It is estimated that about half of all pregnancies are unintended. When these pregnancies are unwanted, they can certainly result in emotional distress. The research on this issue, however, is conflicting. A study published in 2002 suggested that women who abort unintended first pregnancies are at significantly higher risk of depression than those who carry the pregnancy to term.

But a new study published October 27, 2005 in the British Medical Journal ’’s Online First section found that women who aborted their first unwanted pregnancies were at no higher risk of depression than those who carried those pregnancies to term.

About the Study

This study included 1,247 women who had unwanted first pregnancies that ended in abortion or live birth. The researchers considered pregnancies to be unwanted when women responded “not then” or “not ever” when asked whether the pregnancy was wanted. Women who responded “yes” or “didn’t matter” were excluded from the study. To assess their level of depression, the women completed the 1992 Center for Epidemiological Studies depression scale questionnaire.

Whether the participants had an abortion or carried their pregnancy to term did not affect the risk of depression, even when the researchers adjusted for other factors thought to affect depression risk (e.g., race, age, marital status, education, family income). Specifically, 29% of participants who delivered a baby and 25% of participants who had an abortion were at high risk for depression (this difference was not significant). The abortion group had higher education and income levels, and smaller family sizes, which were all associated with a reduced risk of depression.

These findings were limited because for some participants the time between the unwanted pregnancy and measurement of depression was several years, so factors other than pregnancy may have contributed to the risk of depression. Additionally, there is a tendency to “underreport” abortion, so many of the women who had abortions may have been excluded from this study because they did not report their pregnancy or their abortion.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that aborting an unwanted pregnancy does not contribute to an increased risk of depression, compared with carrying it to term. This differs from the 2002 study that suggested an increased risk of depression in women who chose to have an abortion. Therefore, when making the decision whether to abort or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, the risk of depression may not be a factor after all.

This study does not, however, suggest that unwanted pregnancy does not affect depression. In contrast, approximately one in four participants in this study was at high risk for depression, which is substantially higher than rates of depression among women generally. Depression is a highly treatable condition, but only if it is properly diagnosed and promptly addressed. If you or someone you know is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, it is imperative to talk with a health care provider about the possibility of depression no matter what the outcome of the pregnancy turns out to be.