Abortion and Self-Esteem

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A Study of Deception: Feminist Researcher “Proves” Abortion Increases Self-Esteem

– David C. Reardon

Pro-abortion researchers will go to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to conceal the psychological harm caused by abortion. A recent example of this is found in a highly publicized study by Nancy Felipe Russo, the director of women’s studies at Arizona State University.[1]

According to Russo’s press conference statements and published conclusions, abortion has no psychological health risks. She has reached this “scientific” conclusion on the basis of her new study which “proves” that abortion has no negative impact on a woman’s “well-being.” Indeed, she asserts, her research shows that abortion is actually correlated to higher self-esteem. She stops just short of claiming that every woman would be better off if she had one.

The following analysis explains some particular faults of Russo’s study which are typical of the pro-abortion researchers’ tendency to conceal relevant evidence and distort the interpretation of data to the benefit of their “cause.”

What is Significant?

Russo’s study is based on data extracted from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY). She cross-correlated reproductive histories for approximately 5300 women against their responses to a ten question Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The study’s key finding was that the mean self-esteem score of the 773 women who reported having abortions was 33.3 compared to the mean score of 33.[2] for the entire population of 5,295 women. Without the slightest blush, Russo describes this slight difference (.1 on a scale of 40) as evidence that women “who had 1 abortion…had significantly higher self-esteem than other women (r=.03, p <.05).”

But what do these numbers really mean? Specifically, the probability of error, p, indicates that given this sample size, there is only a 5% chance or less that another study identical to this one would find no correlation between abortion and self-esteem scores, thus the apparent correlation is called “significant.” The correlation coefficient, r, is a number which ranges from -1 (perfect negative correlation) to 0 (no correlation), to 1 (perfect positive correlation). An r=.03, which is very close to zero, indicates that the positive correlation is only very slight.

In short, these numbers tell us that abortion is only slightly correlated with a slightly higher self-esteem score, but because this slight difference was found in a large sample size, an identical study would be 95% likely to find similar results.

I have given this long explanation of the meaning of these statistics to show how easily researchers can skew their findings by wording their conclusions in ways which non-statisticians will misinterpret. Specifically, Russo states that women who have had only one abortion have “significantly higher self-esteem than other women.” What the statistics really say is that it is significantly likely that a similar survey would find slightly higher Rosenberg Self-Esteem scores among women who admit have having one abortion. It is not the level of self-esteem which is significantly higher, as Russo repeatedly implies. Statistical significance attaches, in this case, chiefly to the size of the sample not to individual self-esteem scores. Whether a .1 higher self-esteem score is itself significant is a separate question which will be dealt with shortly.

But What of the Missing Women?

Statistics mean nothing if the data is inaccurate. In this case, it is apparent to anyone who bothers to check that, with regard to abortion reporting, the NLSY sample is inaccurate.

On the face of Russo’s own report, only 773 (14.6%) of the 5,295 women have had abortions. Yet national abortion rates are far higher. Based on expected abortion rates, both NLSY researchers and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) agree that fully 60 percent of the women who have had abortions in the NLSY population have concealed their abortions from NLSY interviewers.2 While 773 have admitted past abortions, an estimated 1157 have lied to the interviewers to conceal their abortions. As a well-informed researcher, Russo must be aware of this flaw in her data, which is repeatedly noted in NLSY support documents, yet she does not bother to mention it to her readers, much less at her press conferences.

Furthermore, Russo avoids asking, or at least reporting on, the question of whether or not the 773 women who do admit a past abortion are representative of the women who have concealed their abortions. Are there variations in race, education level, marital status, income level, etc., compared to the women who do not report abortions? Are these demographic statistics similar to those available from AGI for all women having abortions?

Russo does not address these questions, even though she used these demographics in her report for other purposes, because a report on these additional comparative statistics would have further undermined the integrity of her arguments. We know this because Elise Jones from AGI has already analyzed the demographics of women reporting abortion in NLSY and found them to be very skewed from the general population of aborters.

According to the AGI study, the overall reporting rate in NLSY was only 40% with significant variations among subgroups:[3]

Married women were over twice as likely to report an abortion as unmarried women. (74% vs 30%)

White women were much more likely to report an abortion (45%) than blacks (27%) or Hispanics (19%).

Teens were much more likely to report than women in their twenties; 17-year-olds reported 59% of the expected number of abortions, 18-year-olds 49%, 19-year-olds 44%, and 20 to 24-year-olds reported only 37% of the expected number of abortions.

These comparative statistics tell us two things. First, that the women identified as having had abortions in NLSY are not representative of the general population. Therefore, Russo’s findings should not be described as applicable to the general population. Instead, Russo’s work should be qualified as valid only with regard to “women who admit having a history of abortion.” Second, these AGI findings show that the NLSY women who conceal their abortions are more likely to match the demographic profile for women who are known to be most likely to suffer more severe emotional problems post-abortion.

Concealers and Low Self-Esteem

Common sense suggests that women who conceal their abortions are more likely to be ashamed of their abortions. This, in turn, implies that the abortion threatens their self-esteem.

This common sense understanding has been confirmed by pro-abortion researcher Nancy Adler, a colleague of Russo’s, who has compared sub-groups of women who refuse to participate in post-abortion follow-up studies to sub-groups of women who report higher rates of psychosocial distress after abortion. Adler’s findings strongly support the notion that the women who resist participating in post-abortion surveys are the ones who are most likely be suffering the most post-abortion distress.[4]

For the sake of convenience, let us call the 60 percent of post-abortion women in the NLSY study who did not report their abortions Concealers. The 40 percent who did report we can call Revealers. If Concealers have a lower mean score than non-aborting women, then the final results would be dramatically reversed. This is especially true because Concealers distort the findings in two ways. First, Concealers’ lower self-esteem scores falsely depress the average score reported for “non-aborting” women. Second, the average self-esteem score for “aborting” women is artificially high because it includes only Revealers who may be less ashamed of their abortions.

But is there any hard data to show that Concealers are more likely to have lower self-esteem scores? Yes. Russo herself provides it. Russo’s self-esteem analysis shows that lower self-esteem scores correlate to being unmarried, of lower income, being less educated, unemployed, or having more children.

Since Jones has demonstrated that NLSY Concealers are more likely to be single, and non-white (a risk factor for lower income, less education, and unemployment), Russo’s analysis of these factors provides us with indirect measurement of the demographics for Concealers and strongly suggests that they are likely to have lower self-esteem.

Other sources would seem to confirm this assessment. In a review of post-abortion research, Strahan has identified several studies linking abortion with greater poverty, more broken relationships, single parenthood, and more children.[5] More negative attitudes toward abortion are also correlated with lower levels of education, low income, non-white, large families, and among women who are unemployed. It is therefore reasonable to expect that women who abort from these groups which are more disapproving of abortion are also more likely to experience the abortion as shameful.[6]

High-risk factors are also described by Belsey in a study of 350 women seeking abortion. Belsey applied these five high-risk criteria for predicting negative post-abortion reactions: 1) a poor or unstable relationship with her partner, 2) few friends, 3) a poor work pattern, 4) a history of psychosocial instability, and 5) failure to take contraceptive precautions. Using these factors, Belsey identified 64% of the abortion patients she studied were at higher risk of suffering post-abortion problems. Of this high-risk group, 72 percent actually did develop negative post-abortion reactions.[7] It is not unreasonable to suspect that this group of high-risk patients (64% of all women seeking abortions) may be motivated by shame or embarrassment to conceal their abortions, and therefore these high-risk patients may make up the bulk of the Concealers (60% of the NLSY population).

One final observation regarding Concealers is the fact that avoidance behavior is one of the diagnostic criteria for post-abortion syndrome (PAS). Thus, one would expect that women who are most severely traumatized by their abortions are also the ones most likely to conceal them, denial being a form of avoidance behavior.

Higher Self-Esteem or Ego-Defensive Posturing?

Another highly questionable tactic used by Russo is her decision to interpret the ten question Rosenberg Self-Esteem score as a reliable measure for the overall “well-being” of individuals. Indeed, she uses the terms “self-esteem” and “well-being” interchangeably, with a clear preference for the latter which dominates both her title and her commentary.

Her strategy is transparent. Having “proven” that abortion has no impact, or even a positive impact on the Rosenberg Self-Esteems score of Revealers, she wants to inflate the value of her research by claiming it “proves” that abortion has no negative effect on the overall “well-being” of women, and may even be slightly beneficial.

This decision to equate self-esteem with well-being underscores Russo’s tendency to exaggerate the significance of her findings. But how, we should ask, can the concept of “well-being” be accurately defined, much less reduced to a ten question self-esteem scale?

More importantly, the accuracy of the Rosenberg scale among abortion patients has never been established. This is especially important when there is only a fractional difference of .1 out of 40 points between those who report abortion and those who do not. As described below, the Rosenberg scale is very possibly inadequate for evaluating the self-esteem of post-abortion women.

There is substantial evidence which suggests that many post-abortion women use coping mechanisms or develop personality disorders which would result in exaggerated self-esteem scores. For example, Barnard’s in-depth evaluation of 80 women who had abortions at a Baltimore clinic 3 to 5 years previously reveals that 68% had significant histrionic characteristics and 33% had narcissistic characteristics.[8] The narcissistic personality is characterized by extreme self-centeredness and rejects criticism. Similarly, a histrionic personality displays a tremendous need for affection or attention, is prone to denial and overreaction.

In answering a questionnaire on self-esteem, such personalities might feel defensively compelled to answer each question at the extreme high of the scale: I have much to be proud of; I am not at all a failure; I am a person of great worth; etc.

If such personalities are prone to displaying an exaggerated sense of self-esteem (as part of their coping processes) a high Rosenberg score may actually be evidence of psychiatric illness, not well-being.

Indeed, Russo’s data shows that as a group Revealers are more prone to be at both extremes of the Rosenberg scale. Unlike the normal distribution for women in general, Revealers are more likely to have extremely high scores and extremely low scores. Thus, when Russo resorts to an averaging of these extremes women with exaggerated self-esteem scores statistically cancel out those with very low scores. In short, by focusing on a comparison of the average scores for post-abortion women and the control group, Russo actually glosses over the fact that Revealers have an abnormal number of scores at both the extreme high and low ends of the scale.

Data Breakdowns

Researchers generally expect that if A causes B then more exposure to A should cause more B. When we find that one abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, for example, the finding that multiple abortions correlate to an even higher cancer rate is interpreted as supporting the conclusion of a causal connection. Similarly, when we find that substance abuse rates rise with one abortion we would immediately expect to see the rate rise even higher with additional abortions. Indeed, all the available research on abortion generally supports the additive effect of abortion; the rates for both physical and psychological side-effects tend to increase with each additional abortion.

One would expect, then, that if Russo’s claim is true, if a single abortion contributes to self-esteem, then additional abortions should further increase a women’s self-esteem. But Russo finds the opposite. Women who had a history of more than one abortion had a lower average for self-esteem scores than both women who reported no abortions and women who had only one abortion.

Russo’s conclusion that abortion does not negatively affect self-esteem is also contradicted by other research. Elliot Institute surveys consistently show women reporting that abortion lowered their sense of self-esteem.[9] Similarly, a 1992 Gallup Poll found that 67% of women of childbearing age rated abortion as the highest threat to a woman’s self-esteem.[10]

These findings are consistent with national polls which show that over 70 percent of adults believe abortion is immoral. This same dim view of abortion is held by women seeking abortion. Research at abortion clinics has shown that at least 70 percent of patients have a negative moral view of abortion. In short, most women experience abortion as a moral compromise or an “evil necessity.” Given these facts, it is difficult to imagine how the experience of falling short of one’s moral ideals in the “heat of battle” could enhance one’s view of oneself.

Indeed, while pro-abortion researchers often interpret data to support the claim that abortion can have “maturing effects” on women, the proper interpretation of such data is best given by women themselves. Interviews show that post-aborted women who describe themselves as having “matured” reveal that this “growth experience” boils down to little more than having learned from experience that “I never want to go through that again!” In short, women who experience abortion as a bad thing and therefore resolve to avoid unintended pregnancies in the future are being held up as success stories. It is a sad defense of abortion when this “never again” reaction is the only evidence that abortion proponents can offer to support their argument of the “positive and maturing” effects of abortion. Such “growth” is, at best, a very left-handed compliment to a very life-shaking experience.

Russo and PAS

Following publication of her study, Russo told reporters that her research proves that PAS does not exist. But in fact her study has nothing to do with investigating any of the symptoms associated with PAS. Self-esteem scores are unrelated to the diagnostic criteria of PAS. Therefore, Russo’s self-esteem study offers no basis for making generalizations about the existence of PAS or other post-abortion symptoms.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that Russo deliberately goes out of her way to misrepresent PAS as simply a new label for women who feel regret about subsequent infertility. She writes: “Labeling a woman’s feelings about her infertility as post-abortion syndrome…seems more in the service of political advocacy than in the service of helping a woman to work through her feelings about being unable to have a child.” [Italics in original] Since Russo is an expert on post-abortion literature, she must certainly know that none of the therapists who are advocates of the PAS model link it with infertility. PAS is defined as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which can occur in both fertile and infertile women.

Russo’s trivialized characterization of PAS is an unforgivable distortion of the scientific literature. While the use of PAS as a diagnostic tool has not yet been widely accepted, Russo is trying to conceal the true diagnostic criteria for PAS by portraying it as something else. In effect, she is attempting to associate PAS with a “straw man” (infertility grief) which she can then easily dismiss. At best this is a public relations ploy. At worst it is an effort to confuse counseling professionals who may not yet have seen the true diagnostic criteria for PAS.

Such tactics demonstrate a severe lack of respect for intellectual integrity. Not only does Russo avoid asking critical questions regarding her own work, she shows a complete disregard for honestly reporting the findings of those whose work would contradict her own simplistic ideology: abortion is good; anti-choicers are bad.

But it is exactly this type of puffed up “research” which the pro-abortion media loves. So, Russo has had her fifteen minutes of fame, and her “important” research findings will continue to be cited in the pro-abortion literature for years to come.

This is a prime example of how pro-abortion researchers twist the rules of scientific debate to their own end. Sadly, in doing so it is not just truth which they have victimized, it is women and children.

Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 3(4) Fall 1995 Copyright 1995 Elliot Institute