A New Study Destroys the Central Argument Behind ‘Abortion Reversal’

“Abortion reversal” laws are based on the myth that people who have abortions often regret their decision. New research shows this is overwhelmingly untrue.

[Photo: A young, white woman holds a sign that reads 'women don't regret abortion'.
Research shows there is no evidence that abortion is responsible for mental health problems, according to Guttmacher Institute. Dave Fayram/Flickr

Ninety-nine percent of women don’t regret their abortions five years after getting the procedure, according to a new study that undercuts the myth of abortion regret perpetuated by state lawmakers in support of “abortion reversal” laws.

So-called abortion reversal laws require clinicians to provide patients with inaccurate information about the possibility of reversing a medication abortion. “Abortion reversal” is a medically unproven, experimental protocol pushed by anti-choice activists who claim medication abortions can be reversed in the middle of the process: after a patient has taken the initial dose of mifepristone but before they take the misoprostol pill.

These “abortion reversal” laws rely on dubious science and are largely based on the myth that people who have abortions often come to regret the decision.

“Never have these claims held any water or been based on any evidence,” said Corinne Rocca, associate professor at University of California, San Francisco and lead author of the recent study on emotional responses post-abortion. “In looking at this research question, it was really important to lend some evidence to this. Is it true that women experience persistent or emerging negative emotions and decision regret?”

The researchers found that relief was the most commonly felt emotion by the participants throughout the five-year study, which was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine this week. Their previous study, published in 2015, found that 95 percent of women felt abortion was the right choice for them three years post-procedure.

“No studies in present day United States in this particular socio-political climate have looked [at this] over time, so that was the gap in the empirical evidence we were trying to fill,” Rocca told Rewire News Group.

Despite the lack of data, anti-choice lawmakers have used the specter of regret to justify restricting abortion access—and, in recent years, attempting to force providers to share reckless information with patients. The controversial practice has proven dangerous: Researchers had to halt an “abortion reversal” trial last month after three women participating in the study experienced severe hemorrhaging.

In 2019, lawmakers in five states (North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arkansas) passed “abortion reversal” laws, and Ohio Republicans passed a bill through the state senate.

“A number of women have regret after the abortion. They may have a regret during the process but, if they don’t know there may be a way to reverse the process, then they just don’t know,” state Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore), who co-authored the Oklahoma reversal bill, told News 4 in October. “There are a lot of things in this world that, once you make a decision, you can’t undo. This is perhaps one that you can change your mind and you still have some hope that you could deliver a happy, healthy baby.”

Such arguments, Rocca said, are framed as “pro-women” by anti-choice lawmakers who say they are concerned about patients’ emotional and mental well-being and want to protect them from negative outcomes.

The myth of regret is the basis for “reversal” bills, but lawmakers use it to justify all types of abortion restrictions. Last year, Missouri state Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) argued that a near-total abortion ban would “curb the mental anguish many women suffer as a result of abortions.”

This justification has made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart decision, which upheld the federal “partial-birth abortion” ban, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.”

Research shows no evidence that abortion is responsible for mental health problems, according to Guttmacher Institute.

One percent of the 667 women who participated in Rocca’s study regretted their decision after five years, though participants reported stronger emotions—both positive and negative—in the first week following their abortions.

These “findings challenge the rationale for policies regulating access to abortion that are premised on emotional harm claims,” the study concludes.

“We know that women do regret their abortion,” Christa Brown, director of medical impact for the anti-choice Heartbeat International and manager of the Abortion Pill Rescue Network, said in a statement to Rewire.News. Brown cited the number of women who have visited anti-choice pregnancy centers after their abortions, based on surveys of the anti-choice centers.

Rocca said she doesn’t want to “reduce the struggles of the people who come to a place where they don’t feel like they made the right decision,” but “it’s misguided to deprive the other overwhelming majority of people the option of making that decision.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that Heartbeat International provided Rewire.News with a report that included data from anti-choice pregnancy centers.