Women do not suffer mental health problems such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of having an abortion, researchers reported Wednesday.
The study, published by Danish scientists in the New England Journal of Medicine, adds to a growing body of scientific literature that has failed to find that abortion causes psychological problems, as some abortion opponents have asserted.
"There is still some debate, but the majority of the literature is very clear on this," said Linda Beckman, a psychology professor at Alliant International University in Alhambra and a co-author of a 2008 report from the American Psychological Assn. on abortion and mental health.
By taking advantage of a national registry that includes medical records of all Danish citizens, the authors were able to compare the rate of psychiatric visits in the months before and after abortion or childbirth. Researchers followed 84,620 girls and women who had a first-trimester abortion and 280,930 who had a first childbirth from the start of 1995 to the end of 2007. In Denmark, abortion is legal until the 12th week of gestation.
None of the women in the study had a history of mental disorders prior to the time period studied. Visits to a mental health professional were assessed for the nine months before the abortion or childbirth and for one year after.
Women who had abortions had higher rates of mental health disorders overall. But there was little difference in psychiatric visits before and after the abortion: 1% had contact with a mental health professional before the abortion compared with 1.5% after.
Women who gave birth had lower rates of mental health problems. However, visits for psychiatric healthcare increased after the birth: 0.3% had a mental health visit before childbirth compared with 0.7% in the year following.
Though women who have abortions may tend to have more mental problems, this propensity predates the abortion and may even be a factor that makes termination of pregnancy more likely, the authors concluded.
"I believe that the higher rates of psychiatric care can be interpreted as a sign that women having abortions are at a vulnerable time in their lives," study lead author Trine Munk-Olsen, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the National Center for Register-Based Research in Denmark, said in an e-mail. "But we do not know exactly why this difference is present."
The small increase in psychiatric visits after childbirth, meanwhile, is probably because of lifestyle changes that accompany the transition to parenthood, such as lack of sleep, stress or postpartum depression, she said.
In the United States, some opponents of abortion suggest the procedure causes "post-abortion traumatic stress syndrome" and other psychiatric maladies. This study, as well as earlier analyses, refutes those suggestions, Beckman said.
In its 2008 review of the topic, the American Psychological Assn. concluded that the risk of mental health problems among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy is no different between those who have an elective abortion or childbirth.