The majority of women who have had an abortion report they do not regret the decision in the five years following the procedure, according to new research. More than 95 percent of women say they believe they made the right decision – even those who struggled at the time.
It comes at a time when parts of the US are seeing an increase in abortion scrutiny. Last year, more than a dozen states introduced so-called “heartbeat” laws, while Alabama enacted the strictest abortion ban in the country, prohibiting the procedure even in cases of rape and incest, though a federal judge halted the law soon after. Such moves have prompted the Guttmacher Institute to declare that more than half of US states are “hostile” toward abortion rights.
Many who oppose abortion contend that the treatment can put an undue emotional burden on a woman, a claim that researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), now say is largely unfounded.
"It is important not to confuse experiencing negative emotions, like sadness or anger, with mental health harm or decision regret. It is perfectly natural and expected that women would feel ranges and mixes of negative and positive emotions after having an abortion, which for some represents a significant life event," Corinne Rocca, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the UCSF Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, and first author of the study, told IFLScience.
Researchers turned to data from the Turnaway Study, a five-year survey that followed women to examine the effects of unintended pregnancy on their lives and the emotional effects of abortion on the more than 600 participants who had received an abortion at one of 30 facilities across the US between 2008 and 2010. Women who received an abortion were surveyed one week after they sought care and then every six months thereafter.
"This research goes further than previous studies, in that it follows women for longer, and was conducted on a larger sample from many different clinics throughout the U.S.," said Julia Steinberg, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of family science at the University of Maryland, College Park, in a statement. Steinberg wrote an accompanying commentary.
"It shows that women remain certain in their decision to get an abortion over time. These results clearly disprove claims that regret is likely after abortion,” she added.
By and large, respondents reported both negative and positive feelings about their abortion over time. Half a decade later, 84 percent said they had either positive feelings or none at all. In fact, many said they felt relieved. That’s not to say that such decisions were easy. Over half of respondents said their decision was difficult and nearly three-quarters said they believed they would have been stigmatized by their community if people had known at the time. Those who struggled with the decision were more likely to experience sadness, guilt, and anger – all of which tended to decline after the first year.
The team note it's possible that probing about the women's feelings may have led to higher emotion levels than would have been otherwise felt and that the emotions assessed may not have encompassed the wide range of those that can be experienced. Furthermore, the study saw a relatively low enrollment rate, which may have resulted in selection bias.
"One strength of our study is that, with five years of data, we can establish temporal associations between the variables we looked at," added Rocca. "However, we are unable to identify the actual causal mechanisms leading some individuals to experience negative emotions or decision regret."
Regardless, the researchers argue that scholars who have investigated the claims that abortion is associated with regret have “have consistently found no evidence that abortion is associated with either short term or longer-term negative emotions.” Rather, women report feeling relieved in the week following the abortion. The researchers say that negative feelings surrounding abortion are largely influenced by societal norms and not necessarily the procedure itself.
"I believe lawmakers should base their abortion policy decision-making on what the empirical research shows about women’s experiences with abortion. We found no evidence that negative emotions either persist or emerge in the years after an abortion, and that the overwhelming majority of women who have abortions felt it was the right decision for them," said Rocca, adding that this held true even for women who had a difficult time making the abortion decision.