Expert on abortion and mental health says Turnaway Study is 'flawed'

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A developmental psychologist told CNA that a study claiming most women do not regret their abortions is flawed, and does not accurately represent how women experience abortion.

The study, known as the Turnaway Study, is the subject of a new book titled "The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having-or Being Denied-an Abortion," by Diana Greene Foster, PhD. The book was published on June 2.

The Turnaway Study originated from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), which is based at the University of California, San Francisco. ANSIRH conducts scientific research domestically and abroad on topics related to reproductive health.

The study describes itself as "the first study to rigorously examine the effects of receiving versus being denied a wanted abortion on women and their children," and studied women from 30 abortion clinics nationwide who either were denied an abortion because they were past the gestational limit; were initially denied an abortion as they were past the gestational limit but later received one; and those who received a first-trimester abortion.

In January 2020, the authors of the study reported that approximately 95% of women who had abortions did not regret their decision five years after the fact, even if they did initially experience regret.

"Even if they had difficulty making the decision initially, or if they felt their community would not approve, our research shows that the overwhelming majority of women who obtain abortions continue to believe it was the right decision," said Corinne Rocca, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at the USCF's Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. Rocca is the first author of the Turnaway Study.

"This debunks the idea that most women suffer emotionally from having an abortion," Rocca claimed.

But Dr. Priscilla Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University disagrees with the study's conclusion and methodology. She told CNA she believes the methodology of the study is "highly problematic."
"In any other field, you wouldn't be able to publish this stuff," Coleman told CNA. She said the "politically correct" conclusions found by the Turnaway Study are why it has received widespread acceptance. 

Coleman has testified as an expert on abortion and mental health in state and civil cases involving abortion, in state legislative hearings on abortion, before a U.S. Congressional committee, and to legislatures in the United Kingdom and Australia.

According to Coleman, the composition of the sample studied is one of the biggest flaws associated with the data.

"Initially, only 37.5% of the women who were invited to participate agreed to participate," said Coleman. "And then, across the study period, 42% dropped out. So the final results are based on 22% of eligible women."

Coleman was also critical of other research methods used by the authors of the Turnaway Study. As the legal limit to terminate a pregnancy varies from state-to-state, the study may have put two women who had abortions at considerably different points in their pregnancies together in the same research group. She said that many of these delineations were not made clear by the study's authors, which further complicates their conclusions.

The sociologist also believes that the conclusions drawn by the Turnaway Study do not mesh up with other academic research on the topic.

"Most of the literature--the peer-reviewed scientific articles--indicate that a significant percentage of women are at risk for regretting their abortions," she told CNA.

"Not every woman's going to regret her abortion or have mental health problems, but there's an increased risk. And so that's something women have a right to know about prior to undergoing the procedure."

Coleman explained that while the Turnaway Study has produced many academic articles about its results, they do not show the full picture of the risks of abortion, and that women deserve to know more about the risks that accompany the procedure.

Women "have a right to know what the broader scientific literature indicates," said Coleman.

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"There are hundreds of studies and if (women seeking abortions) are only given the results of the Turnaway Study, they're not being informed, they're being misled. And that's problematic in my view."

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