Abortion and mental health: Support from family, friends and health services is crucial

Research shows the best predictor of a woman’s mental health after an abortion is her mental health before it

Does abortion bring mental health problems to women who have the terminations? The answer seems to be mostly no, sometimes yes. But if women who experience emotional distress are in a minority, we cannot simply ignore their suffering. They are sisters, daughters, friends, girlfriends, even mothers who need support, not only from professionals, but from friends and family.

In a 2007 review for the Crisis Pregnancy Agency entitled The Psychological Affects of Abortion on Women, social psychologist Margret Fine-Davis, then a board member of the Coombe Hospital, wrote that on the basis of a “vast” body of research the consensus is that “abortion generally does not lead to negative psychological outcomes for women. However, in a minority of cases (some studies suggest about 20 per cent), it does.”

She wrote that the women most at risk of psychological problems were those who did not have the psychological support of partner and/or family; those with pre-existing psychological problems; those whose own religious beliefs or those of their social environment were disapproving of abortion; those who had abortions in the second trimester, as opposed to the first; and those who wanted the child and decided to terminate the pregnancy due to such factors as foetal abnormalities.

More recently, in 2018, a review of 30 years of research published by the British Journal of Psychiatry summed up the situation as follows: ”… the results do not support strong pro-life positions that claim that abortion has large and devastating effects on the mental health of women. Neither do the results support strong pro-choice positions that imply that abortion is without any mental health effects. In general, the results lead to a middle-of-the-road position that, for some women, abortion is likely to be a stressful and traumatic life event which places those exposed to it at modestly increased risk of a range of common mental health problems.”


An article two years ago in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, gathering together the findings of many research articles, stated that “getting a wanted abortion does not cause significant psychological problems, despite beliefs to the contrary”.

The most commonly felt emotion in women who had an abortion, it reported, was relief. More than 97 per cent of women in one study said five years later that having the abortion was the right decision.

“… The best predictor of a woman’s mental health after an abortion is her mental health before the abortion,” it quotes Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology at Arizona State University as saying. This suggests that, for some women, abortion does have negative mental health effects.

Also, the review states that women who planned and wanted a pregnancy, but terminated it during the second or third trimester because of a life-threatening birth defect, faced mental health problems, “comparable to mental health problems among women who miscarried or lost a newborn baby, and less severe than the distress among women who delivered babies with severe birth defects”.

It seems to me to be crucial that we be aware of these women’s need for emotional support.

Indeed, we need to be sensitive to the emotional needs of others mentioned in Fine-Davis’s report, including those who have pre-existing psychological problems or who have a termination in the second trimester.

In Ireland, women can have an abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and an abortion can be obtained after that time only in exceptional circumstances. Some women don’t know they are pregnant until they are up against that limit or beyond it.

As citizensinformation.ie explains, “a doctor must certify that you will not be more than 12 weeks pregnant at the time of the abortion”. But, even then, “you must wait at least three days before you have an abortion. For example, if you are certified on a Tuesday, the earliest you can have an abortion is Friday.”

It seems to me that if women who miss that deadline travel for an abortion then the need for emotional support from family, friends and health services is all the greater.

  • Pádraig O’Moráin (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness - a Guide to Self-Compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).