Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Post-abortion syndrome: a diagnosis that fails to deliver

prolifesigns.jpgSince its inception in the mid-1980s, ‘post-abortion syndrome’ has become an invaluable arrow in the pro-life quiver, allowing arguments against abortion to be presented from the standpoint of protecting women’s health. Post-abortion syndrome lacks a specific definition, but does not lack for pseudoscientific arguments.

A new paper in Bioethics examines the career of David Reardon, an engineer who — according to news sources — earned his PhD in bioethics from an unaccredited online correspondence school. Reardon has generated more than two dozen articles claiming links between abortion and, among other things, psychiatric admissions, breast cancer and drug use during subsequent pregnancies. Reardon’s work isn’t exactly inconsequential: the US Supreme Court cited his work in its 2007 decision in the case of Gonzales v Carhart, which upheld a ban on partial-birth abortion in the US. Alberto Gonzales, US attorney general at the time, had submitted five of Reardon’s studies as evidence.

The authors of the new Bioethics report have found numerous flaws in Reardon’s methodology. In one instance, he surveyed women belonging to a group called Women Exploited by Abortion to establish that 80% of women regret having abortions. This tactic could probably be used as a textbook illustration of sampling bias.

When a Reardon study linking abortions and depression appeared in the British Medical Journal, a number of criticisms of the study appeared in the subsequent issue. One pedatrics professor wrote that the paper “do[es] not address the stated hypothesis. No results indicate whether prior psychological state is equally predictive of subsequent depression… regardless of whether [women] abort or carry to term”.

Pro-life advocates, for their part, have taken issue with studies that do not match their cause. Priscilla Coleman, one of Reardon’s collaborators, told, criticized a study from the Guttmacher Institute (founded by a former president of Planned Parenthood) that found no link between abortion and depression in teenagers. Coleman said that the sample size of the teenagers who had abortions (69, of a total of 292 pregnant teenage girls) was too small to be of use.

It’s puzzling that the sample size issue would bother Coleman. She had no problem using the exact same data set in one of her own studies, which found a correlation between abortion and marijuana use.

Image by AnyaLogic via Flickr Creative Commons


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    Theresa said:

    Perhaps you should take the time to speak to the countless women who would substantiate post abortion syndrome. All the research in the world can say it does not exist but those of us who have suffered from it say other wise.