Does having an abortion lead to a greater likelihood of having future mental health problems?
That’s what a study by Priscilla Coleman and her colleagues published in 2009 in the Journal of Psychiatric Research claimed. She said the data showed a direct, temporal relationship. In other words, after a woman had an abortion, they were more likely to report a serious mental health concern later in their life.
However, when other researchers (Steinberg & Finer, 2012) tried to replicate Coleman et al.’s findings, they could not do so. After conferring with the original authors and digging through the data a little more, they discovered the problem.
Coleman et al. had misrepresented a very important component of their original research. They never looked at a person’s recent or current psychiatric diagnosis. Instead, they had asked only about any diagnosis in their entire lifetime — something that meant they had no data about whether such a diagnosis was made before or after the abortion.
Here’s what the New York Times reported:
[…] Priscilla Coleman of Bowling Green State University and her co-authors included all lifetime mental health disorders in their analysis, rather than only those instances occurring after the abortion took place. They were “hoping,” she says in a letter defending her methodology, “to capture as many cases of mental health problems as possible,” by including a longer period of time.
Well…. uh, okay. But you obviously can’t make statements about possible causal relationships in the data when you look at lifetime prevalence rates of mental disorders, versus actual current diagnoses around the time of the abortion.
In further defending their decision, Coleman now relies on a series of if-then statements to make her case (rather than, you know, actual data). She now says that the “majority of mental health problems likely occurred after the abortions” because most of the abortions studied occurred before age 21, but the health data used in the study were not obtained until they were, on average, age 33.
So? She goes on to cite the factoid that most common mental disorders — anxiety and mood disorders — are diagnosed between ages 25 and 45-53, making the case that these were unlikely childhood disorders that were being measured.
But the stark reality is plainer — we don’t know what the true numbers are from this study, because the researchers looked only at the lifetime prevalence rate. Without having that important piece of information — when a mental disorder was diagnosed — one cannot make any definitive statements about the temporal order of these things.
Julia Steinberg of the University of California at San Francisco and Lawrence Finer (2012) of the Guttmacher Institute found what they called, in a letter to the journal’s editors, “untrue statements about the nature of the dependent variables and associated false claims about the nature of the findings.”
“This is not a scholarly difference of opinion,” Dr. Steinberg said. “Their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data.”
It would not surprise me that, at least temporarily, people who go through an abortion experience significant emotional turmoil. After all, contrary to the way some people portray abortion, it is not a quick and emotionally painless procedure. It carries emotional wounds — even under the best of circumstances for many women. So indeed researchers should try and better understand the nature and course of those wounds.
But it needs to be done with thoughtful, careful research… Not slipshod research that, to some, looks like it’s carrying a political agenda.
Read the full New York Times article: Study Linking Abortion and Mental Health Problems Is Called False
Coleman, P.K., Coyle, C.T., Shuping, M., & Rue, V.M. (2009). Induced abortion and anxiety, mood, and substance abuse disorders: Isolating the effects of abortion in the national comorbidity survey. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 43, 770-776.
Kessler, R.C. & Schatzberg, A.F. (2012). Commentary on Abortion Studies of Steinberg and Finer (Social Science & Medicine 2011; 72:72–82) and Coleman (Journal of Psychiatric Research 2009;43:770–6 & Journal of Psychiatric Research 2011;45:1133–4). Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45, 410-411.
Steinberg, J.R. & Finer, L.B. (2012). Coleman, Coyle, Shuping, and Rue make false statements and draw erroneous conclusions in analyses of abortion and mental health using the National Comorbidity Survey. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45, 407-408.