Jeremy Laurance: The truth is that abortion isn’t as traumatic as people make out

Medical Life

There are not many cheery stories about abortion. One of the best can be found in Chapter 15 of Caitlin Moran's new bestseller, How to be a Woman. It is a fearless account of how she terminated a pregnancy (she already had two children), unpicking in forensic detail the emotions she went through – and none of them was as she, or we, might have expected. In place of angst, trauma, and regret, she experienced certainty, relief and confidence she had done the right thing.

Her story highlights an important truth: abortion ain't as bad as people make out, especially anti-abortion organisations.

Now there is research to back her up. The most comprehensive and systematic review of the impact of abortion on mental health conducted anywhere in the world, published last week, found it had no effect. The mental health of women with unwanted pregnancies was no different whether they had an abortion or proceeded to the birth.

Reassuring as that finding may be for the 200,000 women who have abortions in the UK each year, it does raise a tricky question. To obtain an abortion women must to find two doctors who will authorise it. By far the commonest ground, cited in nine out of 10 abortions, is that to proceed with the pregnancy would put the mental health of the woman at risk. This study appears to put that ground in jeopardy.

Abortion organisations were split in response to the finding, with half still insisting a termination did permanent damage to women's souls, with the other, cannier, half hoping the finding was true so that they could challenge the legality of the procedure. The authors of the study reject this challenge, insisting the findings could indicate doctors are successfully identifying women at risk from the pregnancy, and referring them for abortion to obviate it.

It is clear already that this world-beating review, despite its size, will not settle the debate. But it is surely time now, in the wake of its findings, to abandon the pretence of "grounds" for abortion and acknowledge, once and for all, that it is a woman's right to choose.

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