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Emotions One Week after an Abortion Decision : Does the UCSF study tell us the whole story?

by | Oct 10, 2013

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research

sadwoman67reThere are some very interesting revelations tucked away in the latest published study on abortion’s psychological consequences from the University of California-San Francisco “Turnaway” Study group. But as you might suspect, you might need to read all of the data and read between the lines to find them.

The authors argue that one week out, nearly all women who received abortions felt they had made the “right decision” and reported less regret than those who were denied their abortions. [1]

But this is hardly the whole story.

“Women’s Emotions One Week after Receiving or Being Denied an Abortion in the United States” appeared in the September 2013, issue of the Guttmacher Institute journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The study interviewed 843 women one week after obtaining a first trimester abortion (254 women), an abortion near a clinic’s gestational limits (411 women), or a week after being “denied” an abortion because they were past the limit.

It is obvious from the first few paragraphs that authors of the study are on the defensive. Corinne H. Rocca et al. say that despite the fact that “the sentiment of relief predominates,” and that “the notion that abortion causes mental disorders is not supported” (a conclusion totally rebutted here), there is a stubborn “persistence of the belief that abortion harms women.”

The study that follows is an obvious attempt to try to defuse that stubborn “persistence” but even their best effort reveals significant obstacles to that spin. And how could it be otherwise when there are so many post-abortive women who are hurting?

The authors say that there is a “complexity” to women’s emotions after abortion and admit that “some women experience abortion as a complicated and personal issue.” They argue that women’s reactions are not simply to the abortion but also to the pregnancy–and that women can report a mixture of both regret and relief in both instances. They contend that this study offers a “control group” of women–those denied abortion — so that people can compare the emotional responses of the latter against those who did receive abortions.

The study asked women whether they experienced relief, happiness, regret, guilt, sadness, or anger in regard to both their pregnancy and abortion experiences in the seven days following that abortion or their being told they could not have an abortion. They were also asked to give each of these emotions a rating ranging from 0 (=“not at all”) to 4 (=“extremely”).

More than half of the women who aborted reported they experienced guilt or sadness with regard to their abortions. Most, of course, also reported “relief,” a fact made much of by the authors.

But is not the least bit surprising. This is a matter of days after their abortion when their immediate response likely is that “the problem” has been “dealt with.”

Just a bit over half of these women reported some happiness at their abortion. But this was not an emotion most ranked highly, and again, was in that first week when the urge would most likely be strongest to justify one’s decision.

How about those women, still pregnant, having been denied abortions they sought (the “turnaways”)? Commonsense would suggest they could be expected to be somewhat unhappy at being told they could not have what they wanted, and the study reflects that.

But remarkably (especially, one suspects, to the authors), even within a week’s time, many of these women had apparently already begun to come to terms with their new situation and were reflecting more positive attitudes towards their pregnancy and the fact that they would not be aborting their babies.

Among those in the “turnaway” group, 60% reported some sadness at not receiving abortions and 50% reported some regret. However 43% reported happiness with this outcome and 49% reported relief.

Note as well that a significantly lower percentage reported guilt–30%–versus 55% for those having first-trimester abortions and 62% for those having later abortions just under the gestation limit.

The authors tell readers that 62% of the women turned away “still wished that they had been able to obtain an abortion,” again, not surprising; these women just received the news that they would not get what they thought they wanted. But this means that just one week out, 38% of women had either already changed their minds about the abortion or were no longer sure that it was what they wanted!

How firm, how grounded is a decision about which, just one week out, nearly 4 out every 10 women have already changed their minds or had begun to question? Bear in mind the baby is still in her womb and her other circumstances probably are largely unchanged.

And is it not fair to expect that by the time their babies were born, far more than 38% of the turnaway group were grateful they did not abort?

Fortunately, their initial impulses were not followed and these women did not make an irrevocable decision. It was, on the other hand, too late for those who had already aborted their babies to change their minds.


The authors emphasize that the vast majority of aborting women felt “relief” and reported that having an abortion was the “right decision” for them. However, as we have noted, the data taken as a whole offers a more ambiguous result.

One week after having their abortions, 35% of women reported what the authors termed “primarily positive” emotions–significant, but barely a third. Nearly a quarter (24%) reported “primarily negative” emotions, while another 18% had what were termed “mixed emotions.”

An additional 23% were identified as having a “low emotional response – feeling no or few negative or positive emotions.”

Given that the reality of the loss may take months or even years to process, seeing nearly one in four already claiming to be virtually numb is especially troubling.

Rocca and her colleagues do in fact admit their study may be limited. “[T]he extent to which these responses reflect longer term reactions,” they say, “remains to be determined.”

Millions of women who have gone through with their abortion, thinking it was the “right decision” for them at the time, but later came to view that experience as painful and tragic– a choice that they wish they had not made.

They may have felt “relief” or even “happiness” one week out. But like many of the women here, they also experienced a nagging sense of regret, guilt, or sadness, emotions that for many of them only grew in intensity over the years or feelings that suddenly, unexpectedly reappeared down the road a decade later with the sight of a new baby, a glance through an old photo album, or a drive by the abortion clinic.

[1] They were denied either because available abortionists were not trained or facilities were not equipped to handle those women presenting at those particular gestations, or because state law, for some reason, prohibited abortions at a particular stage.

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Categories: Abortion Risks