When You Look for Regret, It’s All You Will See

With regard to my post below about anti-choicers new tactic to erode reproductive rights by advocating for “informed consent and mandatory counseling laws,” and very specifically with regard to their being vitalized by Justice Kennedy’s stunning assertion “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” I am reposting this piece from December 2005, in which I analyzed a study which was trumpeted as having found that “Women who have an abortion can suffer mental distress, anxiety, guilt and shame five years later, and perhaps longer.”

It’s a timely reminder of how complicated this issue is, and how so much of the debate flows from the default assumption/expectation that women should regret abortion.


A Norwegian study has found that women who have abortions can suffer “mental distress” longer than women who miscarry.

A study in Norway compared a group of 40 women who suffered a miscarriage with 80 who chose to have an abortion, questioning them ten days, six months, two years and five years after the event.

The team found that women who had a miscarriage suffered more mental distress up to six months after losing their babies compared with those who had an abortion. But women who had an abortion experienced more mental distress long afterwards compared with the miscarriage group.


Pro-life campaigners said the research confirmed the emotional consequences of having an abortion could be massive.

Great, I thought. Just what we need. Of course, I’m an anthropologist both by training and by nature, and so I had a few questions about this study. So I took a look at it and noticed a couple of things that might be of interest. For a start, the researchers set out with a hypothesis that women who abort will experience more mental distress than women who miscarry:

The process of deciding to have an abortion can be difficult, and the reason for electing to have an abortion can affect the psychological responses after the event. Thus, the social, moral and psychological context of an induced abortion may be more complicated than that of a miscarriage, and may result in different psychological responses. We hypothesized that women who undergo an induced abortion will have a more protracted course of mental disturbance than women who experience a miscarriage. (p6)

I don’t have a problem with the hypothesis in and of itself, but I do have a big stinking problem with the fact that, even after noting abortion can have a more complicated context than a miscarriage, the study itself seems to have made no attempt whatsoever to control for the contributions of external pressures as a control for any distress experiences by its participants, particularly as they did control for other “possible confounders,” including marital status, number of children, vocational activity, and former psychiatric health. And in fact, when scores for the mental health outcomes of the two groups were compared with those of the controls, “differences in IES avoidance [at the first two benchmarks] were no longer statistically significant.” So, couldn’t it be that the scores for women who had abortions and “had significantly more guilt [at the last three benchmarks], and more shame at all interviews” would no longer be “statistically significant” if external factors—such as religiosity, family influence, societal pressure, etc.—were taken into consideration? Unfortunately, we don’t know, because the authors of the study didn’t bother to find out.

The preexisting mental health of the study’s participants before the abortion or miscarriage is another issue that runs throughout the study.

[T]he mental health of aborting women was poorer (almost statistically significantly) than that of miscarrying women prior to the pregnancy termination event. Therefore, we cannot infer that induced abortion caused the elevated anxiety of the induced abortion group relative to that of the miscarriage group. (p18)

Other mental health outcomes, such as depression, trauma responses, quality of life and feelings, may likewise be poorer for women in the induced abortion group because of their mental health status before the abortion. (p19)

The responses of women in the miscarriage group were similar to those expected after a traumatic and sad life event. However, the women in the induced abortion group had more atypical responses. This may be because the mental health of the aborting women was somewhat poorer than that of the miscarrying women before the pregnancy termination event. The more complex nature of the induced abortion event may also account for differences in the course of psychological responses between the two groups.(p22-23)

So the mental health of the participating women who sought an abortion was almost statistically significantly poorer than the participating women who had a miscarriage, and the complexity of the abortion issue may account for discrepancies. That’s the problem with poor controls; you can end up with a study that has a completely meaningless conclusion. And yet here it goes—out into the world, reported as fact. Women who get abortions are more highly traumatized than women who have miscarriages. Even though it may be the women who got abortions and participated in the study were more inclined toward mental distress irrespective of their abortions, or that societal views of abortion—and specifically, women who get abortions—may facilitate feelings of shame and guilt.

An explanation for the unusual and divergent courses of the IES scores in the induced abortion group is not obvious, but may result from the characteristics of the abortion event. (p19)

It sure may. Maybe something worth finding out before the study is published, though.

The elevated scores for guilt, shame and IES avoidance for women who had had an induced abortion may require more attention. … It is possible that feelings of guilt and shame associated with the induced abortion contribute to a slower improvement in mental health. (p20-21)

Yep, that’s possible. Or it’s possible that preexisting mental distress unrelated to the abortion could be to blame. Or that the underlying causes of the guilt and shame might not be the actual abortion, and therefore aren’t ameliorated by the passage of time. Lots of things are possible.

Also missing from the reporting on this study is the fact that, along with grief, loss, guilt, shame, and anger, researchers also tracked relief.

Women who had had an induced abortion had significantly more relief at all interviews than women who had had a miscarriage. (p16)

We certainly wouldn’t want to broadcast the relief women feel at having aborted an wanted pregnancy. It might undermine the message that they ought to be suffering from guilt and shame.

The authors conclude that “Women in both groups should be given information about common psychological responses to pregnancy termination,” but without any depth of understanding of the driving forces behind those psychological responses, I’m curious as to what, exactly, they believe that information should be.



Filed under 01_shakespeares_sister

11 responses to “When You Look for Regret, It’s All You Will See

  1. I have occasionally grieved over the abortion I had some 17+ years ago, but I have never regretted it.

  2. *sigh*

    I’m sorry we have to stand around saying “I don’t regret that abortion. It was the sensible thing to do and under the same circumstances I’d do it again.” It’s not really anyone’s business but mine, and yet, given the climate, how can I expect to keep my mouth shut? This makes me very angry.

    I don’t regret that abortion. It was the sensible thing to do. Etc., etc.

  3. I have occasionally grieved over the abortion I had some 17+ years ago, but I have never regretted it.

    A powerful statement which puts me in mind of another thing I detest about this discussion–the resolute refusal on the part of the anti-choicers to acknowledge that grieving is a natural part of many good decisions.

    I grieved when I ended my first marriage, though I never regretted it. I grieved when I decided to put down my beloved cat who was terminally ill, though I never regretted it. Hell, I’ve grieved when I’ve moved out an apartment into a better one, just because of all the good memories in the old one.

    Varying degrees, obviously. Not all equal. But the point is that sadness and hope are not mutually exclusive, as one must believe in order to swallow the tripe of the anti-choicers.

  4. Soul

    good lord. I feel the same way as the previous posters. Has there ever been a study of women who KEPT their babies???? I think you would find a fair amount of mental distress, anxiety, guilt, and shame in these women as well. I’ve had an abortion, and I’ve had children. Speaking from experience, I’ve had all the emotions cited under both circumstances. Jesus, being a human being pretty much guarantees that.

    I get the impression that Women as a whole are supposed to feel these particular emotions, no matter what, because they ARE women. Then, there are the endless studies PROVING to us that we should feel this way. wev dudes. I’m not buying it.

  5. I had an abortion right after I first got married in 1975. The pregnancy was unplanned, resulted from one encounter with my ex-husband without protection, and is something I have never felt guilt or regret about. (Unless you include regret surrounding the circumsances, namely, that my ex did not accompany me to the clinic in a foreign city, and I experienced serious physical complications, either because I traveled too soon afterwards or the procedure wasn’t done correctly.)

    The idea that any person has the right to tell another person that they MUST carry a pregnancy to term is simply outrageous and unacceptable. It is the woman’s choice, period.

    (I believe this post was one of the first I ever commented on at Shakespeare’s Sister when it was first published….)

  6. Kelley

    I have NEVER and WILL NEVER experienced one moment of regret over the abortion I had in college. It was absolutely the right choice at the right time.

    What really pisses me off (besides Kennedy admitting there’s no data to support the assinine proposition that some women regret choosing an abortion) is that people expect that I should regret it. Even some of those who support my right to choose will still imply that I should be having serious emotional qualms. Listen up, people, its not gonna happen. If I were to accidentally get pregnant again, I would make the same choice, again, without regret.

    I can say this because I know exactly what’s best for me, and I refuse to make any apologies. Stop all fucking hand-wringing already, and leave us the hell alone to make our own private, personal decisions.

  7. Tom in Iowa

    So is Justice Kennedy suggesting that it’s OK to outlaw any activity which may lead the participant to regret it later? “In their best interest, of course. The Legislature knows best.”

    Perhaps we should outlaw regret AND grief – that’d take care of everything, wouldn’t it.

    How about letting people decide for themselves how they want to respond to their decisions? It’s the only way to respect a fellow human being.

    Thank you to the previous posters for reminding us that this is an individual personal decision. I greatly respect your courage and choices. May we continue to have all options available

  8. Lizard

    How meaningful is a study that compares the emotions resulting from a conscious choice to those resulting from an unplanned event? Generally, when you take responsibility for a choice, you open yourself up to an entire menu of reactions not generally associated with events that are entirely or essentially beyond your control. On the one hand, the “pro-lifers” love to portray abortion-seeking women as thoughtless, carefree, and callous; on the other, they’re gleeful when a flawed study suggests that women might actually have complex and lasting emotional reactions to an abortion.

    Fitting, isn’t it, that they frame sex in the same way? You may enter into it as a happy-go-lucky ditz without a care in the world, but you’ll come out of it a bitter, scarred woman who can never be the same again. Beware!

    The more meaningful study (assuming we need to be in possession of any of this information at all) would be to compare the “mental anguish” of women who chose abortion and those who chose adoption. I’m guessing the results wouldn’t be nearly as useful to the anti-choicers’ cause.

    And finally, Kennedy was clever to use the word “unexceptionable,” which he must know many average readers will 1) not understand or 2) confuse with “unexceptional” and interpret as a much weaker statement than he’s actually making.

  9. Tom hits it out of the park. The issue isn’t whether women regret their decision. The issue is that it’s nobody’s business but theirs to make that decision, in any and every case whatsoever.

    It’s very interesting, from a cognitive standpoint, that the concept of women just, you know, like, *controlling their own lives* is so inconceivable for some people.

  10. Paen

    What a surprise,the right wingers have come up with a study that proves that women would be happier if they kept themselves barefoot and pregnant.

  11. Rob_in_Hawaii

    So, the wingers want to get rid of a constitutionally protected right because some exercisers of that right might come to “regret” their decision?

    Perhaps we should also ban guns because some may regret their decision to own one after it is used (accidently or not) to kill someone.

    Or maybe freedom of speech. I know I frequently regret shooting off my big mouth ….

    One of the foundations upon which a free society is based is the belief that adults are capable of making their own decisions. With such liberty, of course, comes the chance that we might regret the choices we’re free to make. You take the good with the bad.

    Otherwise we are calling for an authoritarian state where government makes all decisions for us. Bring on the fascists! Then, I suppose, we’d have an utterly regret-free life.

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