The Turnaway Study: An Evidence-Based Argument for Reproductive Rights
What happens to pregnant women who are turned away from abortion clinics?
In 2007, Dr. Diana Green Foster, a researcher and professor at the University of California, set out to find answers. Along with a team of scientific researchers, doctors, psychologists and other experts, Dr. Foster launched a ten-year longitudinal study to examine the life outcomes of women who were denied abortions. Known as “The Turnaway Study,” this research effort provides clear evidence that access to abortion benefits women’s socioeconomic well-being and mental health.
Over the course of a decade, this study followed the lives of more than 1,000 women who sought abortions. Within this sample size, some women had abortions, while other women were “turned away” from clinics. Most of the women in the latter group were denied abortions because they were later in their pregnancy and past the clinic’s gestational age limit for abortion. Data was collected from more than 30 abortion clinics across the United States. Dr. Foster aimed to examine the social, economic and physical consequences that both groups of women faced. The study concluded that women who underwent abortions experienced equal or better life outcomes compared to women who carried unwanted pregnancies to term.
For decades, conservatives and far-right Republicans have made the ironic argument that abortion restrictions and bans protect women. Without any evidence to support their claims, many Republican politicians and organizations continue to portray abortion as a traumatic and dangerous procedure that has a profound psychological and physical impact on women. The Turnaway study provides compelling evidence that these claims are not only baseless, but in fact disproved.
Data collected in the Turnaway Study reveals that women who had abortions for unwanted pregnancies experienced significantly lower rates of poverty and less need to rely on public assistance over the next five years. their abortion. In interviews conducted after five years, many women expressed positive attitudes towards planning a future pregnancy. Additionally, these women generally experienced more success in maintaining healthy romantic relationships, increased ability to care for their existing children, and were much more likely to set and achieve personal and professional goals.
Comparatively, the life outcomes of women who requested and were denied abortion differed in several respects. For example, women who carried unwanted pregnancies to term were much more likely to remain in contact with violent intimate partners, thus continuing to be exposed to violence. In general, women who were denied an abortion faced more economic hardship. Women who were refused clinics experienced increased household poverty in the years following the refusal. Not only did these women find it harder to cover basic expenses and stay out of debt, but they were also more likely to be evicted from their homes, file for bankruptcy and become unemployed. Notably, it took an average of four additional years for women who were denied abortions to achieve employment levels equal to those of women who had abortions. Over time, the economic differences between the two groups of women have become increasingly minimal. However, poverty, even for short periods, has profoundly negative ramifications for overall life outcomes.
The study found no clear evidence that abortion was detrimental to women’s mental health. Women who had abortions did not have an increased risk of depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. They were also not at increased risk of being diagnosed with PTSD or having suicidal ideation. Interestingly, however, women who requested abortions and were refused experienced high levels of anxiety and struggled to maintain self-esteem within six months of being refused an abortion. That being said, the study found no long-term difference in mental health outcomes between the two groups.
The women in the Turnaway study sought abortion for a myriad of personal, medical and financial reasons. The most frequently cited reason for seeking an abortion was financial constraints; many women in this study feared they would not have the financial resources to support a child. Other common reasons why women chose to terminate their pregnancies were the lack of a suitable co-parent, as well as the inappropriate timing of pregnancy.
Overall, almost all of the women in the Turnaway Study who had abortions had high levels of certainty in their decision, both before and after the medical procedure. In fact, 95% of women in the study who had abortions said they made the right decision for themselves. Additionally, the vast majority of women who have had an abortion reported no substantial difficulty coping with their decision.
Contrary to how it is often portrayed in far-right media, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. Carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth pose far greater health risks than legally terminating a pregnancy. While no one in the study died from an abortion, two of the women who were denied abortions died during childbirth, far more than the U.S. maternal mortality rate predicted.
The Turnaway Study provides a scientific and evidence-based argument for why women’s socio-economic, mental and physical well-being depends on reproductive autonomy and access to abortion. Moreover, the results of this study invalidate all arguments that attempt to establish that abortion harms women. In fact, the study highlights the irony of the false claim that banning abortion protects women.
As the findings of this study confirm, it is access to abortion, not restriction, that protects women’s well-being. Access to abortion allows women to take control of their bodies. However, as the Turnaway study demonstrates, the implications of access to abortion go far beyond that. When women gain autonomy over their reproductive health, they also gain autonomy over their economic security, personal goals, romantic relationships, and future. Women’s equality cannot exist in the absence of safe, legal and accessible abortion.
Nora Weiss, Government Relations Intern
The Turnaway Study – Ten Years, A Thousand Women and the Consequences of Having – or Being Denied – an Abortion, by Diana Greene Foster, Ph.D (2020), Scribner.
The Turnaway Study, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, University of California, San Francisco, The Turnaway Study | ANSIRH