The XX Factor

What Happens to Women Who Are Denied Abortions?

According to a new study, this woman is wrong.

Bill Pugliano

Members of the Republican class of ’12 learned the lesson the hard way: In fighting abortion, it’s not politically expedient to tip your hand and straight-up admit that you don’t care about women’s rights. Cleverer anti-abortion organizations have known for years that arguing the moral question of when life begins and making offensive comments about God-sanctioned rape are not nearly as effective as appealing to the health and well-being of potential moms. These activists claim that they’re the ones really looking out for women and say that those who abort their pregnancies suffer from PTSD, depression, higher rates of breast cancer, infertility, death, and of course, regret. Attend an anti-abortion rally, and you’ll likely find a table staffed with nice women offering up little baby shoes for these sad, regretful women to keep as a tribute to the children they lost through abortion.

Now, a group of public health researchers are studying how abortion really affects women. For the past four years, researchers from the San Francisco-based Advancing New Standards in Public Health have followed the lives of nearly 1,000 women who have sought abortions in clinics across the country, interviewing them about their physical and mental health, their careers and finances, their relationships and social lives, and their feelings toward abortion—one of the first studies of its kind. Most of the women in the study secured the abortion they sought (and 97 percent did not regret it), but 182 of them were turned away because their pregnancies had advanced past the gestational limit in their state. Ninety percent of those women carried the pregnancy to term and began raising the kid—a pro-lifer’s dream.

And how were these women doing one year later? Annalee Newitz of io9 spoke with the researchers about their study (which is still ongoing). They found that a year after the event, the women who were turned away from an abortion were more likely to rely on government assistance, more likely to be living beneath the poverty line, and less likely to have a full-time job than the women in the study who had obtained abortions. They also registered more anxiety a week after they were denied an abortion and reported more stress a year out. They were no more or less likely to be depressed. And women who gave birth suffered from more serious health complications—from hemorrhaging to a fractured pelvis—than the women who aborted, even later in their pregnancies.

Happy home lives also failed to materialize. The women who were turned away were more than twice as likely to be a victim of domestic violence as those who were able to abort. The researchers found that “a year after being denied an abortion, 7 percent reported an incident of domestic violence in the last six months,” compared to 3 percent of the women who received abortions. The researchers concluded that this “wasn’t because the turnaways were more likely to get into abusive relationships,” but that “getting abortions allowed women to get out of such relationships more easily.” Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term helped abusive men stay in these women’s lives, but it didn’t encourage delinquent new dads to stick around: The researchers found that “men were no more likely to live with a turnaway who’d borne their children than they were to live with a woman who had an abortion.”

The abortion debate often focuses on a woman’s health during those first nine months. This study shows that an unwanted pregnancy can have long-lasting effects on a woman’s body and well-being far after she carries it to term. 

Correction, November 14, 2012: This piece incorrectly referred to the author of the io9 post as Analee Lewis. Her name is Annalee Newitz. The piece also misspelled the website’s name as i09. It is io9.