Interview with Dr. Priscilla Coleman on Long-Term Effects of Abortion

Read  
Print This Post

dr_coleman.jpgDr. Coleman is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University.  A major concentration of her research has been the psychological outcomes among women who have experienced abortion.  Additional research has focused on mother-child interaction, attachment, and the development of competency beliefs across the transition to parenting.  She has published numerous articles in psychology and medical journals and has presented her research to national and international audiences.  She is also serving on the editorial board for a new international medical journal, Current Women’s Health Reviews.

1.  Dr. Coleman, your work mentions that as many 1/4 to 1/3 of women experience adverse, prolonged post-abortive reactions.  Would you summarize the most common negative effects?

Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are the effects that have been most actively studied and seem to be most common. Not only is there scientific evidence for an association between abortion and poor mental health, but studies have further indicated that abortion is related to an increased likelihood of sexual dysfunction, communication
problems, and separation or divorce.

2.  With regard to the scientific facts: What does the research tell us about why these effects occur?

Some women seem to be more vulnerable based on demographic, psychological, and situational factors. The risk factors with the most empirical support include being young, unmarried, having experienced a prior abortion, feeling pressured to abort by others, experiencing ambivalence, believing the fetus is human, and holding personal conservative views of abortion.

3.  This is a controversial topic and some dispute these findings, and you mention the methodological challenges in doing this research.  Can you explain briefly why the data you report can be trusted?

The newest wave of research represents higher quality science based on several collective strengths of the studies: (a) the use of an appropriate control group (unintended pregnancy carried to term), (b) controls for pre-existing psychological problems, (c) controls for personal characteristics and situational factors associated with the choice to abort, (d) collection of data for several years beyond the abortion, (e) use of medical claims data (with diagnostic codes assigned by trained professionals), (f) and use of large samples (most in the 1000s and many nationally representative).

 4.  I am very curious about the impact of having had an abortion on later relationships.  First, can you elaborate on how women who have had abortions are at risk for either over-protectiveness or detachment from their future children?

 Abortion may hinder effective parenting by reducing parental responsiveness to child needs through interference with attachment processes or by instilling anger, which is a common component of grief.  In religious women there may be fear of losing a later born child based on feelings that she will have to "pay" for the sin of abortion. This could cause her to become overzealous in her parenting and hinder the child’s developing autonomy or it could cause her to withhold emotionally to avoid being hurt.

5.  I imagine the detachment or numbness of mothers has an impact on their children; is it likely that this could put a post-abortive woman’s daughter at risk for problematic relationships and having to face decisions about having an abortion herself?

 This is certainly possible, because whenever parent-child relationships are less than ideal the adult child is more likely to experience conflict in intimate adult relationships.  Feelings of insecurity from childhood can lead to trust and intimacy problems later. This is an interesting question that should be studied.

6.  What about spousal relationships?  Does having an abortion early in life compromise future spousal relationships?

 This really depends on the extent to which the individual has successfully dealt with any trauma related to the abortion.

 7.  Finally, societal change over the past decades has resulted in an increased focus on individualism, the “me” generation; can you comment on how this phenomena may relate with the occurrence of abortion?  In other words, does this societal trend towards selfishness interfere with the connection people have with pursuing natural goods such as marriage and children?

Although this isn’t a question that has been subjected to much scientific inquiry, it certainly does seem like our materialistic, self-oriented contemporary society seeks quick fixes to problems like unintended pregnancy with little consideration for the long-term personal, relationship, and social consequences.

 8.  Part of the Culture of Life mission is to understand the truth about the human person at all stages of life; I am wondering if you have any comments on how having had an abortion as a young person impacts people throughout their later adulthood even as they age into their senior years?

Unfortunately there haven’t been any long-term studies that have followed women into their senior years; however the few studies that have examined women’s responses to abortion several years later (most are under 4 year follow-ups) suggest that for many women (at least 25%), the negative effects persist without some sort of intervention (psychological or spiritual). Some women may find that after a period of feeling relatively unburdened by the abortion they come to a fuller realization of the child lost and of their responsibility in the death.

This segment of women who have aborted may suffer a delayed reaction after learning more about fetal development or when carrying a subsequent pregnancy to term. If a woman is too ashamed to seek help she may suffer alone for many years, turn to substance abuse or other self-destructive behaviors. A wounded woman who doesn’t find help and peace may also feel alienated from others and experience difficult relationships. More active research is needed to fully understand the life-time trajectories.

*** Dr. Coleman is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University. A major concentration of her research has been the psychological outcomes among women who have experienced abortion. Additional research has focused on mother-child interaction, attachment, and the development of competency beliefs across the transition to parenting. She has published numerous articles in psychology and medical journals and has presented her research to national and international audiences. She is also serving on the editorial board for a new international medical journal, Current Women’s Health Reviews

Editor