News Analysis

How do abortifacients affect mental health? We still don’t know

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Women should be no more reluctant to terminate a pregnancy than they should be to have their wisdom teeth removed. That is the conclusion one must draw from the pro-choice movement’s claim that abortion is merely a “women’s health issue”. But what if abortion itself has a negative impact on women’s health?

There is certainly some evidence that points in this direction. In September 2011, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a study of 877,000 women which suggested that women who had terminated a pregnancy were 81 per cent more likely to experience mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as alcohol abuse. Shockingly, they were 155 per cent more likely to commit suicide than women who hadn’t procured an abortion.

Pro-choicers counter this by arguing that these averse effects are actually caused by social pressure. They claim that a woman is subjected to a culture that “perpetuates shame” for making this decision about their “healthcare”. However, an exhaustive new study suggests that the effects are not social, but intrinsic to abortion.

Over the past three years, a team of neuroscientists from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic university in Ohio, and San Sebastián University in Chile have tested mifepristone and misoprostol, two common abortion-inducing drugs (abortifacients), on pregnant rats. They found that the rats “experienced significant adverse effects including: depression, loss of appetite, anxiety, and decreased self-care”.

The most alarming conclusion we can draw from this study isn’t that these reported averse effects were never detected in clinical tests before the drugs reached the market. What is more shocking is that, according to the team behind this new study, no substantial research appears to have been conducted into the mental secondary effects of the drugs at all.

“The research that was conducted previously pertaining to abortifacients tended to focus primarily on how effective the drugs were in terminating the pregnancy,” Dr Stephen Sammut, the leader of the research team, told me. “To our knowledge there is no research that has appropriately investigated the consequences of these drugs, at the preclinical level, on the physiology and behaviour of the mother when used to induce an abortion.”

For Dr Sammut, it’s clear what course of action ought to be taken. “I believe the primary conclusion should be that we need to take a significant step back to the pre-clinical level,” he said, “and conduct more research in order understand the biological consequences of drug-induced abortion and how they could impact behaviour. In doing so, we could gain a better understanding of how the procedure could potentially be influencing behaviour, even at the human level.”

I asked Dr Ingrid Skop, chairman-elect of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, about the further harm done to women by abortifacients. Her answers were staggering. For instance, it’s becoming easier and easier to obtain misoprostol, which can pose a serious threat to the health of the mother if used incorrectly. Among the most common effects is “failure to diagnose ectopic pregnancies, which may rupture.” Furthermore, “chemical abortions are being promoted to women remote from medical care – and if they haemorrhage, they are still remote from medical care.”

She said: “There is also data that both mifepristone and misoprostol suppress a woman’s immune system so that she is at higher risk for infection. Half of the reported deaths were from clostridium sordellii, a common soil organism that a healthy woman’s immune systems should easily be able to resist.”

These are concerns that anyone with a genuine regard for women’s health should demand to be urgently addressed. Why, then, is the abortion lobby silent?

This article has been corrected. It originally misnamed Dr Samuel Sammut as Dr Jeremy Sammut.