Choosing to end a pregnancy can be a heartbreaking decision. Not being able to end an unwanted pregnancy can be equally devastating. But the emotional reality of abortion is often ignored in favor of debating the politics and ethics of it. One of the most important questions is rarely addressed: What happens to people when they end their pregnancy?
Historically, religious conservatives have argued that abortion hurts women. Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, used this line of reasoning in his 2007 decision to uphold a ban on what is divisively called “partial-birth abortion,” a type of late-term abortion. “It was reasonable to him that women would regret their decision and be depressed,” says Diana Greene Foster, a demographer at the University of California, San Francisco who studies how abortion affects women.
At that time, there wasn’t much research available on how abortion affects the lives of those who receive it. The studies that had been done were poorly designed. They compared women who opted to get an abortion to women who gave birth by choice — two very different groups. They also asked women to report on their experiences in hindsight, which can introduce inaccuracies.
Since then, Foster’s Turnaway Study has presented more accurate data. Her team of experts recruited two groups of women from abortion clinics: those who got abortions, and those wanted them but were turned away because they were just too late in their pregnancy. The researchers followed up with these women for five years, keeping track of how they fared in terms of health, relationships, and finances, among other factors.
Foster’s team published more than 50 scientific papers, and the plentiful data has also been explored in her book The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, A Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion. And Foster concludes that the results are both plentiful and clear: People who want abortions are better off mentally, physically, economically, and more when they terminate their pregnancy.
Many of the findings of the Turnaway Study directly contradicts common beliefs about abortion. These are a few of the questions Foster’s data has clarified.
Does abortion lead to mental health problems like depression?
Foster’s research has found no differences in the long-term mental health of women who got an abortion compared to women who had been denied one. “And that’s not because both groups are doing badly,” she says. “In fact, both groups do well, mental health-wise. They have improvements in mental health over time.” Many other studies have similarly found that people who get abortions do not develop mental illnesses.
Do people regret their abortion?
More than 95 percent of people who receive an abortion say it was the right decision for them.
Immediately after receiving an abortion, people experience a range of emotions. The most common is relief, Foster says, but there may also be negative feelings. All of these decline over time as the person stops thinking about the abortion.
Is abortion dangerous?
When it comes to the risk of death, abortion is fourteen times safer than the alternative: childbirth. People who carry the child to term are more likely to experience serious complications such as hemorrhage or infection than those who terminate their pregnancy. During the Turnaway Study, two women actually died due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth. “It’s way higher deaths than we would have expected, but it definitely reflects the higher risk of birth than abortion,” Foster says.
Years later, the women who were able to get an abortion reported having somewhat better physical health overall.
How difficult and time-consuming is it to decide on abortion?
For some, the decision is one of the hardest they’ll make in their lives. But for others, it’s not such a big deal.
“Some women say that it’s not a difficult decision; it was a straightforward decision, and they knew quickly what the right decision was for them,” Foster says. “For those people, the mandatory waiting periods just delay the abortion and cause it to happen later in pregnancy.” The later in pregnancy the abortion, the higher the risk of complications.
Do people who get abortions just don’t want or like kids?
People get abortions for a range of reasons. One of the most common explanations is that they can’t afford to have a baby at the moment, Foster says. The data backs this up. Those who want an abortion but are denied are more likely to live below the poverty line years later than those who did get an abortion.
One related reason is that it’s not the right time, and that’s also borne out in the evidence. In addition to better economic security, women who got an abortion and had a child later in the Turnaway Study bonded better with their child.
Some of the women also already had the maximum amount of children they could handle. Fifty-nine percent of people who get abortions are already mothers.
“They’re making that decision thinking about the needs of their existing children or the life that they might be able to give to a future child,” Foster says.