’t, screening for behaviors like crying and restless sleep. Carefully avoiding methodological holes that marred previous studies, the researchers found that:

Adolescents who have an abortion do not appear to be at elevated risk for depression or low self-esteem in the short term or up to five years after the abortion.

In other words, choosing abortion isn’t an intrinsically damaging experience; often, in fact, it’s just the right thing to do. (Especially in light of the severe emotional and social consequences of being forced to have a baby before you’re ready.)

This study, focused on adolescents, builds on similar research on abortion among adult women. The authors also note that psychological outcomes didn’t significantly vary by demographic or socioeconomic background.

Yet the abortion-guilt concept is still going strong. It’s even found its way to the Supreme Court bench. In 2007, Justice Kennedy entered this admittedly unsupported assumption into the judicial record:

While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort. … Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.

And in the court of public opinion, politicians milk this “unexceptionable” canard to push policies aimed at “rescuing” women from abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s legislative round-up, there’s been a recent bumper crop of so-called “informed consent” laws in dozens of state legislatures—measures that quietly deter women from abortion through induced fear and guilt.

State legislators have promoted measures like mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds and biased counseling. Another way to steer young women away from abortion is to force them to first consult with their parents. Nebraska’s law may be the gold standard, redefining informed consent as a mandate for providers to foist potentially misleading, scientifically dubious “advice” on vulnerable women.

The soft barriers are harder to criticize; they don’t attack a woman’s right to choose outright, but rather subtly constrain her perceived options. The debate is complicated by the need for both sides to be conscious of a real need for accurate counseling and peer support for women coping with their choice. Nonetheless, typical restrictive counseling laws are hardly therapeutic, as they enable the state to intrude aggressively on an intensely personal decision.

So, rules aimed at protecting the supposed sanctity of the fetus end up degrading the sovereignty of a woman’s emotional and physical being. The researchers point out that government intervention could do more emotional harm than the abortion itself:

Paradoxically, laws mandating that women considering abortion be advised of its psychological risks may jeopardize women’s health by adding unnecessary anxiety and undermining women’s right to informed consent.

Ironic, or just straight-up cruel? After all, the people behind abortion-deterrent policies are presumably far less worried about women’s feelings than they are about the next election cycle. If these politicians have no shame about legislating away a woman’s control over her body, they’re probably not terribly concerned about her mind.

Image of brain structures involved in dealing with fear and stress, from National Institute of Mental Health on Wikimedia Commons; public domain.


  1. "While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort."

    Actually, I don't really object to the content of Justice Kennedy's statement. I am absolutely sure that there are women who regret their abortions. It seems unexceptionable to conclude there are likewise some women who regret having had their children. Or lots of other major life decisions they have made.

    • snobographer says:

      Women and girls regret their abortions when they're forced to have them against their will or when they have to go against everything they've been taught about abortion being immoral in order to have one. It's kind of like homosexuality that way; Any internalized agony is all in the stigma, and the stigma is irrational.

  2. Studies I've seen say relief is the most common emotion after an abortion. Women often feel they'll be better mothers later, when they're better prepared to take on that responsibility.

    Still, I have a student (I teach women's studies) who came in crying after a discussion on abortion. She was upset because she had been pressured by her boyfriend to abort. Women who are pressured are more likely to be upset – feeling that their agency has been taken away from them.

  3. Earlier today I looked up 'abortion after rape' while desperately hoping my period would start. I was horrified that so many of the first articles I came across were about why abortion should never be allowed after rape. All women need choice, and access to abortion services.

    • snobographer says:

      Rape and incest exceptions are highly problematic considering how low the conviction rate is for rape. If abortion access is limited to women who can prove according to a patriarchal and misogynist judicial system that they were raped, that excludes like 80% of rape victims.

      • …and if she’s lucky enough to be taken seriously by the “justice” system and prove her case, the system moves too slowly to be of any use. Gestation is only 9 months; most legal proceedings in the case of rape would be longer than a year surely?

        The choice would be taken away from her because the system could not cope with the biological reality.

        Yet another logical reason why women must be respected and left to make their own choices about their own bodies. Always.

  4. MICHELLE Cory says:

    i am so glad someone finally wrote this article. My amygdala is on fire not from my abortion 30 years ago, but from the quilt of sociatol pressure, that i bad, and less than. the people tying to defend embryo;s have destroyed my mental peace. as someone who also suffers from ocd, i have had a tremendous road to travel.


  5. @snobographer
    Something that has not been discussed, to my knowledge re: rape and abortion: for those that think that abortion should be allowed in the case of rape: would you need to prove that the rape occurred in order to get an abortion? What would be the standard of proof? Winning a legal case? The victim's word?
    If the standard would be winning a legal case-forget about a safe and timely abortion. Court cases take months. If it's the victim's word, why would you allow this to proceed for rape and not for any other reason why a woman could find herself pregnant? In other words, becoming a victim is ok-then we can "protect" her. Simply stating that she wants an abortion is wrong, in this line of reasoning.
    It's reasoning such as this that makes me pro-choice.

  6. Justice Kennedy should be provided the results of even more studies regarding how many people regret their choices and suffer depression and loss of esteem because:

    Their husband abuses them and knowing homicide is one of the most common causes of death among pregnant women.

    They're harassed and screamed at when they go to a women's health clinic for a Pap test or other procedure.

    A man had a vasectomy.

    Women married the man they did.

    Women and men have children they can't cope with.

    A woman is told that because she's in a Catholic hospital she won't be allowed an abortion to save her life due to an order from Catholic bishops that prevents the procedure, even though it's illegal not to save her life with an abortion.

    A woman suffers from the side effects of pregnancy, such as obstetric fistula.

    It's known that several women die each day from pregnancy-related causes in the U.S.

    About 600 women are sexually assaulted every day in America.

    Activist judges are imposing their ideology on pregnant women instead of honoring their choice of hospital or whether to have a C-section, etc.

    Women are denied contraceptives or RU-486, etc., because of the conscience of an employee.

    Poor women are told that they will have to pay for their own abortion even if they have a life-threatening condition because Medicaid won't pay for it.

    A woman's right to informed consent regarding her own health, which is a legal requirement, is being denied her.

    Women suffer from depression and regret mainly because of the choices that others are making for them instead of allowing them to make their own life-altering decisions.

  7. While this debate rages on out there, women all over the world are faced with the question: WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS PREGNANCY? That question becomes even harder to answer when she had been raped or her father, Uncle or Brother had just gotten her pregnant. It is not the decision, either way, that is traumatic, but the fact that society thinks she can't independently take a decision about her body. . . HELLOOOO!!!

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