Parents and Children May Suffer If States Outlaw Abortion

Compelling women to carry babies to term can have negative health effects.

Posted Jul 06, 2019

This post was written by Jessica Tepper and J. Wesley Boyd

Many states in the U.S. have enacted laws which, if upheld, will make it all but impossible for women who want abortions to get them. This legislation portends disaster for the psychological health of children and parents alike. Forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term when she would prefer to abort has serious negative implications for mental health and general well-being for both the mother and the child.

To begin with, research has found that women who wanted but were denied an abortion had poorer mental health outcomes than those who received a desired abortion. A longitudinal cohort study observed that women who were denied an abortion reported significantly more anxiety symptoms as well as lower self-esteem and life satisfaction than those who received abortions, who were found to report increased mental health markers (Biggs MA, Upadhyay UD, McCulloch CE, Foster DG 2017). And anxiety during the prenatal period has been correlated with postnatal depression and bonding failure (Kokubu M, Okano T, Sugiyama T. 2012; Foster DG, Biggs MA, Raifman S, et al. 2018), resulting in disrupted attachment and strained relationships between caregivers and children and mental health issues in children. 

Disrupted attachment is important, because the quality of the relationship between a child and a caregiver is pivotal to the long-term mental health of that child, with consequences that include long-term self-esteem development, emotion regulation, impulsivity, and the quality of relationships in adulthood. Insecure and disrupted attachment in infants is correlated with poor self-esteem and worsened behavioral dysregulation in children, and the development of unhealthy styles of coping with stress over time—including substance abuse issues, self-injurious behaviors, and abusive relationships later in life. Long-term evidence has shown that infants who were born unwanted or unintended have significantly lower self-esteem 23 years later; and that unintended childbirth results in a long-term negative impact on a child’s self-worth. (Axinn WG, Barber JS, Thornton A.1998).

Indeed, the adverse health effects for children born to parents who would have preferred to abort are significant. A 1975 study in Prague studying the effects of compulsory childbearing revealed a higher incidence of illness and psychiatric hospitalization among children born to parents who were denied abortion—despite similar biological backgrounds [1] among children born wanted—as well as slightly poorer academic performance, despite no variable difference in measures of intelligence. Such individuals also had worse integration in social peer groups (Dytrych Z, Matejcek Z, Schuller V, et al. 1975).

In a survey conducted of 1,327 children younger than two, among children who were wanted in one group, and those who were either unplanned or unwanted in a second group, the second group of children scored significantly lower on a scale measuring for skill development and had significantly less positive relationships with their mothers. Further, the group of children who were born unwanted or unplanned by [2] their caregivers showed scores lower for positive affect, greater for fearfulness, and lower vocabulary (Baydar 1995).

The mother who is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term also suffers. One recent study found “statistically significant differences in the socioeconomic trajectories of women who were denied wanted abortions compared with women who received abortions” (Foster DG, Biggs MA, Ralph L, et al. 2018). Women denied abortion who gave birth have been found to have higher odds of poverty six months after denial than women who received abortions. Women denied abortions were also found to be more likely to be in poverty, less likely to be employed full-time, and more likely to receive public assistance compared to women who obtained abortions, differences that remained significant for four years after being denied an abortion. As such, women denied abortions are more likely to experience economic insecurity lasting years.  

The upshot of all of these studies is that if women are compelled to bear children that they otherwise might have aborted, they and their children are likely to suffer a number of ill effects, and children and their mothers are likely to suffer as a result. We can’t help but note the irony that many of the states which are attempting to severely restrict women’s access to abortions also have extremely skimpy public health benefits for individuals who are impoverished or who suffer from physical or mental illness, all of which can directly result from preventing women from having access to abortion.

Jessica Tepper, MA, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and fellow at Cambridge Health Alliance in the Victims of Violence Program and Outpatient Psychiatry Department, where specializes in providing psychotherapy to survivors of trauma and violence

References

Axinn WG, Barber JS, Thornton A. (1998). The Long-Term Impacts of Parents’ Childbearing Decisions on Children’s Self-Esteem. Demography. 35(4):435-43.

Baydar, N. (1995). Consequences for Children of Their Birth Planning Status. Family Planning Perspectives. 27(6): 228-234.

Biggs MA, Upadhyay UD, McCulloch CE, Foster, DG. (2017). Women’s Mental Health and Well-Being 5 years After Receiving or Being Denied an Abortion: A Prospective, Longitudinal Cohort Study.  JAMA Psychiatry. 74(2):169-178.

Biggs MA, Gould H, Foster DG. (2013). Understanding Why Women Seek Abortions in the US. BMC Women's Health.13 (1):29.

Charles VE, Polis CB, Sridhara SK, Blum RW. (2008). Abortion and Long-Term Mental Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Contraception. 78(6):436-50

Crissy, S. (2005). Effect of Pregnancy Intention on Child Well-Being and Development: Combining Retrospective Reports of Attitude and Contraceptive use. Population Research and Policy Review. 24(6): 593-615.

David, HP. (2006). Born Unwanted, 35 Years Later: The Prague Study. Reproductive Health Matters.  14(27):181-190

Dytrych Z, Matejcek Z, Schuller V, et al. (1975). Children Born to Women Denied Abortion. Family Planning Perspectives. 7(4):165-171. 

Foster DG, Biggs MA, Ralph L, et al. (2018). Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States. American Journal of Public Health. 108(3):407-413

Foster DG, Biggs MA, Raifman S, et al. (2018). Comparison of Health, Development, Maternal Bonding, and Poverty among Children Born after Denial of Abortion vs After Pregnancies Subsequent to an Abortion.  JAMA Pediatrics. 172(11):1053-1060.

Major B, Appelbaum M, Beckman L, et al. (2009).  Abortion and Mental Health: Evaluating the Evidence. American Psychologist. 64(9):863-90.

Kirkman M, Rowe H, Hardiman A, Mallett S, Rosenthal D. (2009). Reasons Women Give for Abortion: A Review of the Literature. Archives of Women's Mental Health. 12(6):365–378.

Kokubu M, Okano T, Sugiyama T. (2012). Postnatal Depression, Maternal Bonding Failure, and Negative Attitudes Toward Pregnancy: A Longitudinal Study of Pregnant Women in Japan. Archives of Women's Mental Health. 15(3):211-6.