Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People have been arguing for decades over how an abortion affects a woman's mental health. NPR's Nancy Shute has the results of a new study.

NANCY SHUTE: Choosing to have an abortion is not an easy decision, and scientists have put a lot of effort into trying to find out whether women are harmed by that choice.�This new study, in the�New England Journal of Medicine,�says they are not.

Robert Blum is an expert in the field of reproductive health, and a professor at Johns Hopkins. He did not work on this study.

Dr. ROBERT BLUM (John Hopkins): This is an extremely, extremely well-done study. There is no evidence to support the notion that abortion predisposes a woman to psychiatric and mental health problems.

SHUTE: The issue has been a political hot potato since the 1980s. Back then, Ronald Reagan ordered Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to write a report saying that abortions are bad for women's health. Koop sidestepped that duty. But the argument continues, with scientists drawn into debate.

Blum, a former president of the Guttmacher Institute, would like to say goodbye to the political buzz words.

Dr. BLUM: There is no post-abortion trauma, post-abortion syndrome, or anything of the like.

SHUTE: In doing the study, Danish researchers looked at the health records of 85,000 women who had first-trimester abortions. Those women were more likely to seek mental health treatment while they were pregnant, but didn't need more help after having the abortion.

That's not surprising, says Nada Stotland. She's a professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College in Chicago. She says that women considering abortion are often struggling with problems with a partner or family members.

Dr. NADA STOTLAND (Rush Medical College): People have abortions, often, under troubled circumstances. You have an abortion because there's a problem.

SHUTE: What makes this study unique is that it looked at women who chose abortion, and also looked at women who chose to have the baby. Stotland says this gives us a much better picture of the stresses of abortion and childbirth.

Dr. STOTLAND: Above all, it really fairly, fairly contrasts the outcomes of abortion with the outcomes of pregnancy.

SHUTE: The women who decided to have babies were doing great while they were pregnant. For some, that picture changed when they became mothers. Trine Munk-Olsen is the scientist who led the Danish study. She says they saw a sudden spike in new mothers who needed help with severe mental disorders.

Ms. TRINE MUNK-OLSEN: Including psychosis and, for example, depression after delivery.

SHUTE: That's true not just in Denmark. As many as 25 percent of new mothers experience postpartum depression. It's a significant public health problem. Robert Blum, at Hopkins, says that new mothers need much more help.

Dr. BLUM: We need to acknowledge and provide mental health support for a significant number of women who experience post-partum depression.

SHUTE: The message, then, is that pregnancy poses mental health challenges for women, whether they choose to give birth or choose to have an abortion. Stotland says that's why women need friends and family to stand by them.

Dr. STOTLAND: They might not agree with your decision; that's not the same thing. But they have to support you. They have to know that no one else can make this decision but you.

SHUTE: And that even though those choices are intensely personal, the debate will no doubt remain political.

Nancy Shute, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.