New Research Proves Restricting Abortion Harms Women

the turnaway study
Pro-choice demonstrators in downtown Chicago on July 9, 2018. (Charles Edward Miller / Flickr)

When the Supreme Court recently handed down a victory for abortion rights in June Medical Services v. Russo, anti-abortion activists immediately turned to their false claim that abortion harms women. 

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the offensively-named anti-abortion group, the “Susan B. Anthony” List, bemoaned the Court’s decision as failing to “allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry.” 

Similarly, in his dissent in June Medical Services, Justice Neil Gorsuch described in detail several Louisiana cases involving abortion complications—all while failing to mention how rare they are. In fact, the plaintiff in the case, Hope Medical Clinic, had only four patients transferred to a hospital because of complications from abortion in over 23 years. (Hope provides 3,000 abortions each year—so that’s four out of 69,000 patients, for a likelihood of .00006, rounded up!)

Anti-abortion activists and politicians have a long history of trying to justify abortion restrictions by claiming abortion harms women physically and emotionally. They argue—without evidence—that mandated waiting periods, forced ultrasound viewing, delivery of state-written counseling before an abortion and hospital admitting privilege requirements (the restriction at issue in June Medical Services) will protect women’s health. And they spread lies that abortion causes cancer, depression and infertility.

What is the effect on women’s lives of receiving versus being denied an abortion?

A new book, “The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, A Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion” by Dr. Diana Greene Foster, provides definitive evidence that abortion access strongly enhances women’s health and well-being, whereas denying abortion results in physical and economic harm. 

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“The Turnaway Study” By Dr. Diana Greene Foster explores abortion access—and a lack thereof—in America. (WAMC)

Based on a ten-year investigation, the book combines engaging, in-depth stories of women who received and were denied abortion care along with study data from 50 peer-reviewed papers published in top medical and social science journals. 

A team of over 40 researchers from nine universities and four research institutes conducted the study, led by Foster, who was the principal investigator. The team included psychologists, epidemiologists, demographers, nursing scholars and public health researchers. Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) funded the research.


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The Turnaway Study provides the first, longitudinal, scientifically rigorous study of the mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic consequences of receiving an abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. 

The researchers recruited 1000 women from 30 abortion facilities in 20 states around the country between 2008 and 2010. Some received abortions, while others were “turned away” and carried their pregnancies to term because they were past the gestational limit in their state. Researchers interviewed the women by phone one week post-abortion, then semi-annually for five years. They asked the women about their health and well-being, as well as their children’s health and development. 

After over 8,000 interviews, researchers found that 99 percent of women who received an abortion thought their decision to have an abortion was the right one, even five years later. They did not regret their abortion decision. They were also better off than women denied abortion care. 

The study revealed that women who receive a wanted abortion had better physical health outcomes and were more likely to have a positive outlook on the future. They were more financially stable, set more ambitious goals, raised their children under more stable conditions, and were more likely to have a wanted child later. They also had better chances of finding a good romantic relationship, and the children they already had were better off too.

By contrast, women denied a wanted abortion experienced more serious health problems giving birth than those having an abortion, were more likely to stay in contact with a violent partner, were more likely to be left to raise the resulting child alone, and experienced economic hardship and insecurity which lasted for years. Existing children of women denied abortions were over three times more likely to live in households below the federal poverty level, and they were less likely to achieve developmental milestones than the existing children of women who received abortion care.

The study’s authors estimate that more than 4,000 women are denied wanted abortions each year due to facilities’ gestational limits. Women who seek later abortions are often slowed down by not realizing they were pregnant and by logistical barriers to getting an abortion, including the cost of abortion health care. Many women in the study lacked access to public or private insurance.

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“Women who receive a wanted abortion had better physical health outcomes and were more likely to have a positive outlook on the future,” writes Baker. (Debra Sweet / Flickr)

“The Turnaway Study” provides definitive support for Dr. George Tiller’s motto, “Trust women,” by proving that women make thoughtful, responsible abortion decisions that are based on accurate assessments of the consequences of their decisions.

Foster said:

“Abortion opponents often accuse women seeking abortions of being misinformed, irresponsible or amoral. In fact, as ‘The Turnaway Study’ results make clear, women make thoughtful, well-considered decisions about whether to have an abortion.

“When asked why they want to end a pregnancy, women give specific and personal reasons. And their fears are borne out in the experiences of women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Women seeking abortions worry that they cannot afford to raise a baby, and we find that women denied abortions are more likely to live in poverty. They worry that their relationship isn’t strong enough to support a child, and we find that relationships with the man involved dissolve regardless of whether they carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion. They worry about not being able to take care of their existing children, and we find evidence that women’s children do worse on several measures of health and development when women carry an unwanted pregnancy to term than when they receive an abortion.

“‘The Turnaway Study’ brings powerful evidence about the ability of women to foresee consequences and make decisions that are best for their lives and families.”

The book has a companion website with resources related to the study, including a syllabus for college courses to teach “The Turnaway Study” with a series of lectures by scientists from the study and detailing ongoing research about attitudes and decision-making after pregnancy testing—the ADAPT study.

“Dr. Diana Greene Foster brings what is too often missing from the public debate around abortion: science, data and the real-life experiences of people from diverse backgrounds,” says Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood.

“This should be required reading for every judge, member of Congress and candidate for office—as well as anyone who hopes to better understand this complex and important issue.”


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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. Baker is the President of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.