Overturning Roe v. Wade increased mental health distress in women, study finds

In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade, thus ending the federal enshrinement of abortion rights in America. Immediately after being overturned, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) warned that such a historic overturn would likely take a toll on women’s mental health. 

“By dismantling nearly 50 years of legal precedent, the Court has jeopardized the physical and mental health of millions of American women and undermined the privacy of the physician-patient relationship,” the APA said in a statement. “This move will disproportionately impact our most vulnerable populations, such as communities of color, people living in rural areas and those with low incomes who may have to travel long distances to receive abortions.”

Sadly, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has confirmed this warning has now become a reality. Researchers of the study looked at mental health data from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey between January 26, 2022, to September 28, 2022. The researchers found that, for women between the ages of 18 and 44 who lived in states where abortion rights were affected by the court ruling, there was a statistically significant increase in mental distress after the decision — specifically, an increase of 10 percent.

The authors of the study note that the negative mental health effects of restricted abortion access may extend beyond those who are directly denied abortions. 

“When we don’t have abortion as an option, it means that for a segment of the population, they lose out on that future autonomy,” Bindeman said. “A choice has been made for them versus them making an active choice for themselves.”

“Associations of abortion restrictions and increased travel distance to the nearest abortion clinic with prevalence of mental distress for female individuals of reproductive age,” the researchers stated. “Our study suggests that mental health outcomes associated with restricting abortion access may extend broadly, beyond female individuals who have been denied an abortion to female individuals of reproductive age.” Intellectually, this correlation makes sense: knowing that one’s rights have been restricted, or fearing that one cannot control the outcome of one’s pregnancy, is bound to induce anxiety.

Indeed, this isn’t the first study to correlate mental health distress with abortion restrictions. Earlier this year, a separate study published in JAMA Psychiatry found a connection between an increased rate of suicide and more abortion restrictions in a given jurisdiction. Specifically, researchers stated that they believed abortion restrictions like Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws played a role in some suicide deaths among younger women between 1974 and 2016. 

Reproductive psychologist Julie Bindeman told Salon she was not surprised by the results of the most recent JAMA study, as she notes that restricting abortion rights can affect women’s mental health in multifarious ways. For one, the act of removing a choice from someone is apt to cause distress. 

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“Abortion means that people who have the ability to become pregnant are able then to control their destiny — so when we don’t have abortion as an option, it means that for a segment of the population, they lose out on that future autonomy,” Bindeman said. “A choice has been made for them versus them making an active choice for themselves.” Bindeman pointed to situations where women on birth control still get pregnant. 

As a reproductive psychologist, Bindeman says she sees clients every day who have mental health challenges related to their reproductive rights. Despite living in Maryland where the right to abortion care is protected, there is still fear and anxiety around how politicians making reproductive decisions can have “mental health ramifications.”

Even in cases where someone is intentionally trying to become pregnant, some states’ new laws restrict access to assisted reproductive technologies based on lawmaker’s interpretation of what constitutes “life” or “abortion.” Some states, Bindeman says, “make those choices for them — such as not including assisted reproductive technology as part of mandated packages of what insurance must offer in the state.” As Salon previously reported, the broad language in some states’ abortion banning laws seems to outlaw fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization too. 

Bindeman continued: “This is something that reproductive psychologists see every single day in terms of how when choices are made for others, be it at the state level or at the federal level.”

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