Comment Comment and Features

Abortion policy is stuck in the dark ages


One stark, inescapable conclusion of life as a doctor is that abortion hurts. It may not be a widely publicised conclusion – after all, even pro-lifers grant that abortion is intensely personal. But that is no reason to stay quiet. If anything, the intensity and emotional involvement of a decision to terminate a pregnancy calls for urgent attention towards those hurting from it.

It has long been known by those in the pro-life movement – and, all too painfully, by those who have had terminated pregnancies – that abortion hurts not only the unborn but also the mothers involved. The facts of foetal life are now well known, and many mothers terminate pregnancies only out of desperation, or because of cultural or domestic pressure. The significance of the decision is well known to those women suffering from it: it is hidden only by an industry and ideology dependent on keeping it obscure.

What has long been known is now being codified. In past generations, mental health has been a manipulable political tool. Diagnoses were vague, the academic detail was sketchy and the entire field – including doctors and patients – was plagued with a stigma that stifled meaningful discourse. Indeed, it is precisely the handwaving attitude towards psychiatry that has led to the current situation: what was initially a clause limiting termination of pregnancy to cases where continuing the pregnancy presented a risk to the mental health of the mother led to, effectively, abortion on demand. The lack of resources and willingness to judge genuine mental health risk and outcomes liberalised abortion policy so completely that simply seeking a termination is now considered good evidence of such a risk.

So it troubles me – not least as a doctor – that with all the advances of modern medical science, our abortion policy is still stuck in the dark ages of psychiatry.

If “mental health” can mean anything we want it to, then it means precisely nothing.

We now have compelling evidence that abortion is not associated with any decreased risk of mental health disorders. This is not even controversial: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states quite plainly: “Women with an unintended pregnancy should be informed that the evidence suggests that they are no more or less likely to suffer adverse psychological sequelae [conditions] whether they have an abortion or continue with the pregnancy and have the baby.” Comprehensive reviews in the literature say the same. And I have not found any reputable body saying otherwise.

The new Turnaway Study, though it is being spun in favour of the pro-choice movement, contributes to the body of evidence confirming what pro-lifers have said for years: that the ostensible mental health benefits of abortion are specious. The study – contrary to popular reporting – is consistent with abortion causing certain mental health problems paralleling (and perhaps exceeding, as shown in other acclaimed studies) those sometimes encountered in and after pregnancy.

This is important, since 98 per cent of abortions in Britain are carried out on the grounds of reducing mental health risk. If the evidence militated so strongly against any other treatment in medicine, there would rightly be outrage – or, at least, people would wonder whether it should be part of the National Health Service. We are right to wonder in this case, too.

It is important not least to women making an often difficult decision. They know the financial and social hardships of pregnancy and maternity. But how are they supposed to make a decision when they are kept in the dark about the comparable hardships of abortion? How are they supposed to make an informed decision when they are not told that the mental health trauma commonly resulting from abortion mirrors the hardships of continuing an unwanted pregnancy?

It is a fact that women are sometimes not warned of post-abortion mental health sequelae – and that this can sometimes result in severe depression. How dare we hide this information from our sisters, daughters and mothers – and thereby put them at risk of a mental health disorder? Add to this the modest evidence that abortion is associated with worse mental health than continuing unexpected pregnancy – and the conclusion is even more stark.

If we have decisive evidence that abortion confers no health benefit, it becomes inexplicable why it is within the purview of doctors and the NHS more generally.

If, as doctors, we are aware that abortion will just as likely harm our patient as help them, it is extraordinarily difficult to justify our having to refer patients to other physicians who have no conscientious objection. If the NHS is about health and life, it is virtually impossible to justify diverting resources from those towards something that achieves no such end. And, if we have a law that justifies abortion on the grounds of the mental health risks of pregnancy vis-à-vis abortion, why is it so routinely and casually broken, as the evidence suggests it is?

Finally, this news calls for action and mobilisation. We have a duty to women to inform them, to help them, and to show grace towards them. Abortion harms the unborn, but it harms women too, all too frequently in similar measure. As Christians, let our prayers and our lives confess that we recognise these truths, and let us help to bring the love and comfort of Christ to those who need it.

Calum Miller is a doctor and independent philosopher working in Manchester

This article first appeared in the January 13 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here