Four Myths about Abortions and Women’s Health

Kathleen Couillard, Agence Science-Presse

Some people feel that the question of abortion rights is settled. Others attempt to spread false information concerning the risks of this operation on the health of women, the Rumor Detector has noted.

This article is part of the Rumor Detective file; click here for the other articles.

In the United States, many are fearful that a conservative Supreme Court will reopen the question of abortion rights. It’s an issue that seemed to have been settled in the 1970s.

In Québec, even if anti-abortion campaigners are far less often heard from than south of the border, they are present. Some demonstrated in Sherbrooke and in Québec City last fall. Moreover, organizations helping pregnant women are very worried about disinformation being spread on the Internet. For example, these organizations are on the lookout for sites such as Enceinte et inquiète (pregnant and worried), which presents itself as an information source on pregnancy.

Here are four myths that are often spread by the anti-abortion movement about women’s health:

1) The risk of death to the woman during an abortion is high? False.

A study comparing the risks associated with abortion compared to those involving childbirth concluded that in the U.S. in 2012, the death rate during abortion procedures was 0.6 per 100,000 procedures. In comparison, the risk of a mother dying during childbirth was 14 times higher: a rate of 8.8 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births.

In analyzing 529,141 abortions carried out via surgery, researchers in Ontario concluded in 2019 that the rate of severe complications in Ontario between 2003 and 2015 was 1.6 cases for every 1,000 procedures. The mortality rate was 0.05 deaths for every 1,000 procedures (or 5 deaths per 100,000). It must be mentioned that among the 28 deaths reported during that period, 23 had a known cause, mostly suicide or an act of violence.

Researchers also remarked that the risks of complications diminished when doctors performed the operation frequently in specialized clinics (1.4 cases per 1,000) compared to doctors less used to performing this procedure (3.7 cases per thousand).

And according to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the use of medications such as misoprostol and mifepristone is becoming more and more popular to end undesired pregnancies. Symptoms that may be experienced are exactly those that naturally occur in a false pregnancy.  In a 2018 report on the safety of abortions, the

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) concluded that these medications were no riskier than an antibiotic.

2) Abortion affects mental health more than childbirth? False.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), when the effects of an abortion on mental health are evaluated, one has to take a range of experiences into account. Several factors can lead to an undesired pregnancy that brings a woman to consider an abortion. And these reasons can affect her psychological health.  

According to the APA, a woman can feel sadness and loss after an abortion. There may even be a period of mourning. Nonetheless, studies using rigorous methodology reveal that the risk of mental problems in women who have an abortion during their first trimester are no greater than that of women who choose to go through with their pregnancy and give birth.

In a 2018 report, NASEM analyzed the results of seven systematic reviews on the subject. They concluded that in undesired pregnancies, the rate of mental health problems was the same for women who had had an abortion as it was for women who had chosen to give birth.  

In 2017, American researchers concluded that refusing to have an abortion results in more psychological stress than having an abortion. And a 2018 study conducted by some of the same researchers found that suicidal thinking is as rare with women who have had an abortion as it is with those who refuse an abortion. The authors conclude that the argument that access to abortion should be limited to protect the woman’s psychological health is unfounded.  

3) Abortion causes infertility or complications in future pregnancies? False.

In 2016, researchers in Finland published a study of 57,000 mothers, 5,000 of whom had previously had an abortion, and noted that the mothers who had had an abortion were less likely to have recourse to fertility treatments. Therefore, there is no link between an abortion and infertility.  

Moreover, they observed, having an abortion does not increase your chances of suffering from preeclampsia, hypertension, gestational diabetes, or a premature rupture of the membranes in any future pregnancy.

4) Abortion increases the risk of breast cancer? False.

In 2004, a group of researchers, specialists in hormonal factors relating to breast cancer, analyzed the results of 53 studies conducted on 83,000 women battling breast cancer.  They concluded that having an abortion does not increase breast cancer risks. A 2014 literature review by the American Cancer Society came to the same conclusion.

In both cases, researchers noted that some retrospective studies that asked women with breast cancer if they had had an abortion reported a “statistically significant” risk of breast cancer.  The scientists argue that healthy women don’t want to admit they’ve had an abortion. Indeed, women with breast cancer are less reluctant to admit they’ve had an abortion because they are looking for a reason to explain their illness. That can cause a bias in retrospective studies.

This increased risk doesn’t surface in prospective studies, or in studies that follow women for years after they’ve had an abortion. These detect no link between abortion and breast cancer risk.

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