Abortion and Substance Abuse

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New Study Confirms Link Between Abortion and Substance Abuse

– David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

A recent Elliot Institute study has established a strong statistical correlation between abortion and subsequent drug or alcohol abuse. This finding is based on a national, random sample of 700 women participating in a reproductive history survey.

After excluding women who engaged in substance abuse prior to their first pregnancy, Elliot Institute researchers found that of the women surveyed, those who aborted their first pregnancy were 3.9 times more likely to engage in subsequent drug or alcohol abuse than those who have never had an abortion. These new findings have a high degree of statistical significance, p<.0001, which means that the there is less than 1 chance in 10,000 that these findings could have occurred due to chance.

Researchers who have studied substance abuse have long reported that women are more likely than men to date the onset of alcohol or drug abuse to a particular stressful event or a “definite life situation.”[1] It is not surprising, therefore, that numerous studies have found a direct correlation between substance abuse and abortion. Indeed, if there is any agreement among researchers on both sides of the abortion debate, it is the consensus that abortion is, at the very least, “stressful and emotionally difficult for most women.”[2]

During in depth interviews with 30 post-abortion women, Speckhard found that 60% admitted to increased alcohol use following their abortion. The majority of the women interviewed specifically attributed their drug or alcohol abuse to stress related to the abortion. Only 10% stated they had already engaged in substance abuse prior to their abortions.[3]

Because of her sampling method, Speckhard’s study cannot be generalized to the entire population of women seeking abortions. But her findings do indicate that among women who have suffered from negative post-abortion reactions, most of those who did engage in substance abuse believe they did so in an attempt to cope with abortion related stress.

Numerous other studies on substance abuse have also reported a correlation with abortion. For example, a 1981 random study found that women who admitted a history of induced abortion were more than twice as likely to be heavy drinkers (13%) compared to women in general (6%).[4] In another study of women treated at a alcohol detoxification center in Washington state, researchers found that female patients were likely to have experienced an abortion in the same year as their alcohol related problems began.[5] Researchers at the Medical College of Ohio have reported that teenagers are at a significantly higher risk of engaging in substance abuse following abortion compared to older women.[6]

The new Elliot Institute study confirms the pattern observed in these previous studies and adds additional insights into the relative risk of substance abuse for those carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term versus those who choose abort.

This study found that for all the women surveyed who were pregnant prior to a history of substance abuse, the rate of post-pregnancy substance abuse rose from 3.8% for women who did not abort to 14.6% for women who did abort their first pregnancy. With 1.6 million abortions per year, of which approximately 870,000 are first time abortions, it is estimated that 500,000 women per year resemble the population of women just described. By using the difference between 14.6% and 3.8%, it is reasonable to project that 54,000 women per year may begin abusing drugs and/or alcohol as a means of dealing with post-abortion stress.

It is likely that the risk of post-abortion substance abuse among women who undergo multiple abortions is even higher than the risk for women who experience only a single abortion. It is also reasonable to predict that post-abortion stress may further aggravate substance abuse problems among women with a prior history of substance abuse. These issues deserve additional attention from researchers.

Because substance abuse is indicative of psychological distress and low self-esteem, this study adds weight to more general concerns about the impact of abortion on a woman’s mental and emotional health. Since it is unlikely that all women who suffer from post-abortion distress act it out through substance abuse, additional investigation is necessary to examine other ways in which post-abortion stress may impact the health and well-being of women.

These findings are of special concern because abortion related substance abuse can have a profound impact on other areas of a woman’s life, including relationship problems, job related difficulties, health problems, an increased risk of engaging in physical fights and becoming involved in auto accidents resulting in injuries to themselves and others.[7]

A paper detailing the complete results of the Elliot Institute findings is in undergoing the process of peer review. Copies are available for $10. Please include a self-addressed envelope.

Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 1(3), Fall 1993.


  1. ^ J. Wall, “A Study of Alcoholism in Women,” Am. J. Psychiatry 93:943(1937); G. Lolli, “Alcoholism in Women” Connecticut Rev. Alcoholism 5: 9-11 (1953).
  2. ^ Zimmerman, “Psychosocial and Emotional Consequences of Elective Abortion: A Literature Review” Abortion: Readings and Research ed. Paul Sachdev (Butterworths: Toronto, 1981), 69.
  3. ^ A. Speckhard, Psycho-Social Stress Following Abortion, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1985.
  4. ^ A. Klassen, “Sexual Experience and Drinking Among Women in a U.S. National Survey,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15(5): 363, 1986.
  5. ^ E.R. Morrissey, et al., “Stressful Life Events and Alcohol Problems Among Women seen at a Detoxification Center,” J. Studies on Alcohol, 39(9)1559, 1978.
  6. ^ Campbell, et al., “Abortion in Adolescence,” Adolescence 23(92): 813-823, 1988.
  7. ^ Anecdotal reports wherein women describe why and how they engaged in substance abuse to cover up the stress of their abortions or to relieve themselves from abortion related nightmares are plentiful. Several are collected in T.W. Strahan, “The Incidence and Effects of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Women Following Induced Abortions,” Association for Interdisciplinary Research Newsletter, 2(2): 1-8, 1990. Strahan’s paper also summarizes in greater detail many of the studies cited in this paper and details research findings on the impact of substance abuse on women’s lives. The author gratefully acknowledges Strahan’s work in identifying these relevant studies.