Experts warn that overthrowing Roe v. Wade will only exacerbate the various stressors of unwanted pregnancy. It is believed that abortion procedures cause pain and trauma, but research shows this is not true. Studies have shown that having an abortion does not increase the risk to mental health, but being refused does.
Disclaimer: This article’s interviews were conducted before the Supreme Court’s decision to quash Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. This article has been updated to reflect the official ruling.
The most commonly reported feeling after an abortion is no pain. It’s a relief. This is evident from numerous studies.
But there’s an assumption that abortions cause trauma when the reality is that they can be a way to relieve stress for those who don’t want to get pregnant. Both experts and research have supported that the procedure does not increase the risk of negative mental health outcomes. Rather, it’s the trauma of someone who is denied — a much-studied phenomenon that’s rarely talked about.
“For many people, abortion is a positive part of their lives, allowing them to do things like get away from an abusive partner or have the life and children they have now,” said Gretchen Ely, a professor of social work at the University of Tennessee. “They can steer themselves to cause less suffering throughout their lives if they have the choice of having an abortion.”
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On Friday, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, wiping out reproductive rights that had been in effect for nearly five decades. The turning point decision means Americans no longer have a constitutional right to abortion, and Republican lawmakers will ban abortion in about half the states.
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But sexual and mental health experts warn that this decision would not minimize trauma and suffering. And it can make it worse.
“Before these measures, even when people were scared, we could talk to them and support them,” Bhavik Kumar, a Texas-based provider at Planned Parenthood Center for Choice, told USA TODAY ahead of the news. “But now I hear new concerns about, ‘Where should I go?’ “When can I be seen the fastest?”
“It’s that uncertainty — the unknown of something so time-sensitive — that causes so much of the abortion trauma. And typically, as health care providers, we could help them through that. But with the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, it becomes a lot harder for us to prevent and address these mental health risks,” says Kumar.
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Refusing an abortion leads to psychological problems
Despite widespread assumptions that people who have abortions are consumed with guilt, regret, and even depression, research shows there is more at stake for those who refuse an abortion.
In a study conducted over 10 years, researchers tracked the experiences of women who had abortions and those who were refused due to gestational age. They found that having an abortion did not increase the risk of anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
“We found very clearly that people who were refused an abortion were at short-term risk and had increased levels of stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, and lower life satisfaction,” explains Antonia Biggs, a social psychologist who conducted the analyses. Of mental health led to the landmark Turnaway study.
Still, some have criticized the methodology of this study. Michael New, a political science and social research associate at the Catholic University of America, notes that the study tracked participants’ responses over a five-year period, which he says isn’t long enough, and states that feelings of regret can manifest themselves “even years”. After an abortion has taken place.”
New points for a meta-analysis by Dr. Priscilla Coleman found a coincidental link between abortion and suicidality and drug use. However, opponents have criticized that conclusion, saying that mental health issues were not considered before the abortion.
And additional research has also supported that post-abortion mental health is more strongly associated with external factors not unique to the abortion itself. These include low social support, personality factors such as low self-esteem, and a history of mental health problems. And according to a recent UC San Francisco survey, more than 95% of women reported that abortion was the right decision for them.
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According to Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker and chief clinical officer at The Dorm, these studies are often overshadowed by the widely held belief that abortion causes mental instability.
“If things aren’t talked about accurately in social settings or at home, stories are made up about what the abortion procedure is and what it isn’t, and a false story is perpetuated,” explains Fialk. “However, people should know that having high barriers to abortion has a much greater impact on one’s mental health. We know that those who are denied an abortion have less life satisfaction compared to those who have access to a safe abortion.”
So far, the fallout from these misconceptions can be seen in Texas, where one of the previously most restrictive abortion laws in the country has banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. In the past year, Kumar, who works in Houston, has already witnessed the beginnings of a “devastating impact.”
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“When I provide care, there’s usually little trauma for those who have access to care, but there’s a lot more trauma, stress, anxiety, and fear for those who don’t get it because there’s so much uncertainty,” Kumar says.
The Cost of Overthrowing Roe v. Wade
Regardless of age, belief, or relationship status, finding out you’re pregnant when you don’t want to is traumatic.
According to the American Psychological Association, experiencing unwanted pregnancies can lead to mental health consequences, such as lower self-esteem and higher anxiety levels. In addition to physical and psychological symptoms, women seeking abortions also tend to bear the brunt of misogyny criticism.
But with the official nullification of Roe v. Wade, experts predict that people will have to worry about finding childcare during mandatory waiting times, taking time off from work, and paying living and travel expenses — that is, if they can. Be to make an appointment.
These laws also add to the existing structural stigma that abortion is immoral, shameful, and not to be talked about. Experts warn that this can lead people to internalize these beliefs, resulting in psychological distress and social isolation.
“I’ve had young clients who have had the overthrow of Roe v. Wade terrifying and out of control,” says Fialk. “Because of these stories, many feel they are losing their autonomy and self-determination and feel helpless and devalued as just a vessel producing a fetus, not a real human being.”
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What should abortion be like?
Even with all the recent talk about abortion, we often forget what the process should look like.
Experts say it doesn’t take much; it’s all about access to a healthcare provider who respects your decision, confidentiality, and autonomy – just like any other medical procedure.
“You want to be informed. You want to be respected. And you don’t want to be judged,” Biggs says. “People want to have the choice to have a simple procedure discreetly, and prompt care is crucial. Having care close to you, covered by insurance — these are things we would want for good abortion care.”
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Kumar adds that his priority is giving his patients as much control and autonomy as possible over their bodies and future.
“The most important thing for me is to ask (patients) what can make this experience better? Do they need music? Do they want the lights off? It’s what we as caregivers can do to give them as much control as we can safely allow the best of what we can,” he says.
Mental health experts say these simple measures can avoid the physical risks of a self-imposed abortion and the various stressors of an unwanted pregnancy.
“When people know they don’t want to be pregnant, the part that upsets them is worrying about ending the pregnancy to continue with their life course,” says Ely. “So making it comfortable, safe, and convenient is the best solution to prevent mental health risks and alleviate existing negative situations.”
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