Not a day goes by without hearing about a new proposed abortion-related bill or another law restricting abortions going into effect. However, an issue not brought up often is how abortion restrictions, the inability to get abortions in some cases, and unwanted childbirth can negatively affect mental health.
Unwanted pregnancy is not uncommon, and women who wait too long to get an abortion and are forced to give birth, or who are pressured to give birth to an unwanted child by laws, society or friends, spouses and family, may have to deal with mental health issues as a result.
Brenda Major, a professor of psychology at University of California Santa Barbara, said in an email that women could have mental health issues if they are forced to give birth.
“I do think that forced childbirth will have negative consequences for women, both psychologically and socially,” Major said. “I suspect that more restrictive abortion laws may increase problems women experience to the extent that such laws further stigmatize women who decide to abort a pregnancy.”
Susie Baldwin, medical director for clinical and community programs at the California Family Health Council, and a member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, said in an email that women with unintended pregnancies were shown in studies to have depression more often and to be victims of domestic violence more often than women with intended pregnancies.
Although not a lot of research has been done in the area of unwanted child birth and the effects of restricted abortion access, she said the effects of both can be detrimental to mental health.
“When considering the mental health of women who opt to terminate their pregnancies but are barred from doing so, the mental health effects are probably going to be more extreme than what we see with ‘just’ unintended pregnancies,” Baldwin said.
She said that researchers at University of California San Francisco are working on a study “that will provide more information about what happens to women who are denied abortion services.”
“In the meantime, I would hypothesize that forced motherhood is linked with negative mental health outcomes including depression, anxiety, and increased risk for suicide,” Baldwin said. “I would expect women who are denied abortion care to experience sleep disturbances, tearfulness, hopelessness, and an inability to concentrate on their daily work or household tasks. Their concern about their ability to care for the children they already have, or to continue with their job, educational, or caregiving responsibilities, may leave them wracked with worry and fear. We know from our own recent history that women who are faced with an unwanted pregnancy sometimes feel desperate and go to extremes to change their situation, even placing themselves in jeopardy of illness or death.”
Each woman is an individual, and different life circumstances can lead to different mental health reactions, in addition to an unwanted pregnancy, unwanted childbirth or the refusal of an abortion. She said if women are forced to have children, they need extra help along the way.
“I hate the thought of any woman being forced to have a child she does not want,” Baldwin said. “If as a society we are going to force women to be mothers, we'd better provide them with all the tools they need, including universal access to health care, healthy affordable foods, safe green places to play, education, jobs and child care.”
Nancy Russo, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, and Henry David of the Transnational Family Research Institute stated in an article on www.prochoiceforum.org.uk that “both unintended and unwanted childbearing can have negative health, social and psychological consequences.”
Besides effects on the women who are forced to have unwanted children, the children also suffer.
“As adults they were more likely to engage in criminal behavior, be on welfare and receive psychiatric services,” the article stated, referring to unwanted children. “Another [study] found that children who were unintended by their mothers had lower self-esteem than their intended peers 23 years later.”
Planned Parenthood’s website states that unwanted childbearing and lack of abortion access can have several negative emotional and psychological effects on women.
“Mothers with unwanted or unintended pregnancies and births are substantially more depressed and less happy than mothers without unwanted or unintended pregnancies and births,” according to the website. “Possible mental health consequences of unwanted childbearing also include less shared leisure time with children and more physical punishment, such as spanking.”
Overall, relationships between mothers and the unwanted children and any wanted children in the family can be of lower quality, according to the website.
Although some argue that abortion itself has negative mental health effects, Planned Parenthood and research suggests that when women are denied abortions and forced to give birth, the consequences are more severe.
“The mental health of women faced with unwanted pregnancy is at greater risk when they are compelled to deliver than when they are allowed to choose abortion,” according to Planned Parenthood’s website. “According to one study, 34 percent of women who were denied abortions reported one to three years later that the child was a burden that they frequently resented.”
Childbirth can have worse mental health consequences even than an abortion, according to a 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The relative risk of a psychiatric contact did not differ significantly after abortion as compared with before abortion, but did increase after childbirth as compared with before childbirth,” according to the study.
A press release on a study in 2006 does state that “adolescent girls who abort unintended pregnancies are five times more likely to seek subsequent help for psychological and emotional problems compared to their peers who carry ‘unwanted pregnancies’ to term,” after controlling for variables like prior mental health issues.
The article continues to state that “other studies comparing outcomes for abortion versus delivery of unintended pregnancies have found higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among women who abort, while studies that did not look only at unplanned pregnancies also find that women who aborted are at increased risk for suicidal behavior, psychiatric problems, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and sleep disorders, which are often linked to trauma.”
However, the American Psychological Association suggests that findings like those above are inaccurate.
“The [Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion] reviewed no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors,” according to its website.
In fact, “the best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy, the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.”
A Swedish study mentioned on Planned Parenthood’s website supports the fact that unwanted childbirth can prove harmful to women, stating that women who were refused abortion had difficulty adjusting emotionally or were unable to several years later.
Additionally, a paper from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy states that “a fairly large body of literature confirms that an unintended birth can have negative consequences for a mother’s mental well-being. Women with unwanted, mistimed, or unplanned births demonstrate lower levels of general psychological well-being during pregnancy and following the birth, and a higher risk of depression, and they report lower levels of happiness than those with intended births.”
If you think about it, it makes sense that being forced to have a child because of the inability to get an abortion (or other reasons like social pressure) would only have harmful effects. For one, it would be a stressful situation and could even lead to anxiety. Giving birth to a child is a major life change, even if the woman decides to give the child up for adoption. Her body is forever changed, and she has to suffer through nine months of pregnancy that she wouldn’t want to endure if it was her choice. Depending on pregnancy side effects, job performance and daily living could be hindered. Having to do something against one’s will, like having a child, could definitely be a trigger for depression. It promotes a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness. There is also the issue of dealing with reactions from other people. Overall, denying women abortion rights, and forcing women to suffer through an unwanted child birth can only lead to negative consequences to mental health and other areas of life.
Were you ever barred from getting an abortion and were forced to give birth? How did this experience affect you? Have you heard of other women negatively (or even positively) affected by this experience? Share your stories in the comments section.
Major, Brenda. Email interview. July 6, 2011.
Baldwin, Susie. Email interview. July 7, 2011.
Reviewed July 7, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Alison Stanton