A new draft report released by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that women who terminate unwanted pregnancies do not face increased risks of mental health problems, compared to women who give birth.
The impact of abortion on mental health has been the subject of considerable controversy in recent years. The majority of clinical evidence has supported the view, held by mainstream medical bodies and pro-choice campaigners, that most women who have abortions do not experience adverse psychological consequences.
Anti-choice activists have, however, selectively drawn on methodologically flawed studies or misinterpreted evidence to support claims that women who abort are at far greater risk of mental health problems than those who do not – often citing a 30% increase in risk.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ study of the issue has sought to clarify available evidence and provide a more robust review of scientific literature on the subject. Crucially, it has taken into account the woman’s mental health prior to abortion, and has compared outcomes for women with unwanted pregnancies following abortion and birth, which some other studies had failed to do.
The key findings identified by the Review are as follows:
- although there are significant limitations with the dataset included in this review, this review is perhaps a little more robust, combining the approaches of both main previous reviews, and confirms many of the findings in previous reviews.
- mental health outcomes are likely to be the same, whether women with unwanted pregnancies opt for an abortion or birth
- women with mental health problems prior to abortion or birth, are associated with increased mental health problems after the abortion or birth
- for all women who have an unwanted pregnancy, support and monitoring should be offered as the risk of later mental health problems are greater whatever the pregnancy outcome. The offer of support should depend upon the emergence of mental health problems, whether during pregnancy, post-abortion or after birth, and should be underpinned by NICE guidance for the treatment of the mental health problems identified
- if women who have an abortion show a negative emotional reaction to the abortion, or are experiencing stressful life events, support and monitoring should be offered as they are more likely than others to develop a mental health problem. (p.89)
We were also pleased to see recognition of the role of negative attitudes to abortion in determining wellbeing after abortion:
“Stigma, the perceived need for secrecy and lack of social support were also reported to be important factors associated with poorer post-abortion outcomes”. (p.86)
The Review’s publication comes at a particularly useful moment: the Right to Know campaign, sponsored by Nadine Dorries and Frank Field, which seeks to impose further mandatory counselling for women seeking abortion, centres on claims that information on the negative psychological consequences of the procedure are currently being withheld from women and have been downplayed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in its clinical guidance on abortion.
Indeed Nadine Dorries has claimed that:
“The RCOG has failed to uphold the principle of professionalism and ethical responsibility in the way it has behaved in the production of these guidelines and indeed, I would go as far as to say has brought the entire RCOG into disrepute.”
The findings of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ current Review serve to undermine a central claim of the ‘Right to Know’ campaign and its attempts to discredit the RCOG, and further undermines calls for the body to be stripped of its responsibility for drafting clinical guidelines for the care of women requesting abortion.
The Review will be open for consultation until 29th June. Information on the consultation process is available on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website.
Read our briefing on the proposed abortion amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill.