Last year, Exhale made our case before the National Institutes of Health about the importance of research to promote the wellbeing of women who have abortions. An often overlooked field of study that is incredibly difficult to fund, the wellbeing of women who have had abortions is generally not at the top of many research agenda’s, let alone on the agenda at all. Enter the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) Program at the University of California, San Francisco led by Tracy Weitz. Despite the great obstacles they face to find funding on this topic, they have taken the initiative to launch new investigations into the social and emotional aspects of abortion.
Exhale is honored to give a “Pro-Voice High-Five” to ANSIRH for New Research. I hope you enjoy my interview with Kate Cockrill, the Project Director for Abortion and Stigma.
Kate Cockrill and Tracy Weitz
Aspen: What is ANSIRH?
Kate: ANSIRH is a research and policy program of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health located at the University of California, San Francisco. Our mission is to ensure that abortion care and policy are grounded in evidence. ANSIRH’s multi-disciplinary team includes clinicians, researchers and scholars in the fields of sociology, demography, anthropology, medicine, nursing, public health, and law. ANSIRH’s ongoing projects investigate the individual consequences of unintended pregnancy for women, evaluate the performance of abortion by advanced practice clinicians, document the effects of abortion policy and regulation and explore the social and emotional aspects of abortion.
Aspen: Tell me what led you to study the social and emotional aspects of abortion.
Kate: Even though abortion is considered a controversial social issue, we believe that the social and emotional aspects of abortion are poorly understood. We began our research by examining the policy attitudes of women who have abortions. We found that women having abortions supported certain abortion restrictions. This was a surprising finding until we dug deeper. When we examined women’s reasons for supporting abortion restrictions we found that they believed that the restrictions supported women’s decision-making and protected them as consumers of health care. These findings led us to believe that we need a more nuanced understanding of how people see and experience abortion.
Based on the public health research over the last century, we believe that it is imperative that abortion stay legal and accessible. However, our research suggests that there are many other important questions about abortion (the social meaning of abortion, the emotional experience of abortion, the experience of abortion in intimate relationships) that are still unanswered. We seek to understand abortion from multiple perspectives and in doing so we hope to inform health care, policy, and the public conversation on abortion.
Aspen: What kind of projects are you working on right now?
Kate: We are working on several projects that are related to the social and emotional aspects of abortion. First we are developing a scale to measure stigma among women who have abortions in the United States. By developing such a scale we will be able to examine the relationship between stigma and post-abortion coping and psychological wellbeing. We will also be able to measure the amount of stigma that women experience, perceive and anticipate around their abortions.
We began a project in 2008 to explore abortion and feelings of regret. In this project, we recruited women who called talklines and asked them to share their stories and the emotional experience of having an abortion. We are currently analyzing the data from this study. Preliminary findings suggest that some abortions are more emotionally difficult than others. Factors that contribute to a difficult abortion are a challenging relationship or unsupportive partner, abortion stigma, and feelings of loss around the pregnancy.
Research on abortion and mental health has primarily focused on the association between first trimester abortion and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Research about later abortion and mental health has focused on women who are having abortions due to diagnosed health conditions. We are expanding the field in two ways. First we are investigating women’s emotional responses to abortion in addition to mental health responses. In addition, we are conducting research about the relationship between later abortion (for all indications) and women’s mental health.
Aspen: Moving forward, what are the top three questions you believe need to be investigated – to help us better understand the social and emotional aspects of abortion?
Kate: We are interested in several research questions related to abortion attitudes:
- How do women perceive, internalize and experience stigma around abortion and how does it affect their social and emotional wellbeing?
- Are women good predictors of community attitudes toward abortion?
- Research into attitudes on other social issues (eg. homosexuality) suggests that people’s attitudes toward policy are not exact predictors of their attitudes toward individuals. We want to know if attitudes toward the act of abortion, as predicted by polls which examine policy beliefs, predict American’s attitudes toward women who have abortions.
- What is the relationship between stigma and pregnancy decision making? What is the effect of abortion stigma?
- Are there other stigmas that manifest at the time of an unplanned pregnancy (eg. teen motherhood, unwed motherhood, adoption), and how do these stigmas affect women’s decision and women’s wellbeing after their decision?
We know that stigma, the status of intimate relationships, pre-abortion mental health and several other factors play a role in women’s ability to cope with and experience wellbeing after an abortion. Focusing on women who are at risk for post-abortion stress, we would like to see which programs, interventions, on-line experiences, and therapeutic practices are successful for supporting improving women’s wellbeing post abortion.
Aspen: What kind of impact do you hope will result from your research?
Kate: While abortion is a normal part of women’s reproductive experiences, it is also an experience that has social and emotional significance for many women. Experiences with abortion vary widely, but we believe that all women deserve social and emotional wellbeing. We hope that our research will contribute to women’s wellbeing throughout their reproductive years. We also hope hat are our research shines a light on the more personal meanings and significance of abortion for women.
Thank you ANSIRH for your New Research!