by Nancy Felipe Russo, Ph.D. & Amy J. Dabul, Ph.D.

Social scientists have known for years that the availability of legal abortion is not associated with long-term psychological distress in women who use it. An eight-year longitudinal study involving nearly 5,300 young women published in 1992 found that the best predictor of well-being in women over the course of the study was their well-being at the start of the study, not their income level, job status, level of education or martial status or -- quite specifically -- whether they had had an abortion. Now a new follow-up study, published in the current edition of the American Psychological Association's (APA) journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice finds that the same conclusion still applies regardless of religious or racial differences.

The study, by psychologists Nancy Felipe Russo, Ph.D., of Arizona State University and Amy J. Dabul, Ph.D., of Phoenix College, is further analysis of data gathered from a national sample of 5,295 women aged 14 to 24 (in 1979) who were interviewed annually from 1979 to 1987. The women's well-being was assessed using a reliable and valid measure of self-esteem in 1980 and again in 1987. This time, in addition to looking at variables such as income, employment and education, the researchers looked at race and religious beliefs and practices to see if they had any effect on women's well-being after having had an abortion.

They found that, overall, White women and Black women did not differ statistically on measures of self-esteem. Approximately the same proportion of Black women and White women reported having had an abortion (14.6% and 14.9% respectively), but Black women had more abortions than White women and Black women who had abortions were more likely than White women to be mothers (86% vs 57%). Nonetheless, having had an abortion (or more than one) had no relation with self-esteem in either group: "For both Black women and White women, prior self-esteem was the biggest predictor of subsequent self-esteem," the authors note. The same held true when they compared Black and White women who reported a religious affiliation and high or low church attendance with those who were not religious.

Since the type of religion to which women who had an abortion belonged also did not make a difference in their post-abortion well-being, the researchers focused specifically on Catholic versus non-Catholic women, given that the Catholic Church "has a consistent antiabortion position that is vigorously promoted."

Their findings in this analysis were more complex: nonCatholic women who had high church attendance and one abortion had the highest self-esteem; non-Catholic women who had low church attendance and repeat abortions had the lowest self-esteem. But at the same time, high-church-attendance non-Catholic women with one abortion had significantly higher self-esteem than did low-church attendance Catholic women with no abortions. "Although highly religious Catholic women were slightly more likely to exhibit postabortion psychological distress than other women," the researchers say, "this fact is explained by lower pre-existing well-being."

Given these findings, the researchers ask: "Do highly distressed women who have had an abortion exist?" And, they answer: "Yes. But their distress is likely to be rooted in events and conditions that existed before they became pregnant. Legal abortion per se does not increase a woman's risk of negative wellbeing."

Reference: The Relationship of Abortion to Well-Being: Do Race and Religion Make a Difference? by Nancy Felipe Russo, Ph.D and Amy J. Dabul, Ph.D., in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 28, No. 1.


The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.


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