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Dr. Warren Throckmorton Christian Blog and Commentary

Norwegian study finds abortion-depression link

  • Dr. Warren Throckmorton
    Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He co-founded the Golden Rule Pledge which advocates bullying prevention in evangelical churches. His academic articles have been published by journals of the American Psychological Association and he is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. He is the author with fellow Grove City College professor, Michael Coulter, of the book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Over 200 newspapers have published his columns. He can be reached at ewthrockmorton@gcc.edu.
  • 2008 Aug 06
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A relatively recent study from Norway finds a link between abortion and subsequent depression. Titled, Abortion and depression: A population-based longitudinal study of young women, the research was conducted by Willy Pedersen and published in the 2008 Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, volume 36, pages 424–428. Here is the abstract:

Induced abortion is an experience shared by a large number of women in Norway, but we know little about the likely social or mental health-related implications of undergoing induced abortion. International studies suggest an increased risk of adverse outcomes such as depression, but many studies are weakened by poor design. One particular problem is the lack of control for confounding factors likely to increase the risk of both abortion and depression. The aim of the study was to investigate whether induced abortion was a risk factor for subsequent depression.

Methods: A representative sample of women from the normal population (n5768) was monitored between the ages of 15 and 27 years. Questions covered depression, induced abortion and childbirth, as well as sociodemographic variables, family relationships and a number of individual characteristics, such as schooling and occupational history and conduct problems. Results: Young women who reported having had an abortion in their twenties were more likely to score above the cut-off point for depression (odds ratio (OR) 3.5; 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.0–6.1). Controlling for third variables reduced the association, but it remained significant (OR 2.9; 95% CI 1.7–5.6). There was no association between teenage abortion and subsequent depression.

Conclusions: Young adult women who undergo induced abortion may be at increased risk for subsequent depression.

This was a longitudinal study with very high response rates at all responses time over the course of the effort (from 97% at time one to 82% at time four). The research team used questions about depression from the Symptom Checklist-90 (SCL-90), a well-accepted mental health measure.

Dr. Pedersen further describes the strengths of this study and notes other recent work which found a link between abortion and mental health.

This study is robust in several respects. The response rate is high, respondents were observed over a considerable length of time, and measures of the key variables are well validated. We have also controlled for a large number of other factors pertaining to the lives of the women that are likely to affect whether a pregnancy is brought to term or aborted, and the likelihood that depression will set in at a later date. Nonetheless, the sample’s abortion rate does indicate either underreporting or a slight non-response bias. The sample is, moreover, relatively small, making the abortion and childbirth groups small as well. The study would have benefited from a larger sample.

Studies in this area present an inconsistent picture. Most identify abortion as a mental health risk factor, but they typically have selected samples, poor response rates and/or inadequate control for other aspects of the women’s lives that could affect future risk of depression. The most robust study was conducted in New Zealand [4,8]. This study found that abortion seemed to be a risk factor for poor mental health, including the likelihood of depression.

Reactions to abortion are, one may assume, strongly coloured by the local sociocultural climate. A sense of guilt, loss and lower self-esteem are assumed to mediate between an induced abortion and later onset of depression [21]. New Zealand’s abortion laws are much more stringent than Norway’s [8], and this in itself could possibly increase the risk of social stigmatization and negative sentiment regarding abortion. It is therefore worth noting that such reactions are also experienced by many Norwegian women following an abortion. In light of this finding, women who terminate a pregnancy would probably benefit from postabortion counselling.

Next week, the APA Mental Health and Abortion Task Force report is slated to be considered by the APA Council of Representatives. If that report adopts the findings of this and the New Zealand research reports noted in the Pedersen article, it would represent a departure from prior APA positions. Stay tuned…