Abortions don’t cause depression, although women who have depression and anxiety may be more likely to have abortions, researchers reported Wednesday.
The study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry, is the latest to show no evidence that abortion causes depression. Policies that cite damage to mental health as a reason to restrict access to abortion are not based in fact, the researchers said.
“The repercussions of abortion for mental health have been used to justify state policies that limit access to abortion in the United States,” the team, led by Dr. Julia Steinberg of the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland, wrote.
It’s a difficult thing to study, as no researchers could ethically randomly assign pregnant women to either have an abortion or not have one. The next best thing is to study a large group of women, some of whom became pregnant and some not, and some who had abortions and others who did not.
They used Denmark’s large national database covering nearly 400,000 women born after 1980.
Steinberg’s team compared women who filled prescriptions for antidepressants to women who did not. The Danish database also carries details of abortions — something that may less accurately show up in U.S. data, where abortions may or may not be recorded.
“Compared with women who did not have an abortion, those who had an abortion had a higher rate of antidepressant use,” the researchers wrote. “A close look at the data, however, suggests that the higher rates of antidepressant use had less to do with having an abortion than with other risk factors for depression among women who had an abortion.”
“That is, the increased risk of depression did not change from the year before to the year after an abortion. And contrary to previous claims that abortion has long-term adverse effects, the risk of depression decreased as more time elapsed after the abortion,” they added.
Women who had babies had an initially lower rate of antidepressant use — perhaps because of a reluctance to take any medications while breastfeeding and caring for a newborn. But then rates of antidepressant use went up more among women who had children than among those who did not.