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Five years after an abortion, most women feel relief, not regret, study finds

The study comes at a time when a growing number of states are making it more difficult for women to get abortions by imposing waiting periods, mandatory counseling or medically unnecessary ultrasounds.

Abortion rights advocate
The study comes at a time when a growing number of states are making it more difficult for women to get abortions by imposing waiting periods, mandatory counseling or medically unnecessary ultrasounds.
REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

Most women who have an abortion do not regret that decision, according to a study published earlier this week in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

In fact, the study found that five years after an abortion, the strongest emotion expressed by women is relief.

“Even if they had difficulty making the decision initially, or if they felt their community would not approve, our research shows that the overwhelming majority of women who obtain abortions continue to believe it was the right decision,” said Corinne Rocca, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in a released statement. “This debunks the idea that most women suffer emotionally from having an abortion.”

The study comes at a time when a growing number of states are making it more difficult for women to get abortions by imposing waiting periods, mandatory counseling or medically unnecessary ultrasounds.

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“This evidence contradicts the narrative pushed by anti-abortion activists and elected officials, who use “abortion regret” as a red herring to implement regulations pushing abortion out of reach for many — especially women of color and low-income people,” Rocca writes in an article published Monday in Salon.

Study details

For the study, Rocca and her co-authors used data collected from 667 participants in the Turnaway Study, a major research project that has been examining the health and socioeconomic effects on women of receiving or being denied an abortion in the United States. All 667 women had undergone abortions between January 2008 and December 2010. The average age of the women at the time of their abortion was 25, and none had terminated their pregnancy because of a prenatal diagnosis of fetal anomalies. Almost two-thirds of the women (62 percent) were raising children.

The women were first surveyed a week after their abortion and then every six months for the following five years. The last interviews were completed in 2016. During each interview they were asked if they had experienced relief, happiness, regret, guilt, sadness or anger as a result of their decision to have an abortion.

Although the women reported a range of negative and positive emotions, the overwhelming majority of them said they didn’t regret having their abortion. That was true of 97 percent of the women one week after the abortion and of 99 percent five years later.

Still, many of the women struggled with the decision to terminate their pregnancy. Just over half of the women said they had found the decision either difficult (27 percent) or somewhat difficult (27 percent). Those who struggled the most were more likely to be raising children. They were also more likely to say that they would be stigmatized in their communities if people knew about their abortion.

The women who expressed concern about being stigmatized — and 70 percent of the women surveyed felt this way — were more likely to feel sadness, anger and guilt right after the abortion. Those negative emotions declined, however, as the months and years passed.

In fact, all emotions — positive and negative — faded over time. By the end of the study, relief was the most common emotion expressed by the women.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with caveats. Most notably, the Turnaway Study has a low participation rate. Only 38 percent of the women asked to join the study agreed to do so — a factor that could introduce selection bias into the findings. The women who agreed to be in the study may have been those most likely to report being happy with their decision to terminate their pregnancy.

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Although acknowledging the possibility of selection bias, Rocca and her co-authors also point out that a “38% enrollment into a five-year study among women seeking a stigmatized health service is in line with other large-scale studies, and we have no reason to believe women would select into the study based on how their emotions would change over five years.”

This study isn’t the first to find that abortion doesn’t lead to feelings of regret in most women, but it is one of the largest.

“It is true that some women have complicated feelings about their abortions, and some do wish they had not had one,” writes Rocca in her Salon article. “But it is also true that every major life decision, medical or otherwise, carries with it the risk of regret. As bioethicists have pointed out, some patients regret having heart surgery or seeking a kidney transplant. For that matter, some people regret marrying their high-school sweetheart, or having children. All of these actions may carry lasting consequences. Yet lawmakers do not intervene to take these choices away — only the choice to have an abortion.”

“Access to abortion has clear benefits for both the person seeking care and for society as a whole,” she adds. “The social, economic, and medical good of abortion access for the hundreds of thousands of women who seek care every year outweighs the small chance that someone will later regret her choice. Lawmakers who claim to care about women’s emotional health would do better to listen to the hundreds of thousands of women who seek abortion care every year and know it is the right decision. They should stop using false ‘abortion regret’ arguments as an excuse and step out of the way.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on Social Science & Medicine’s website.