The British Journal of Psychiatry
Termination of pregnancy and psychiatric morbidity.
A C Gilchrist, P C Hannaford, P Frank, C R Kay


BACKGROUND We investigated whether reported psychiatric morbidity was increased after termination of pregnancy compared with other outcomes of an unplanned pregnancy.

METHOD This was a prospective cohort study of 13,261 women with an unplanned pregnancy. Psychiatric morbidity reported by GPs after the conclusion of the pregnancy was compared in four groups: women who had a termination of pregnancy (6410), women who did not request a termination (6151), women who were refused a termination (379), and women who changed their minds before the termination was performed (321).

RESULTS Rates of total reported psychiatric disorder were no higher after termination of pregnancy than after childbirth. Women with a previous history of psychiatric illness were most at risk of disorder after the end of their pregnancy, whatever its outcome. Women without a previous history of psychosis had an apparently lower risk of psychosis after termination than postpartum (relative risk RR = 0.4, 95% confidence interval CI = 0.3-0.7), but rates of psychosis leading to hospital admission were similar. In women with no previous history of psychiatric illness, deliberate self-harm (DSH) was more common in those who had a termination (RR 1.7, 95% CI 1.1-2.6), or who were refused a termination (RR 2.9, 95% CI 1.3-6.3).

CONCLUSIONS The findings on DSH are probably explicable by confounding variables, such as adverse social factors, associated both with the request for termination and with subsequent self-harm. No overall increase in reported psychiatric morbidity was found.


Between October 1976 and July 1979, 1509 general practitioners throughout the UK recruited 13,261 women with an unplanned pregnancy to a prospective study comparing the subsequent psychiatric morbidity rate in the women who underwent an induced abortion with that of the women with other pregnancy outcomes. There was no significant difference in the rates of total psychiatric disorder between women who underwent pregnancy termination and those who underwent childbirth. For example, among women who had no previous illness, the standardized rate of any psychiatric illness was 63.5/1000 woman-years for women who underwent abortion compared to 60.8-63.1/1000 woman-years for other women. In fact, the relative risk (RR) for every group was 1. Women with no history of psychosis faced a lower risk of psychosis after abortion than women with an unplanned pregnancy but who did not seek abortion (4.9/1000 woman-years vs. 11.8/1000 woman-years; RR = 0.4). On the other hand, the rates of psychosis requiring hospital admission for the two groups were similar. In women with no earlier history of psychiatric illness, deliberate self-harm (DSH) occurred significantly more often in women who underwent induced abortion (RR = 1.7) or who were refused an abortion (RR = 2.9). Drug overdoses comprised 89% of DSH cases. DSH was associated with a past history of DSH. It had an inverse trend with age. Women with no history of psychiatric illness had a significant increased risk of subsequent DSH whether they underwent abortion (RR = 1.7) or were refused abortion (RR= 2.9). These findings indicate that psychiatric morbidity after induced abortion is similar to that after childbirth.