New Study Chips Away at Bogus Abortion-Depression Links

A University of California professor's research found that women who experienced their first pregnancies as young adults were not at increased risk of subsequent depressive symptoms.

Young adults are an under-researched group on this topic, despite the facts that women under the age of 30 experience the highest rates of abortion as well as unintended pregnancies. Shutterstock

A recent study examined 15 years of longitudinal health data to answer the question whether abortion is linked to subsequent depression in an understudied population: young women.

The study by University of California at Berkeley Professor Anu Manchikanti Gómez supports prior reputable research confirming no such relationship. The article, published in the journal Psychological Medicine in June, focused on U.S. women ages 18 to 32. Young adults are an under-researched group on this topic, despite the facts that women under the age of 30 experience the highest rates of abortion as well as unintended pregnancies.

It’s the latest study contributing to growing evidence that counters numerous anti-abortion assertions and policies.

Gómez controlled for prior mental health and social and structural factors, meaning these were considered when analyzing the effect an abortion had on young women in her sample. But the keystone of Gómez’s study and sample size was that it only included women whose first pregnancies were unwanted and ended in either birth or abortion.

Gómez told Rewire in a phone interview that she avoided a key methodological misstep by focusing only on unwanted pregnancies that did not end in miscarriage.

“Obviously, people’s sort of emotional orientation toward a pregnancy that they’ve planned for and really want is very different from someone who becomes pregnant unexpectedly. And so that’s comparing apples and oranges if you’re trying to compare outcomes among those two groups, which is what some of that research that has found associations has done.”

Gómez’s study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (also known as Add Health), which began in 1994 as the largest and most extensive longitudinal study of adolescents. Add Health is directed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health. The survey was created to produce four “waves” of data on a range of social and health topics for 15 years. A final wave of data collection from the same subjects is currently in progress.

Gómez examined data from waves three and four to study participants when they were between the ages of 18 and 32. Nearly two-thirds of participants in Gómez’s sample had their first pregnancy by the time they completed wave four of the survey, the majority of these by age 25. In the third wave, 24 percent of the analyzed pregnancies ended in abortion, while nearly 28 percent of those in wave four did.

Gómez found these women were at no higher risk for subsequent depression compared to their peers who gave birth:

Using nationally representative longitudinal data, this analysis found that young women whose unwanted first pregnancies ended in abortion were at no greater risk of subsequent depressive symptoms than their counterparts who gave birth. Similar to an earlier study with Add Health data, this was the case even before adjusting for prior depressive symptoms and trauma history …. This research, along with a prior analysis of Add Health data, indicates that women who experienced their first pregnancies in adolescence or young adulthood were not at increased risk of subsequent depressive symptoms.

Gómez also analyzed first pregnancy and abortion experiences against demographic data, including race and ethnicity, educational attainment, and maternal educational attainment. Identifying these characteristics as features that indicate social advantage or disadvantage, she was able to understand how such factors played a role in the timing of one’s first pregnancy, rate of abortion, or subsequent depressive symptoms.

Gómez found that those women in the study with fewer social advantages reported their first pregnancy at an earlier age than the average. But overall, the article explains, “The relationship between having an abortion and subsequent depressive symptoms was consistent across the models and analytic approaches.”

And by “relationship,” Gómez is pointing to the lack of one.

Given the ever-increasing body of evidence rejecting links between abortion and depression, responsible legislators should reject or repeal policies that purport to make a connection which, according to public health research, does not exist. 

But measures bolstered or justified by anti-abortion research continue to be proposed. A recent Guttmacher Institute review reported that six states require providers to counsel their patients about the supposed negative mental health risks of having an abortion, despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no link. Still, numerous proponents of dubious research claim that abortion is associated with mental health issues, some of whom—such as Priscilla K. Coleman, David C. Reardon, and Vincent M. Rue—have been profiled in Rewire‘s False Witnesses database.

The rhetoric has continued even in typically blue states like New York. In March, state Sen. Rubén Diaz Sr., a Democrat known for his anti-choice views, introduced the Woman’s Right to Know Act (S 5067). Diaz has introduced a version of this bill each session since 2013. Although the bill died when this past legislative session ended, it would have forced doctors to tell their patients about “the medical and psychological risks associated with abortion.” Yet public health experts agree that the claims of psychological risks are unfounded, and Gómez’s article reinforces a trove of existing evidence.

Now, if only legislators would listen.