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‘Misleading’ to say abortion does or does not help suicidal women

A New Zealand based psychologist, whose work has been quoted extensively by pro-life groups, has raised issues with the definitive conclusions those groups have drawn from his work.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

A NEW ZEALAND professor whose work has been used by pro-life groups to contend that abortion holds no mental health benefits for pregnant women has said that his research is too limited to make any definitive conclusions.

Professor David Fergusson from the Department of Psychological Medicine of the University of Otago in Christchurch told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that while his research showed there was no evidence that abortion mitigated mental health risks in women it was based upon “limited research”.

Fergusson has been quoted extensively by pro-life groups in Ireland including the Pro Life Campaign (PLC) and Youth Defence, with Caroline Simons, from the PLC, using his work in her submission to the Oireachtas Health Committee which held hearings on abortion law in January

Simons told the committee: “The testimony that we have heard over the past two days has completely demolished any argument that suicidality can be addressed by abortion, even during crisis pregnancy.

“Professor David Fergusson, in the British Journal of Psychiatry, states, ‘There is no evidence … that suggests that abortion reduces the mental health risks of unwanted or mistimed pregnancy.’”

Speaking on RTÉ radio, Fergusson said: “The research is not particularly good and any conclusion drawn should be made very cautiously.”

He said that when researchers compared women who had had an abortion with equivalent groups of women who had unwanted pregnancies or intended pregnancies and gave birth, “the women having abortions had slightly higher rates of mental health problems.”

Specifically asked if his research shows that abortion is not a treatment for a woman thinking of committing suicide, Fergusson said: “It does not show that to be so because we haven’t compared women who seek abortion [and] their risk of suicide subsequently.

“It does distinctly raise the possibility that the claim may not be sound but it doesn’t test that claim directly and until the claim is tested directly I think it would be misleading for anyone to state emphatically that abortion does or does not help suicidal women.

“So I am really taking a position of sitting on the fence here, I am saying if the research hasn’t been done, we really need to adopt a neutral position on this argument until better information is available.”

He said it would be wrong to generalise a pregnant woman who presents with “intense suicidal thoughts” based on the research that he has carried out and said the abortion debate is one based on “subtle shades of grey which gets rendered in the public as a black and white argument”.

“That research which has been done hasn’t been done particularly well and following that it has been reconstructed in the battle between the pro-life and pro-choice groups in to black and white debates where it’s much more subtle,” he said.

Fergusson went on to say: “The best position, I would say, is: I don’t know whether this is true or not. I have a suspicion it may not be true but I would not be dogmatic about it.”

The New Zealand-based professor described himself as a “pro-choice atheist” and said he was of the view that the State should not be legislating for what he described as a “divided moral issue”.

He added: “If I were to give advice – and I realise in Ireland this is not particularly going to be well received – I would say the morality of this debate needs to be decided by the women and their physicians involved rather than by the State.”

On the same programme, Mater Hospital consultant psychiatrist Patricia Casey said: “There is no evidence to back up what the government is doing even though the government is proceeding as if there was evidence. There isn’t any evidence.”

Read: FG and Labour at odds over possibility of amending abortion bill

Revealed: The three independent TDs voting against abortion proposals

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