Being Denied an Abortion Is More Harmful to Women’s Mental Health Than Actually Getting One, According to a New Study

Being denied an abortion is linked to anxiety and low self-esteem. Photo: Jason Hetherington/Getty Images

Currently, nine states require women seeking abortions to undergo counseling about the supposed long-term mental-health consequences of getting the procedure. However, a new study found that getting an abortion doesn’t negatively affect women’s mental health. Instead, those who are denied the procedure end up having higher levels of anxiety and lower self-esteem than those who actually get an abortion.

Published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, examined 956 women recruited from 30 abortion providers in 21 states as part of the Turnaway Study over the course of five years. Of that group, 231 were denied the procedure because their pregnancy was up to three weeks past the facility’s gestational limit — and 161 of those women gave birth, while 70 either miscarried or had an abortion elsewhere.

“At the time we started, there was a lot of debate and very little data about the actual mental-health consequences from abortion,” co-study author Dr. Diana Greene Foster told the Cut. “There was a public dialogue that abortion hurt women, but not much evidence, and even the best of studies didn’t have a comparison group.”

One week after seeking an abortion, study participants who were turned away from getting the procedure had higher levels of anxiety, lower self-esteem, and lower life satisfaction than those who got the wanted abortion. Yet, their levels of depression were similar to those who actually had the procedure. Foster noted that the similarities may stem from the depressive feelings linked with finding out you’re (unwantedly) pregnant.

But within six months to a year, those who were denied abortions eventually had their anxiety, self-esteem, and life satisfaction levels reach the levels of those who had the procedure, the study found. “This event is clearly a difficult one, but regardless of the resolution, mental health improves over time,” Foster said.

The findings disprove the argument used by certain anti-abortion activists that the procedure causes long-term psychological harm on women. The results also show that there is no justification for laws that require women seeking the procedure to undergo required mental-health counseling, the study authors noted. Nevertheless, as with any study, there are limitations: The research was observational, which doesn’t allow for causal inferences, the authors noted.

“So much of our debate is ideology with no factual reference to real women’s experiences,” Foster told the Cut. “What this study does is give an objective look at what real women making this decision and living their lives experience.”

Denying Women Abortions Is Harmful to Their Mental Health