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Why abortion bans need exceptions for patient mental health issues

Mental health experts say omitting psychiatric crises from the list of exceptions to abortion bans could cost people their lives.

By Rebekah Sager - April 20, 2023
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Abortion rights activists outside Supreme Court
Abortion rights activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 2023. Hundreds gathered on Capitol Hill as part of a nationwide day of protest, organized by women's rights advocates and health care providers, opposing legal efforts to restrict the abortion drug mifepristone. (Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

While exceptions to bans on abortion vary from state to state and include risk to the health or the life of the pregnant person and pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, many state bans have no exception in the event of a mental health crisis. But without this exception, pregnant people struggling with mental health issues could face dire outcomes.

Kara Zivin, a professor of health management, psychiatry, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press, “People often try to treat mental health as distinct from physical health as if your brain is somehow removed from the rest of your body.”

A Texas law banning almost all abortions in the state went into effect in August 2022. The law, introduced as H.B. 1280, includes an exemption in cases in which “the pregnant female on whom the abortion is performed, induced, or attempted has a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that places the female at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless the abortion is performed or induced.” The law does not explicitly mention mental health.

In fact, the bill specifically states that it’s unlawful for a doctor to perform an abortion even in cases in which they “knew the risk of death or a substantial

impairment of a major bodily function … arose from a claim or diagnosis that the female would engage in conduct that might result in the female’s death or in substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

A report called “Suicide and Maternal Mortality,” published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports in 2022, found that suicide is a leading cause of death for pregnant people in the perinatal period, meaning pregnancy and the first year that follows it.

Florida’s S.B. 300 prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. It includes 15-week exceptions in cases in which a pregnant person’s life is at risk, cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or in cases of human trafficking, but not in cases of mental health issues.

The Turnaway Study, a longitudinal study on the effects of unwanted pregnancy on patients’ lives conducted by the Advancing Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California San Francisco, found that although obtaining an abortion does not cause significant mental health issues, not having access to one can.

Dr. Debra Mollen, a professor of counseling psychology at Texas Woman’s University an abortion and a reproductive health researcher, told the American Psychological Association: “It’s important for folks to know that abortion does not cause mental health problems. … What’s harmful are the stigma surrounding abortion, the lack of knowledge about it, and the lack of access.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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