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  Violence and the Psychological Effects of Abortion

Citation: Russo, N. & Denious, J. [Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, Box 871104, Tempe, AZ 87287-1104], (2001). Violence in the Lives of Women Having Abortions: Implications for Practice and Public Policy. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 32, 142-150

Introduction: Longitudinal research by Russo & Zierk (1992 - reported above) indicts pre-existing conditions as factors that explain findings that suggest women who have abortions exhibit more psychological distress than other women. This study explored the hypothesis that a higher likelihood of childhood sexual abuse and violence in the lives of women experiencing unwanted pregnancy and abortion might underlie these findings.

Method: This study was based on secondary analyses of data from the 2,525 women who participated in the Commonwealth Fund's Women's Health Survey. Telephone interviews were conducted by Louis Harris Associates in which the women were asked about a wide range of health issues, including reproductive history, experience with childhood physical and sexual abuse, rape and partner violence, health care, self-esteem, depressive symptoms, and

Results: Women who reported an abortion were more likely than others to report symptoms of depression and lower life satisfaction, but they were also more likely to experience rape, childhood physical and sexual abuse, and have a violent partner in the last 12 months. Indeed, women reporting an abortion were more than twice as likely to have experienced childhood physical abuse, and more than three times as likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse than women who reported having no abortions. When history of abuse, partner characteristics, and background variables were controlled, abortion was not related to poorer mental health. However, having a violent partner and a history of either or both childhood physical and sexual abuse continued to make significant and independent contributions to all the dependent measures when the other variables were controlled.

Evaluation: Both unwanted pregnancy and abortion are correlated with preexisting conditions and life circumstances, including sexual abuse, rape, and battering, experiences that can have profound and long-lasting effects on mental health. This study provides important correlational evidence that childhood physical and sexual abuse may lead both to unwanted pregnancy as well as negative mental health outcomes, creating a correlation between abortion and depression as well as PTSD symptoms, among other things. It underscores the need to explore the effects of violence in the lives of women having abortions and to take care that negative outcomes of that violence are not misattributed to the abortion experience.

The study would have been stronger had it been able to separate women having one abortion from women having repeat abortions and by asking more specifics about the characteristics of the childhood physical and sexual abuse. Given that the perception of abuse is a crucial predictor of whether abusive experiences are associated with negative mental health consequences, the approach is not a fatal flaw, as long as it is recognized that the method underestimates the extent of the problem. The basic point stands, which is that women who report having an abortion are at much higher risk for experiencing a variety of forms of violence in their lives than other women. The fact that large effects were found despite measurement limitations, particularly the ability to identify women with multiple abortions, gives more confidence to the findings.

 
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