Does abortion really ruin your life?

It has suited the purposes of anti- abortion campaigners to insist that termination inevitably results in trauma. Now a research review from the States has proved what we suspected all along. For the vast majority of women, an early abortion can be a benign, even empowering experience. Report by Hester Lacey
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In January, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc) published a new book, And Still They Weep - a collection of testimonies from women who had contacted the Spuc-affiliated British Victims of Abortion organisation. The women are identified as suffering from "post-abortion syndrome", a condition supposed to be akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. In the US, anti-abortion campaigners are encouraging vulnerable women to sue the doctors who performed their abortions, on the grounds that they have suffered mentally ever since.

But does abortion ruin a woman's life? Does it have any long-term effects at all? In the vast majority of cases of legal, early abortion, the answer is no, according to psychologist Dr Nancy Felipe Russo of Arizona State University - a conclusion that has caused controversy in the US. Dr Russo participated in a large-scale American review of independent studies of women's responses to abortion by a team of psychologists. The team found that studies claiming women suffer from depression and mental health problems after abortion do not take into account the fact that they may have suffered from diverse other problems beforehand.

"We looked at factors such as education, income, how many children women already had and their levels of self-esteem before the operation, and found that the abortion itself had no independent effect," explains Dr Russo. "If you really care about women's mental health, you won't just talk about abortion, you will look at the complexities of some women's lives - lack of education, no money, a violent partner, sexual abuse, the effects of not having an abortion. There is no relationship of depression to abortion." She points out that not having an abortion in the case of an accidental pregnancy is even more likely to cause future problems. "An unwanted pregnancy is an acute stressor, yes, but an unwanted child is a chronic, long-term stressor. There is no reason to construct abortion as a traumatic event. You can make it an event that is benign, means little, and simply deals with the consequences of unwanted pregnancy."

One of the studies investigated by the reviewers showed that 76 per cent of women reported feeling "relief" after first-trimester abortions. Another, carried out among adolescents seeking pregnancy tests, showed that girls who had an abortion actually showed a more positive psychological profile when interviewed two years later than either girls who had tested negative or those who had had their baby; making the decision to abandon the pregnancy to continue with their studies actually made them feel positive and in control.

Dr Russo's work has caused debate in the US. "Russ Limbaugh trashed my work on national television," she says ruefully. "He said I was saying 'Have an abortion! It'll make you feel better!' An abortion doesn't make you feel 'better', but it can be a benign experience."

Regrets in connection with abortions, according to Dr Russo's work, are more likely to stem from the simple fact of the unwanted pregnancy, rather than its termination. There is no shortage of women who agree. "I regretted that I got pregnant," says Leonora Lloyd. "But I certainly don't regret my abortion. I can think of far worse things that I've done, things that have left worse scars. It was 20 years ago - I don't even remember the date. At the time I was 38 and my relationship with my husband was falling apart. I already had two children from a previous relationship and the youngest was 10, and I had always said I only wanted two children. I was moving house and we didn't even have a phone - I had to go out of the house to a phone box at 6am to check there was still a bed in the clinic for me at 9am on the day. Afterwards I went home on the bus and I was stripping wallpaper the next day. Everybody makes mistakes. You have to get on with your life and not brood."

Andrea Butcher, 35, is similarly pragmatic about her two terminations, both the result of contraceptive failure. "The first one was 10 or 12 years ago, I can't remember the exact date. The last one was in March and April of this year - I had to have it done twice because it didn't work the first time." Both times the procedure itself was uncomfortable; but Andrea is quite certain she did the right thing. "I'm physically fine, and emotionally it's not really a big issue in my life. I feel very strongly it's my right to decide. It should be my choice if and when I get pregnant. It makes me really angry the way that anti-abortionists portray abortion as such a traumatic issue for all women, though I feel for those who do have a bad time."

Helen Richards, 29, has also had two abortions. "If I'd continued my first pregnancy, I would have a child of 10 now. People say it is selfish to decide on an abortion; I think I would have been a damn sight more selfish to have a child when I was a student and couldn't support myself, let alone a baby. I'm sure I would have had help from my family and my former partner and his family if I had decided to keep the baby, but I think it would have definitely have wrecked my life." Like Leonora and Andrea, she does not remember the exact dates of her operations. "I never give them a thought now."

Studies on post-abortion trauma tend to come out with vastly differing conclusions, depending on who is collecting the data. A privately funded British enquiry, The Physical and Psycho-Social Effects of Abortion on Women, published in 1994, contended that women can suffer long-term depression after the procedure. But the report involved 25 prominent anti-abortionists; when it was published the Royal College of Psychiatrists claimed that its experts had been misquoted; and pro-choice experts refused to participate. When President Reagan, a committed pro-lifer, took up office in the US, he commissioned the Surgeon General to investigate the adverse effects of abortion on women. Reagan was expecting a report that would "scare women away from abortion", says Dr Nancy Russo; but the Surgeon General could find no evidence that abortion was damaging.

Marie Stopes International, which runs birth control and abortion advice centres, offers post-abortion counselling to its clients, but has found that few women feel that they need it. "Very few women take up the option - in our experience, only about 2 per cent," says a spokesman for the organisation. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the National Abortion Council also agree that "post-abortion trauma" is greatly exaggerated. "The general perception that most women are mentally de-stabilised by abortion is put about by the anti-abortion lobby," commented the BPAS. "Spuc implies that all women find themselves in great anguish and distress and are never the same again - that is not our experience."

"I've had two abortions and I've had my wisdom teeth out," says Helen Richards. "In terms of pain, disruption and long-term upset, the teeth were far worse."