Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an article about a new study disputing the contention that abortions increase the risk of mental-health problems among women. This study, conducted by Julia Steinberg of UC–San Francisco and Lawrence Finer of the Guttmacher Institute, appeared in the October 2010 issue of Social Science and Medicine. It is somewhat surprising that the authors decided to publish this study in an independent, peer-reviewed journal. All too often, researchers who support legal abortion are content to have their analyses appear in the Guttmacher Institute’s own publications.
The primary purpose of this particular study was to discredit a previous study conducted by Priscilla Coleman of Bowling Green University. Coleman used the same dataset — the National Comorbidity Study — to document that women who reported having had an abortion were at increased risk for anxiety, mood disorders, and substance abuse. In their report, the authors claim Coleman’s study had methodological problems, and that they were unable to replicate her findings.
Unfortunately, the Post failed to report that Steinberg and Finer’s study has some methodological shortcomings of its own. Most importantly, Steinberg and Finer use a much shorter time frame with which to analyze women’s psychological health. Coleman’s study reflected twelve-month prevalence of mental-health effects; Steinberg and Finer’s looked at 30-day prevalence. This poses two problems. First, it reduces the number of data points in the study and therefore makes it more difficult to obtain a statistically significant finding. Second, a significant percentage of women may not suffer psychologically until months after the abortion has taken place.
This is the second time in two months that the Washington Post has given a prestigious platform to research calling into question whether obtaining an abortion increases a woman’s risk of psychological problems. But interestingly, during this past year alone, studies finding evidence that women who have had abortions are at greater risk for a range of mental-health problems — including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse — have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, Journal of Pregnancy, and The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Beyond this, there is a substantial body of peer-reviewed literature about the negative impact that abortion has on the health of women. Unfortunately, this research has been all but ignored by the Post — and the rest of the mainstream media.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.