Agenda-Driven Science

by Susan E. Wills

August 22, 2008

When scientists no longer pursue truth for its own sake, but use the tools of science to give credibility to a political agenda, no good can come of it. A public policy based on falsehoods will be seriously flawed, and science itself will be undermined.

A case in point is the August 15 report of the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion. Despite scores of credible, wide-scale studies showing abortion-related mental health problems, the task force concluded that they "reviewed no evidence sufficient to support the claim that the observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors." Naturally, the media reported this oddly nuanced, narrow conclusion as "there's no evidence that abortion causes mental health problems."

To get to such a conclusion, the task force begins by ignoring the nature of abortion—the violent slaying of a child—as if such an act has no inherent mental health implications. Instead, they see abortion as just one of several options for coping with an "unwanted" pregnancy. The key to abortion-related mental health, in their view, is the "unwantedness" of the child, as if this were an immutable property inherent in human DNA.

Various pretexts are used to undercut or exclude studies demonstrating abortion-related mental health problems, including about 40 foreign studies automatically excluded on the alleged ground of "cultural variation." In one, Soderberg et al. (1998) interviewed 854 Swedish women in depth, one year after abortion. Summarizing this study, Priscilla Coleman, Ph.D. states: "50-60% of the women experienced emotional distress of some form, (e.g., mild depression, remorse or guilt feelings, a tendency to cry without cause, discomfort upon meeting children), 16.1% experienced serious emotional distress (needing help from a psychiatrist or psychologist or being unable to work because of depression), and 76.1% said that they would not consider abortion again."

A New Zealand study by Fergusson et al. (2006) evaluated a cohort of about 500 girls who underwent periodic mental health assessments to age 25. Abortion was found to increase the risk of every harmful effect studied. Among girls who had abortions between ages 15 and 18, for example, 78% had major depression, compared to 35% who had been pregnant but did not abort, and 31% who had not been pregnant. The APA task force nit-picked the study for "small" sample size, and for not controlling for the "wantedness" of the pregnancies.

A study by Mika Gissler et al. in Finland examined suicide and other causes of death in the year following birth, abortion or miscarriage. The suicide rate among women who aborted in the previous 12 months was nearly six times higher than among women who had given birth (34.7 versus 5.9 suicides per 100,000 women). Post-abortion women had higher mortality from all causes (accidents, violence, and physical health) than those who'd given birth. The task force discounted these tragic findings by arguing that the miniscule risk of death directly "caused" by the abortion procedure is smaller than the miniscule risk of death from full-term labor/delivery (due to complications of pregnancy in mothers who already had health problems).

The APA's biased report should have no place in science or public policy. It may fool some people unfamiliar with abortion aftermath, but not the tens of thousands who've suffered after abortion, who've counseled them, or simply read their heartbreaking stories on the Internet.

Susan Wills is assistant director for education & outreach, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.  To learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities, go to