Does Restricted Access to Abortion Truly Increase the Number of Suicides of Women ?


According to a study published in December 2022 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, “the rate of suicides of women of childbearing age increases significantly when access to abortion is restricted or abolished”. In an analysis memorandum, Alliance VITA has taken a close look at this study in order to check the veracity of this allegation.

The question of links between mental health and the sexual and reproductive health of women has already been covered by numerous studies, some of which have established a link between psychiatric pathologies and abortion.

From the outset, the authors adopt a different approach by aiming their research on an extension of the “Turnaway” study according to which women excluded from abortion due to exceeding the time limit, would be more stressed and more anxious than women who managed to abort. They even go further by questioning the existence of a link between the legislations of the different American States concerning abortion or access to sexual and reproductive health and the suicide rates of women in the United States.

On the basis of the 1974 to 2016 period, the authors thus analysed the suicide rates before and after the introduction of regulations aimed at abortion clinics, and noted “a yearly suicide rate 5.81 % higher than during the years preceding the introduction of these rules”.

In the United States, the authorised time limit for abortions varies markedly from one State to another and the clinics which perform abortions must comply with three types of regulations which vary according to the State.

The researchers at the University of Pennsylvania elaborated a model using data from different States between 1974 and 2016 and covering the entire population of adult women during that period.

They created an indicator ranging from 0 (no regulations) to 3 (including all 3 types of regulations) and drew up a map of the States according to the degree of the standards. “We have elaborated three indices which measure the access to reproductive treatments whilst examining the application of the legislation at the State level”, as explained by M. Zandbergl, one of the authors of the study. “Each time that a State has applied a law governing reproductive treatments, we have included it within the index”. Then, for the women of childbearing age, they analysed the suicide rate before and after the introduction of the laws, by comparing these figures with the overall trends relative to suicide and the rates observed in the American States where such restrictions do not exist.

The analysis conducted by Alliance VITA both concerning the method used by the researchers as well as the data, revealed the fundamental limits of this study.

  • The model elaborated was found to be ultra-simplistic. The variables on which it is based are questionable since the suicide rate is interpreted with reference to highly general indices with no direct link to suicide. The experts on this subject agree however on the fact that the factors leading up to suicide are both numerous and complex.
  • The results of the model are unreliable. Indeed, the 5.81% yearly increase of the suicide rate is the result of a model which includes, like all models, a margin of error in the estimation. Indeed, this estimation is in fact between 1.09% and 10.94% if one is aiming for a 95% result (statistically speaking an interval of confidence of 95%). The target figure is therefore afflicted with a high degree of uncertainty. Moreover, the researchers state that when they “conducted the same analysis for all women between the ages of 45 and 64 years between 1974 and 2016 they found no effect”. However, contrary to that statement, the application of the model to that test category was not without effect, as is the case when the model is applied to the category of women of childbearing age, victims of road accidents.
  • The descriptive data show that these regulations which restrict abortions have no link with the suicide rate nor with the abortion rate. 

The press release accompanying the publication of the study itself puts the results into perspective: “Although the results do not prove that restriction to the access to abortion has led to an increase in the suicide rates, the researchers claim that the analytical approach is one of the most rigorous methods for enabling causal inference.”

Suicide and abortion are very serious subjects which demand the greatest rigour and deserve proper studies. The high suicide rates in the United States and in France demand consideration of the factors contributing to the carrying out of suicides. More generally, mental health is enjoying renewed attention. In October 2021, the WHO deplored the lack of means allocated to this question. In that context, it is important to study the impact of resorting to abortion on the mental health of women.

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