Right-Wing Media Helped Push Discredited Science At Issue In State Abortion Challenges

Right-wing media outlets like Fox News and National Review Online have pushed the myth of “post-abortion syndrome,” the idea that choosing to have an abortion causes subsequent mental illness. The concept of “post-abortion syndrome” was developed by discredited psychotherapist and anti-abortion activist Vincent Rue, and is at the center of numerous current legal challenges to statewide abortion restrictions.

Both Wisconsin and Alabama have passed highly restrictive abortion laws, known as TRAP laws, that target abortion providers under the pretext of protecting women's health. These laws require abortion providers to obtain unusual admitting privileges at local hospitals, even though such privileges are difficult to obtain and keep. Providers are now challenging these laws in federal court, arguing that the regulations are unnecessary because abortion procedures are exceedingly safe. Moreover, the admitting privileges requirement is so burdensome that it will force clinics in each state to close down, and will increase wait times at the remaining clinics.

State officials in Wisconsin and Alabama defending these laws in court are relying on expert witnesses who have been coached by Rue to testify that “depression could be a complication of abortion,” but media in the states where Rue has offered his “expertise” are starting to report on his unreliable theories. As explained by Isthmus, an alternative weekly newspaper in Madison, WI, “post-abortion syndrome” has not been recognized by either the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association. Not only that, but Rue's expert testimony has been thrown out twice by federal appellate judges because of his “limited clinical and research experience. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey the judge also wrote that Rue's 'admitted personal opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, suggests a possible personal bias.'”

Yet faulty hypotheses like Rue's have been repeatedly championed by conservative media in support of the closure of dozens of clinics across the country. Fox News shows like Hannity and The Five have explicitly linked abortion with mental illness and depression, and have questioned the mental health of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. National Review Online has similarly argued that there is a “substantial body of academic research which has linked abortion to a variety of mental-health problems, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, substance abuse, and suicide.”

But there is no evidence of a causal link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems. In 2008, the American Psychological Association “formed the Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion to examine the scientific research addressing mental health factors associated with abortion, including the psychological responses following abortion.” According to its analysis, there is “no evidence that having a single abortion causes mental health problems”:

The Task Force concluded that there is no credible evidence that a single elective abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in and of itself causes mental health problems for adult women. The research consistently found that the backgrounds and circumstances of the women who seek abortions vary. The Task Force found some studies that indicate that some women do experience sadness, grief and feelings of loss following an abortion and some experience “clinically significant disorders, including depression and anxiety.” The evidence regarding the relative mental health risks associated with multiple abortions is more uncertain.

Questioning Rue's involvement in state challenges to anti-abortion laws is increasingly important as more states pass questionable legislation allegedly to ensure the safety of women. Slate legal expert Emily Bazelon has called the recent rash of TRAP laws part of “the biggest-ever wave of abortion restrictions” -- more than 300 anti-abortion bills were proposed by state legislatures in 2012, and legislators from 24 states passed a record-breaking 92 anti-abortion provisions since 2010. Many of these laws either implicitly or explicitly assume a direct link between abortion and future mental trauma -- according to the Guttmacher Institute, “the vast majority of states require women seeking abortion to receive counseling,” even though “the overwhelming consensus in the legitimate scientific community [is] that there is no causal link between abortion and mental health disorders”:

The [American Psychological Association (APA)] has found that for most women having an abortion, the time of greatest distress is just prior to the procedure. Afterwards, women most frequently describe feelings of relief and even happiness. Perversely, evidence shows that the stigma that a woman may feel because she believes that her partner, family or community will condemn or ostracize her for having an abortion -- the stigma that antiabortion activists have worked for decades to promote -- is itself a key driver of negative mental health outcomes. According to the APA, the “most methodologically strong studies ... showed that interpersonal concerns, including feelings of stigma, perceived need for secrecy, exposure to antiabortion picketing, and low perceived or anticipated social support for the abortion decision, negatively affected women's postabortion psychological experiences.”

Numerous states hostile to abortion rights simply disregard these facts, though, and have turned the concept of informed consent on its head. Of the 22 states requiring women to receive information about the range of psychological responses to abortion, for example, eight only mandate that negative information be provided. This kind of “misinformed consent” extends to perpetrating myths about the physical risks of abortion as well. Six states mandate the provision of information that inaccurately describes an increased risk to future fertility and five compel women to hear false information on the link between abortion and breast cancer.

In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Act at least in part because the conservative majority believed that “severe depression and loss of esteem can follow” a woman's choice to have an abortion. Discredited theories like “post-abortion syndrome,” advanced by discredited “experts” like Rue, have no business leaking into Supreme Court opinions, and lower courts should not take them seriously. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg admonished the conservative justices in her dissent, theories like “post-abortion sydrome” are “an antiabortion shibboleth for which [the majority] concededly has no reliable evidence.”

Hopefully media outlets in the states threatened by Rue's “expertise” will reject the right-wing's framing of this issue.

Photo via Flickr/Stephen Melkisethian under a Creative Commons License.