States across the country are tightening regulations on abortion providers in the name of protecting women's health. But a long-term study of women who sought abortions has found that those who ended their pregnancies reported slightly better health than their counterparts who requested the procedure but were denied.
The findings, reported Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, suggests that a woman's access to abortion may influence her health over time -- providing new fodder for the highly charged debate.
"Having an abortion is not necessarily dangerous or harmful to women, but being denied one may be," said study leader Lauren Ralph, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. "The argument that abortion is harmful to women, or that restricting access is somehow necessary to protect women's health, is not supported by our data."
An editorial that accompanied the study reminds doctors that for women, "birth always carries more risks" of illness and death compared with abortion. "The availability of safe, legal abortion is an issue for all health care providers."
The new report is part of the Turnaway Study, an initiative to explore whether there are differences in the health and well-being of women who receive an abortion in the first or second trimester and women who were denied an abortion and carried their pregnancy to term.
Researchers from UCSF's Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health enrolled 1,132 women who sought abortions at one of 30 facilities in the United States between 2008 and 2010. Most of them completed a baseline interview about a week after visiting a clinic, and the study team checked in with them periodically over five years to ask about an array of health conditions, including asthma, high blood pressure, joint pain and diabetes.
At the end of the study, there were no indications that women who had abortions were in worse health than woman who gave birth. And when differences emerged, they favored the women who ended their pregnancies.
For instance, among women who had a first-trimester abortion, the odds of rating their own health as "fair" or "poor" declined over the course of the study. The opposite was true for women who were denied an abortion.
In their final interview, 20% of women who had a first-trimester abortion rated their health as "fair" or "poor," as did 21% of women who had a second-trimester abortion. Among women who were denied an abortion, 27% said their health was "fair" or "poor," according to the study.
Compared with a woman who had a first-trimester abortion, a woman who carried her unwanted pregnancy to term was 29% more likely to suffer chronic headaches or migraines. And compared with a woman who had a second-trimester abortion, a woman who gave birth was 45% more likely to report an increase in chronic joint pain over the course of the study.