Facts still sacred despite Ireland's spectrum of conflicting views on abortion

Fri, Jun 29, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:ABORTION HAS long been a divisive subject in Ireland, as demonstrated by the fact we still have no legislation to deal with the consequences of a Supreme Court decision in the X case of 20 years ago.

Most recently, controversy has been generated by a Youth Defence billboard campaign claiming abortion tears apart the lives of the women concerned.

Is this really the case? “Pro-life” groups claim abortion is a serious mental health risk for women. Youth Defence claims women who opt for an abortion rather than carrying to term or giving the baby up for adoption suffer mental maladies such as depression, suicide and other problems. But this is at heart a scientific claim, and can thus be tested. One would require a large sample group over a long period to see whether the women were more likely to have mental issues than those in a control group.

That is the methodology used by a group of doctors in Denmark who charted the psychological health of 365,550 women, including 84,620 who had had abortions. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2011 and found zero increase in psychological damage among those who had had abortions and no elevated risk of suicide. This is not the only wide-scale study debunking the alleged existence of what anti-choice activists call post-abortion syndrome (Pas).

Psychologist Dr Brenda Majors studied this in depth and found no evidence that Pas exists. As long as a woman was not depressive before an abortion, “elective abortion of an unintended pregnancy does not pose a risk to mental health”.

The same results were found in several other studies, including one in the British Medical Journal. Dr Nada Stotland has published extensively on the topic, including a paper for the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “The Myth of the Abortion Trauma Syndrome” in which the legend of Pas is firmly put to bed. “Currently, there are active attempts to convince the public and women considering abortion that abortion frequently has negative psychiatric consequences. This assertion is not borne out by the literature: the vast majority of women tolerate abortion without psychiatric sequelae,” she wrote.

Essentially these studies found there was no difference in mental health between those who opted for abortion and those who carried to term. Curiously, there was a markedly increased risk to mental health for women who gave a child up for adoption.

A corollary of the research was that while women did not suffer long-term mental health effects due to abortion, short-term guilt and sadness was far more likely if the women had a background where abortion was viewed negatively or their decisions were decried – the kind of attitude fostered by “pro-life” activists.

This leads to the dark irony that while groups of this ilk claim to support women, they increase the suffering of women who have had abortions – the very women they ostensibly claim to help.

Claims abortion increases the risk of cancer are equally devoid of credibility. Research by bodies including the World Health Organisation, American Cancer Society, US National Cancer Institute and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all show zero relationship between abortion and cancers. Suggestions abortion increases the risk of infertility are similarly dubious and have been shown to be false in numerous studies.

Misunderstandings about abortion are perhaps inevitable. Information about it was essentially illegal until the 14th amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1992. But 20 years on the same myths are repeated without adequate challenge.

The recent trend of “pro-life” groups to claim they are opposed to abortion because they care about women should be viewed sceptically. If they really valued the feelings of women one would wonder why they insist on scaremongering with baseless claims. They have every right to oppose abortion on ethical or religious grounds, but no right to misrepresent science to bolster their ideological position.

The issue of abortion is an emotive one, with myriad views constituting a spectrum of beliefs and opinions, and there is nothing wrong with this. But while we all have the right to our own opinion, we do not have a right to our own facts – trying to justify a position with fabrication and truth-bending is intellectually dishonest and fosters disinformation and fear rather than informed discussion, obscuring informed debate.

The cynic in me thinks this may be precisely the goal.

David Robert Grimes is a doctor of medical physics and a science writer. He has a science and medicine blog at davidrobertgrimes.com

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