A Setback for 'Pro-Life' Forces

Mar. 27, 1989

New studies find abortions pose little danger to women

For years, pro-life forces have charged that abortions threaten serious health consequences for women. First of all, they argued, abortion is a dangerous surgical procedure that can lead to subsequent miscarriages, infertility or even death. More recently, they claimed to have discovered a form of delayed stress, similar to that experienced by some Viet Nam vets, that can result in severe depression years after an abortion. Last week both claims were undercut by the release of a report on the effects of abortion by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and by the conclusions of a panel of the American Psychological Association.

The draft report was prepared by Koop in 1987 at the request of President Ronald Reagan to examine the physical and psychological dangers of abortion. In January, the avidly pro-life Koop announced that he could not issue the report because the scientific data were flawed and inconclusive. Subpoenaed by a House subcommittee that oversees some health budgets, the Surgeon General's report concluded that "abortion imposes a relatively low physical risk" for women. Acknowledging his strong "pro-life bias," Koop testified that any public-health problem associated with abortion is "minimal."

On the question of the emotional repercussions of an abortion, Koop was more circumspect. Although pro-life advocates say the condition created by abortions can cause serious psychological problems as long as ten years afterward, the Surgeon General explained that in reviewing more than 250 studies, he had found "major methodological flaws" and could not draw any definite conclusions about the so-called post-abortion syndrome. "There is no doubt that some people have severe psychological effects after abortion," Koop said, "but anecdotes do not make good scientific material."

Nancy Adler, a member of a special American Psychological Association panel on abortion, told legislators that after a review of the same data, the group had concluded that abortion inflicts no particular psychological damage on women. She pointed out that despite the millions of women who have undergone the procedure since the landmark Roe v. Wade case legalized abortion in 1973, there has been no accompanying rise in mental illness. "If severe reactions were common," she noted, "there would be an epidemic of women seeking treatment."

Last week's hearings came at an important time for both sides in the abortion fight. Next month the Supreme Court will hear the first serious challenge to Roe v. Wade since it became law. The original decision was based in part on the court's conviction that legal abortion is a safe option. Since then, pro-life forces have chipped away at the decision's medical premises. "These are extremely important conclusions," said Democratic Congressman Ted Weiss of New York, who organized the hearings. Conceded Koop: "It's very difficult to separate abortion the moral issue from abortion the public-health issue."

All sides at the hearing, however, could agree on one thing: the best solution to the abortion dilemma is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. "Most abortions would not take place," noted the Surgeon General, "if pregnancies were not unplanned and unwanted." He and others called for better research into contraception and improved sex education as important steps toward reducing the need for abortions.

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

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