Women whose first pregnancies ended in abortion are 65 percent more likely to experience clinical depression than women who give birth, according to a new study.

“This finding contributes to the growing number of studies showing that abortion is linked to elevated rates of psychiatric illness, substance abuse and suicidal behavior,” said Dr. David Reardon, head of the Elliot Institute in Springfield, Ill., and one of the study’s authors.

Dr. David Reardon

The nationally representative study of 1,884 women was published in the latest issue of Medical Science Monitor.

Reardon said this study is significant because previous research on depression rates following abortion have been of limited value due to small sample sizes and lack of information about the women’s emotional state prior to pregnancy.

Researchers compared data for women from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, an ongoing nationwide interview-based study conducted by the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The sample came from women whose first pregnancy was between 1980 and 1992. The researchers found – on an average of eight years later – women whose first pregnancies ended in abortion were 65 percent more likely to be at high risk of clinical depression after controlling for age, race, marital status, history of divorce, income, number of years of formal education and a pre-pregnancy measure of their psychological state.

Reardon said, however, the NLSY data still is inadequate to measure the true risk of clinical depression following abortion. It may show only the tip of the iceberg.

“Only 40 percent of the abortions that we would expect to find among a sample this size are reported in the NLSY,” he said. “This means many women who actually had an abortion were misclassified as only having had births, which would tend to dilute the results.”

Reardon noted another phenomenon that affects the findings: “The women who conceal their abortions very probably have higher rates of depression than those who more readily reveal their abortion history.”

“Given the 60 percent concealment rate in this data set, the fact that we still found significantly higher depression scores among those admitting a history of abortion suggests that the effect must be quite strong,” he said.

The study’s authors recommend more research, noting the political battle over abortion has blocked federally funded research in this area.

“Unfortunately,” Reardon said, “some people are more concerned about protecting the public image of abortion than they are about protecting women.”

In 1988, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop recommended a major longitudinal study to thoroughly examine the issue of abortion complications, but the study has never been done.

“Women deserve better information,” Reardon said. “Dr. Koop properly identified the way in which data could be gathered to examine all interactions between women’s physical and mental health, including not only reactions to abortion, but also to study PMS, postpartum depression, menopause, and more.

“The only reason we don’t have better answers to all these issues today is because Koop’s recommendation was killed in Congress,” he said.

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