In 2019, thousands of women protested against state decisions revoking their reproductive rights. Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, thousands of women protested against state decisions revoking their reproductive rights. Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

  • A groundbreaking study analyzed 667 women’s emotions about their decisions to have abortions. It followed them from a week after their abortions until five years post-procedure.  

  • After three years, 99% of these women said having an abortion was the right decision. After five years, 95% said the strongest emotion they felt was relief. 

  • This is the first study of its kind to investigate how women feel years after their abortions. Other studies on the topic have been limited to one week or one month post-procedure. 

  • These findings run contrary to many of the claims that fuel state-level laws restricting abortion access in America. 

Five years after their abortions, the strongest emotion almost all women feel isn’t regret, but relief. That was the takeaway of a groundbreaking five-year study of 667 women published today in Social Science & Medicine.

The study, conducted between 2008 and 2016, followed each woman from a week after her abortion until five years post-abortion to see how she felt about her decision years down the line.

While other studies have looked at the emotional effects of abortion, they’ve been limited to a week or month post-procedure since larger, long-term studies are prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

“I wanted to investigate if there was any evidence to the claims that abortion had negative long-lasting effects,” said epidemiologist Corinne Rocca, who conducted the study as part of UCSF’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health and funded her study with grants from four different foundations.

For example, could abortions haunt women later in life and cause major feelings of regret? Could there be a basis for the waiting period 27 states require before a woman can get an abortion? Could the state-mandated abortion materials given out in eight states that claim abortion causes lasting mental health harm be correct?

According to the study, no, no, and no.

“What we found was that there definitively wasn’t” evidence to support claims that the procedure has detrimental long-term effects, Rocca said.

The results showed nearly all women didn’t regret their abortions

The study included a mix of white, black, and Latina women from 30 clinics across the U.S. The average age was 25, and 62% were already raising kids.

“We actually achieved a sample that looks very similar to the population of women who seek abortions nationally,” Rocca said.

The study’s analysis shows that one week after their abortion, 51% of the participants felt positive emotions, 17% felt negative emotions, and 20% felt no emotions.

The study also found that 46% of women felt it wasn’t a difficult decision to have an abortion, but for the 27% of people who did have difficulty with the choice, feelings of sadness declined sharply in the two years post-procedure.

After three years, 99% said having an abortion was the right decision. Even the women who had abortions later on in their pregnancies did not experience any more regret than the women who had earlier abortions.

After five years, the emotion most commonly felt by 95% of these women was relief.

Michelle Williams golden globes
Michelle Williams attends the 2020 Golden Globes, where she delivered a pro-choice message in her acceptance speech. 
Frazer Harrison / Staff / Getty Images

Women didn’t think much about their abortions until they were prompted

Women often told interviewers their feelings on their abortions were virtually nonexistent. “The only time I think about my abortion is when you call up and ask about it,” Rocca said many women told her.

The study also measured community stigma and found that 31% of women said people in their community would look down on them if they knew about the abortion. Those women expressed higher levels of post-abortion sadness, suggesting that sociocultural context plays a role in how women feel about their abortions.

The researchers accounted for factors that could have influenced the findings, including if the woman was in a relationship with the man who was involved in the pregnancy, if the women had histories of depression or anxiety, if they intended to get pregnant, if they had social support, and their age, race, and what stage of pregnancy they were in.

Abortion remains a highly stigmatized and divisive procedure in the US

Ever since the Supreme Court decriminalization in 1973, abortion has been a highly stigmatized medical procedure that divides Americans. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 53% of American adults believe abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances,” while 21% think it should be completely illegal.

Every state in America has different laws limiting the types of abortions that can be performed, with 45 states allowing healthcare providers to refuse to give women abortions. There are 27 states that require a waiting period before women can have abortions. And, eight states are required to give women literature on the long-term mental health consequences of having an abortion.

All of these laws are premised on the idea that having an abortion can cause women long-term emotional harm. But this study shows this premise is faulty.

abortion protest
A young woman holds a sign demanding a woman’s right to abortion at a demonstration in Madison, Wisconsin in 1971. 
AP Photo

The study’s findings are consistent with previous research done on women and abortion

In 1987, President Reagan asked the surgeon general at the time, a man named Everett Koop, to prepare a report stating that abortion was psychologically harmful to women.

Koop was morally opposed to abortion, but he was also a scientist. He found that there wasn’t any data to back Reagan’s claim. In 1989 the New York Times reported that Koop told Reagan there was insufficient evidence to create the report and quoted him saying he was concerned the president’s advisors thought “it was a foregone conclusion that the negative health effects of abortion on women were so overwhelming that the evidence would force the reversal of Roe v. Wade.”

Since then, “studies looking at the emotional consequences of abortion show that people are unlikely to experience mental health challenges following an abortion — except in cases when pre-abortion emotional challenges existed or when an intended pregnancy is ended due to medical concerns,” according to a statement Dr. Gillian Dean, the senior medical director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, sent to Insider.

“Evidence shows that being denied a wanted abortion can have greater emotional and physical consequences on a person’s health,” she added.

Despite the current study’s consistencies with past research, Dr. Wendy Chavkin, professor emerita at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, told Insider she doesn’t think it will have much of an effect on policy.

“The people who are so opposed to abortion don’t care about the data,” she said. “It’s like climate change deniers. The data is irrelevant. But for women considering abortions to know that 95% of women didn’t regret it? That’s important.”