Does abortion cause women to be more likely to physically abuse their children? That’s how research by Bowling Green State University professor Priscilla Coleman is being portrayed by conservative news outlets like The Washington Times, but the claim largely falls apart on close examination.
Coleman studied 518 low-income women in Baltimore that included 118 abusive mothers, 119 neglecting mothers, and 281 mothers with no history of either neglect or abuse. Out of that sample, Coleman found that women who had experienced any sort of pregnancy loss, such as an abortion of miscarriage, had a 99 percent higher risk of abusing their children than those who had never had an abortion according to the Washington Times.
The Times quotes Coleman as saying,
There’s a good number of women who have abortions, experience it as a … loss with bereavement, some guilt — guilt is a pretty common experience with abortion. Those kind of effects could cause anger, and we know parents who abuse their children often have anger-control issues.
But does this really tell us that having an abortion is linked to physical abuse of children? Consider another study that Coleman did that used just this sort of methodology.
For a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Coleman examined 56,000 women who were part of California’s Medicaid program. Of that sample, 15,000 had had abortions, compared to 41,000 who had not. Coleman then tracked admissions for psychiatric illnesses by the women in the year after they either had an abortion or gave birth.
Only 0.7 percent of women who gave birth were hospitalized for psychiatric problems, while 1.5 percent of the women who had an abortion were hospitalized for psychiatric problems in the following year. Moreover, women who had abortions had a 160 percent higher risk of being admitted to a hospital for psychiatric women in the first 90 days after having an abortion than did women who gave birth in the first 90 days afterward. After four years, however, the women who had abortions only had a 50 percent higher risk of hospitalization for a psychiatric condition as compared to the women who gave birth.
But as even Coleman herself acknowledged, what these studies cannot tell us is if women who have abortions are more likely to be abusive or suffer psychiatric problems or if women more likely to be abusive or suffer psychiatric problems are also simply more likely to have abortions. As Arizona State University professor Nancy Russo told the Toledo Blade,
It is just as plausible that the direction of causality is reversed . . . that psychiatric problems cause women who become pregnant to feel less capable of raising a child and to terminate their pregnancy.
Coleman agrees, telling the Toledo Blade,
There are a whole lot of factors that lead up to the decision [to have an abortion], a whole lot of lifestyle circumstances, and that can be predictive. So when you look at the negative effects, what are you really looking at? is it a product of their choice? Or are they experiencing depression or whatever because they were battered? Or because of the abortion? It’s hard to tease apart.
All of these comments apply equally to the claim about abortion and child abuse being linked. It could be that women who are more likely to abuse children are also more likely to have abortions.
After decades of research, evaluationg abortion’s effect still difficult. Jenni Laidman, Toledo Blade, January 22, 2004.
Abuse risk linked to abortion. Shepherd Pittman, The Washington Times, November 3, 2005.
Abortion Linked to Abuse. Josh Montez, Family.Org, December 30, 2005.