Is Post Abortion Syndrome for real? The extreme cases


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A relatively new aspect of the abortion debate is "post abortion syndrome", or "PAS". Many people who counsel women who have had abortions report that these women often suffer from emotional and psychological problems as a result of the experience, comparable to the trauma sufferred by victims of violent crimes and similar wrenching experiences. Pro-abortion activists reply that this is anti-choice propaganda, that it is just an attempt to frighten women away from exercising their constitutional rights. They insist that abortion is a liberating experience, and that the most common emotional after-effects are relief or even feelings of empowerment.

So: Is PAS for real?

One might think that the question would be easily answered: Get a number of women who have had abortions to submit to psychological evaluation, compare them to a control group of women who have not had abortions, and see if there is any significant difference in their mental health. Unfortunately, real life is not so simple. Emotional and psychological maladies are difficult to diagnose precisely. The difference between simply being unhappy and suffering from clinical depression is often a judgement call on the part of the psychiatrist, and depends a great deal on the exact definition applied. Given the heated debate over abortion, it would surely be fair to ask if a pro-life psychiatrist might not be disposed to "over diagnose" while a pro-choice psychiatrist would "under diagnose".

One way to get a more objective measure is to look at the truly extreme cases. For example, we could study women who clearly show extreme depression to the point where it is incapacitating or destructive. And surely the most blatantly self-destructive symptom is suicide.

Suicide is, of course, easy to define in a clear-cut manner. There is no need to debate whether, in this case, the women's problems are "severe enough" to be called suicide. She either took her own life or she didn't.

A recent study from Europe sheds some interesting light on this question. The researchers analyzed computerized records from Finland, which keeps comprehensive national databases on births, abortions, deaths, and hospitalizations.

To put it simply, they found that women who had abortions within the past year were over 3 times as likely to commit suicide as other women. Women who gave birth were only half as likely to commit suicide as other women, and women who had miscarriages were 1.6 times as likely. To put it graphically:

Suicide Rates

(Per 100,000)

"All women" is rate for all women of child-bearing age, 15-40.

For the other columns, the rate is for women who experienced the named event within the past year.

Details

The researches, Mika Gissler, Elina Hemminki, and Jouko Lönnqvist, studied computerized records in Finland for 1987 to 1994, and identified all cases where a woman committed suicide within one year of the end of a pregnancy, whether it ended in live birth, miscarriage, or abortion. Finland keeps detailed records of every birth, every abortion, every death, and every hospital admission. They compared data from these different databases to get their counts.

The researchers very deliberately made no effort to judge whether any given suicide was related to the pregnancy by more than coincidence. This would have introduced subjective decisions that would be impossible to confirm. Thus, it is quite likely that some of those counted in the totals were for reasons that had nothing to do with the pregnancy. But this is why it is valuable to compare the suicide rate for aborted women to the suicide rate for non-pregnant women: If abortion did not lead to emotional problems that in extreme cases end in suicide, then the rate for aborted and non-aborted women would presumably be the same (with some variation for normal statistical fluctuations). That is, in Finland about 11 of every 100,000 women commit suicide each year. 35 of every 100,000 women who had an abortion in the past year commit suicide. The fair conclusion is that the difference -- 24 women per 100,000 -- committed suicide as a result of factors related to the abortion.

At the other extreme, it should be noted that the study only counted women who committed suicide within one year of having an abortion. It is quite possible that a women who is traumatized by her abortion experience might delay longer than one year before finally giving in to despair. In that case, some of the "all women" should be counted as "aborted women", which would make the mental health risks of abortion even greater.

Caveats

Like any statistical study, this does not prove that abortion causes women to commit suicide. The authors state their conclusions cautiously, noting that there may be other explanations.

No one is saying that all or most women who have abortions end up committing suicide. These were a fraction of one percent. Rather, what I am suggesting is that this is the tip of the iceberg. For every woman who is driven to the point of committing suicide, there are surely many many more who suffer less extreme symptoms.

The suicide rate in Finland -- along with that in Scandinavia -- is unusually high. About 15% of all deaths there are from suicide, compared to 6-12% in northern Europe, Australia, and the U.S., and 1-4% in southern Europe. It is not known why suicides are more common there, and this may reduce the applicability of this study to other parts of the world.

Notes

Other studies have examined the accuracy of Finland's databases, and have concluded that they are 95% to 99% accurate.

The general trends noted here held for almost all age groups, with one interesting exception: While, as noted, women who gave birth were generally less likely to commit suicide than women who had not been pregnant, new mothers who were in their teens were 2.87 times as likely to commit suicide. While child birth was thus more "dangerous" for teenagers, abortion was even more dangerous for this group: They were 4.51 times as likely to commit suicide following an abortion as non-pregnant girls of the same age.

The authors note that in their research they did not turn up any cases of women who committed suicide while pregnant. However, they point out that such cases might have slipped through their methodology: Barring some extraordinary medical intervention, if a woman dies while pregnant -- by suicide or otherwise -- the unborn child is going to die to, and will not show up on the birth records. Unless the mother was admitted to a hospital for some problem related to her pregnancy, or if her pregnancy was noted on the death certificate, the researchers in this study would have had no way to know that she was ever pregnant. Nevertheless, it is an interesting fact that they were unable to find any evidence of even one woman who committed suicide while pregnant.


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Posted 20 Nov 2000.

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