Abortion, mental health and charges of guilt by association

David Reardon

Coleman’s meta-analysis of abortion and mental health studies1 was harshly criticised in three letters by five authors (Robinson, Stotland, Nadelson, Coyne, and Littell) who all cited an Ethics & Medicine article2 I wrote (not Coleman) as evidence that Coleman’s study cannot be trusted. My full response3 is summarised as follows.

First, Robinson’s4 assertion that I am Coleman’s ‘leader’ is nonsense. We have no institutional, financial or personal entanglements. Second, I gathered data that required the analysis of research psychologists. I am thankful that Coleman agreed to analyse it and help present it in a scientifically accurate and impartial manner. As a biomedical ethicist, I explore the intersections of medicine, science, philosophy, theology, ethics and the law. When writing papers intended for each of these fields, I seek to use the language and tools appropriate to each field.

Third, the cited article was a response to a pro-life philosopher who argued that any evidence of emotional suffering of women following abortion is essentially irrelevant to the moral argument against abortion and counterproductive to pro-life efforts.5 The core of my response was that Christians have an obligation to ‘consistently demonstrate as much concern for women as for their unborn children’, and that ‘our advocacy for women must be consistent and unconditional both for those who are facing crisis pregnancies and for those who have had abortions’. I further argued that ‘the harm abortion does to women is just as real as that done to the human fetus’.2

Fourth, it also reflected my sincere belief that abortion involves substantial dangers to specific subgroups of women. Unfortunately, critics have distorted this into the charge that I seek to scare women with exaggerated risks.6 That is untrue. There are real risks, especially for certain higher-risk groups.7 Women

should be told of the truth regarding statistically significant findings. These should be neither exaggerated nor minimised.

Finally, women who dare to express emotional trials following an abortion face rejection from people on both sides. A few pro-lifers harshly dismiss these women as ‘sinners’ who deserve a lifetime of grief. Conversely, at least a few pro-choicers dismiss their grief as ‘whining’ or ‘rare’, or suggest that only women mentally unstable prior to their abortions would complain so much. By contrast, the post-abortion healing movement simply asks those on both sides to respect the experiences of women grieving a past abortion. But even this pro-healing position is attacked. Pro-choicers accuse us of manipulating gullible women into falsely blaming unrelated life problems on their abortions.6 Some pro-life advocates, meanwhile, accuse us of encouraging an unprincipled, narcissistic worldview that diminishes the moral absolutes regarding the sanctity of life.5

To my mind, the question of whether abortion is the sole, direct cause of certain mental illnesses is far less important than the fact that many self-aware women want help coping with a past abortion experience.7 Why is it so hard to simply accept their self-assessments and stated needs? Women deserve better.

Declaration of interest

D. R. is Director of the Elliot Institute, USA.

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