What We’re Really Talking About with Abortion Decisions

Abortion, more than just about any other issue, is to a battle over focus.  To excuse the extremely broad law in the United States, allowing abortions up to the point of birth, proponents focus on women whose lives are endangered and children who are disfigured or likely to live short, painful lives.  An essay by Betsy McCaughey that has been making the rounds offers a response to this spin:

Fetal abnormalities “make up a small minority of later abortions,” according to Diana Greene Foster of the University of California, San Francisco, lead investigator of the largest-ever study of women seeking late-term abortions. Foster reports that threats to the health of the mother are even more rare. The study found women’s reasons were all over the place. They included travel considerations, expense, indecision and disagreement with the father.

Reading broadly on this specific question shows that Diana Greene Foster is actually rather (let’s say) sympathetic to the abortion advocates and sees paragraphs like the above as having taken her out of context.  The reality is that the numbers to answer these questions are not available.

That said, the focus on later-term abortions clouds the question.  The debate appears to circle around to an April 2018 FAQ, by the Congressional Research Service, concerning abortions that occur “at or over 20 weeks”of gestation.  Arguably, though, the study is more telling when it touches on abortion more broadly.  For instance, taking into account women who seek abortions at any point, “the primary reasons for wanting an abortion were: feeling not financially prepared (40%), not the right time (36%), and having a baby now would interfere with future opportunities (20%).”  That is, at least 96% appear not to fit the picture of emergency or extreme circumstances.

Another important point that the public debate glosses over is that the exceptions in most abortion legislation (including the bills currently before the Rhode Island General Assembly) conflate the life and physical health of the mother with her mental health.  Note that the three major reasons for seeking an abortion do not include anything life-threatening.

If we focus on the “mental  health” justification, the research suggests that it tends to be more of an excuse.  Indeed, the worldwide evidence appears to indicate that going through with an abortion has no psychological benefit for the woman, as opposed to carrying an unwanted child to term.

So what does this all come down to?

Following the citations for the statistics about women’s primary reasons for wanting abortions leads one to a study that fleshes out the picture.  Researchers interviewed women who sought abortions and then followed up with them a year later, dividing them into four groups:  those who had abortions in the first trimester, those who had abortions near the term limits of the particular providers they approached, those who were past those limits, but who had abortions elsewhere, miscarried, or put the children up for adoption, and those who wound up parenting the children.

The promoted conclusion of the study is that women who had abortions were more likely than women who parented the children to have positive goals for the near future and then to achieve them.  Buried in the report, however — and deliberately excluded from any charts or tables — is this:

There was no difference by study group in the achievement of aspirational plans among women who reported them—Parenting Turnaways: 46.2 %, First Trimesters: 44.7 %, Near-Limits: 48.3 %, the Non-Parenting Turnaways: 52.3 %

In brief, one week after seeking an abortion, women were less likely to report a positive goal for the next year if they were turned away, particularly if they were on the path to parenting the children.  That’s it!  (Obviously, there is no way to tell whether women who formed their one-year plans at some point after being asked the question actually achieved them, but presumably some did or would have.)

In summary, then, almost all abortions are performed for justifications that might reasonably be called “convenience.”  Having the abortion, versus not having it, appears to have no statistical effect on mental health, especially in the long term.  And parenting a child after having initially sought an abortion does not make women less likely to achieve their one-year goals (although it does seem to change the nature of those goals somewhat).

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