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Study: Women Denied Abortions More Likely to Suffer Domestic Violence and Be on Public Assistance

A study tracks outcomes for women who seek and abortion but do not obtain one. The results are not pretty.


Abortion is one of the  most common surgical procedures in the United States, and one of the central political issues of our time. Yet in spite of this, there is surprisingly little solid social science research on many of the important social, psychological, and economic consequences of abortion outcomes. Having good research on abortion is important, because research findings are often used to justify abortion policy and law.

For example, in the Supreme Court’s 2007 Carhart case, which upheld a ban on so-called “partial birth abortion,” Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision infamously invoked the  paternalistic notion that protecting women from possible negative consequences of their own decision to abort justified abortion restrictions. In theCarhart opinion, Kennedy was influenced by  junk social science studies by anti-abortion advocates claiming that women who have abortions suffer from a “post-abortion syndrome” characterized by regret and severe mental health issues. There is  no scientific evidence that post-abortion syndrome exists, but that didn’t stop Kennedy from basing his decision on its alleged effects anyway.

One extremely important question Kennedy didn’t give much thought to is the other side of the question: that is, what happens to women who seek abortions but are denied them. For reasons of both ideology and feasibility, this issue had not been studied much — until now, that is. Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco are currently conducting a  major longitudinal studyof just this question. Known as the Turnaway Study, this project is examining “the mental health, physical health and socioeconomic outcomes of receiving an abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.” The findings thus far suggest that women who are denied abortions fare significantly less well than those who are able to obtain them.

I’ll discuss those findings later, but first I wanted to describe the study’s methodology. Working with first and second trimester abortion clinics, researchers recruited about 1,000 participants who fell into these three groups:

women whose gestational age was one day to three weeks over the gestational limit and who were turned away from the clinic without receiving an abortion; women whose gestational age was one day to two weeks under the clinic’s gestational limit and who received an abortion; and women who received a medical or surgical abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.


The women were interviewed by phone every six months, for a period of five years. They were questioned about subjects including their physical and mental health, educational attainment, financial and employment status, family life, and, for women who carried their pregnancies to term, their parenting issues and children’s well-being. The researchers have recently begun to release the preliminary findings, which have not yet been published. They presented them at a recent meeting of the American Public Health Association. Here are  some of the highlights:

— Most women (86%) who carried their pregnancy to term kept their baby; 11% gave the baby up for adoption.

— Being denied an abortion appears to have impoverished women and had a negative effect on their employment status. Researchers say that at the beginning of the study, there weren’t any economic differences between those who got an abortion and those who were denied one.

However, after a year, “[W]omen denied abortion were more likely to be receiving public assistance (76% vs. 44%) and have household income below the FPL [Federal Poverty Level] (67% vs. 56%) than women who received an abortion. The proportion of women denied an abortion who were working full time was lower than among women who received an abortion (48% vs. 58%).”

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