The largest and most comprehensive review of evidence around mental health outcomes and abortion has found that having an abortion does not increase the risk of mental health problems (09.12.11).
The findings have led to calls for anti-choice groups to stop misleading women about the potential dangers of the procedure.
The review, commissioned by the Academy of Medical Colleges and carried out by the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH) at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, concluded that it makes no difference to a woman’s mental health whether she chooses to have an abortion or to continue with the pregnancy.
Researchers looked at 180 potentially relevant studies and included 44 papers published between 1990 and 2011, using only the best quality evidence. The studies included information from hundreds of thousands of women at least 90 days after an abortion.
Professor Tim Kendall, Director of the NCCMH, told the BBC, “We believe this is the most comprehensive and detailed review of the mental health outcomes of abortion to date worldwide”.
The study found that having an unwanted pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems, but that rates are the same whether women had an abortion or gave birth. About a third of women who have an unwanted pregnancy suffer depression and anxiety compared to 11-12% of the general population.
The review found that having a history of mental health problems was the best predictor of whether women would suffer after having had an abortion. It also found that having a negative attitude towards abortion or being under pressure from a partner to have an abortion are associated with increased rates of post-abortion mental health problems.
Dr Roch Cantwell, a consultant perinatal psychiatrist and Chair of the review’s Steering Group, said:
“Our review shows that abortion is not associated with an increase in mental health problems. Women who are carrying an unwanted pregnancy should be reassured that current evidence shows they are no more likely to experience mental health problems if they decide to have an abortion than if they decide to give birth.”
Anne Milton, the public health minister responsible for abortion, said the review’s findings would be considered when the Department of Health updates its sexual health strategy next year, adding, “What is clear is that having an unwanted pregnancy has implications for people’s health and wellbeing.”
The review’s findings were welcomed by pro-choice and sexual health groups. Tracey McNeill, vice-president of abortion provider Marie Stopes told the Guardian,
“In our experience, for every extra week a woman carries an unwanted pregnancy, it can represent an extra week of distress. This is reinforced by the review’s finding that while abortion does not have a disproportionate impact on mental health, having an unwanted pregnancy does.”
Abortion Rights campaign co-ordinator Darinka Aleksic said,
“Women will be reassured by the review’s findings that having an abortion does not increase their risk of mental health problems. We hope this will put an end to the campaign of misinformation and scaremongering by anti-abortion activists on this issue.
If they truly care for women’s mental health, they will focus their attention on reducing rates of unwanted pregnancy through better access to contraception and comprehensive sex and relationships education for all young people.”