Studies: Keeping abortion legal, safe aids women

Many years ago I worked for three weeks in Swaziland, South Africa. A memory still haunts me.

Most mornings we saw one or two young women through the emergency ward. Almost all of these women were from surrounding communities, were “visiting an auntie” and they hadn’t eaten breakfast. All were carrying early pregnancies and reported bleeding. Indeed, on examination there was blood and the cervix had started to open.

Bleeding and cervical dilatation in pregnancy usually ends up as a miscarriage, and can lead to a serious infection unless a D&C is done to empty the uterus.

Another doctor told me this pattern had been happening for a long time. We surmised that some doctor in this city was using instruments to make it appear that these patients were about to miscarry. It would be easy to instrument the cervix, tell the young woman to go to our hospital in the morning and to skip breakfast. “I hope all goes well tomorrow at the hospital. And have your boyfriend wear a condom next time,” I can imagine that doctor saying.

In Swaziland, abortion is only legal to save a woman’s life. The physician who opened the cervix was taking a big risk, allowing him to charge an outrageous fee.

Don’t laws that prohibit abortion decrease its frequency? No, apparently not. Norway, known for its excellent medical statistics, found that the incidence of abortion did not rise when it was legalized in 1978. This finding was borne out by a recent article in the world’s premier medical journal, Lancet.

The study looked at all the world’s countries. Eighty-four have liberal abortion laws; the remaining nations (like Swaziland) prohibit abortion, with few or no exceptions.

Outlawing abortion does not prevent women from terminating unwanted pregnancies. Where it is illegal, however, women are subjected to unsafe procedures and risk their health and very lives. Surprisingly, this study found the incidence of abortion is higher in places where it is outlawed. This may be because these are also places where women are not esteemed, and where contraception is difficult to obtain.

Wherever laws permit safe abortion, two observations are made. Maternal mortality from unsafe abortions decreases drastically and women are treated with more respect.

More surprises are to be found in another research paper from England. It is an exacting review of the psychological effects of abortion. Although many studies in this field are of poor quality, the researchers found 44 high-quality studies.

To reduce the possibility of bias and to ensure transparency, the reviewers sent out a request for comments. Several anti-abortion (as well as pro-choice) organizations responded, and their comments influenced the final report.

The questions the multi-faceted panel of experts set out to answer are: How prevalent are mental-health problems in women who have an induced abortion? What factors cause poor mental-health outcomes after an abortion? Are mental-health problems more common in women who have an abortion compared with women who deliver an unwanted baby?

The report’s findings are summarized:

Unwanted pregnancies are associated with an increased risk of mental-health problems, and the rate of problems is the same whether women had an abortion or gave birth.

The most reliable predictor of post-abortion mental-health problems was having a history of mental-health problems before the abortion.

There are additional factors associated with an increased risk of mental-health problems specifically related to abortion, such as pressure from a partner to have an abortion and negative attitudes toward abortions in general.

The study recommends: “It is important to consider the need for support and care for all women who have an unwanted pregnancy because the risk of mental-health problems increases whatever the pregnancy outcome. If a woman has a negative attitude toward abortion, shows a negative emotional reaction to the abortion or is experiencing stressful life events, health- and social-care professionals should consider offering support, and where necessary treatment, because they are more likely than other women who have an abortion to develop mental-health problems.”

We are lucky in La Plata County to have wonderful assistance for women carrying unintended pregnancies. The Pregnancy Center supports women who plan to deliver, while Planned Parenthood provides access to safe, compassionate abortions. I am concerned, however, that the people who demonstrate outside Planned Parenthood may not provide accurate information to women who are considering abortion. The demonstrators may have a negative influence on those women who are at risk for mental-health problems.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. ©Richard Grossman MD, 2012

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