The Turnaway Study: An evidence-based argument for reproductive rights

What happens to the 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, physicians, psychologists, and other experts, Dr. Foster initiated a ten-year longitudinal study to examine the life outcomes of women who were denied abortion. Known as “The Turnaway Study,” this research endeavor provides clear evidence that abortion access is advantageous to women’s socioeconomic wellbeing and mental health.   

Over the course of a decade, this study followed the lives of over 1,000 women who sought abortion. Within this sample size, some women received abortions, while other women were “turned away” from clinics. Most of the women in the latter group were denied abortions because they were further along in their pregnancy and exceeded the clinic’s gestational age limit for abortion. Data were collected from over 30 abortion clinics around the United States. Dr. Foster aimed to examine the social, economic, and physical consequences that both groups of women faced. The study concluded that the women who received abortions experienced equal or better life outcomes compared to the women who carried unwanted pregnancies to term. 

For decades, conservatives and far-right Republicans have presented an ironic argument that abortion restrictions and bans protect women. With no evidence backing their claims, many Republican politicians and organizations continue to frame abortion as a traumatizing and dangerous procedure that takes a deep psychological and physical toll on women. The Turnaway Study provides compelling evidence that these claims are not only baseless but actually disproven.  

Data collected from the Turnaway Study reveal that the women who received abortions for unwanted pregnancies experienced significantly lower rates of poverty and less need to rely on public assistance in the five years following their abortion. In interviews conducted at this five-year mark, many women expressed positive attitudes towards planning a pregnancy in the future. Further, these women generally experienced greater success in maintaining healthy romantic partnerships, an increased ability to care for their existing children, and were far more likely to set and accomplish personal and career-oriented goals.  

Comparatively, the life outcomes of women who sought and were denied abortion differed in a number of ways. For instance, women who carried unwanted pregnancies to term were far more likely to maintain contact with abusive intimate partners, continuing their exposure to violence. In general, women who were denied wanted abortions faced more economic hardships. Women who were turned away from clinics experienced increases in household poverty in the years following the denial. Not only did these women struggle more to cover their basic living expenses and stay out of debt, but they were also more likely to be evicted from their housing, file for bankruptcy, and become unemployed. Notably, it took an average of four additional years for women who were denied abortions to reach equal levels of employment as women who received abortions. As time went on, the economic differences between the two groups of women became more and more minimal. However, poverty, even for short periods of time, has deeply negative ramifications for overall life outcomes.  

The study found no clear evidence that abortion was detrimental to women’s mental health. Women who received abortions did not have an increased risk of depression, anxiety, nor low self-esteem. Moreover, they were not at a higher risk of being diagnosed with PTSD or experiencing suicidal ideation. Interestingly, however, women who sought abortion and were turned away experienced high levels of anxiety and struggled to maintain self-esteem in the six months following abortion denial. With that being said, the study found no long-term differences 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 commonly cited reason for seeking abortion was financial constraints; many of the women in this study were wary that they did not have the financial resources to adequately provide for a child. Other common reasons that women chose to end their pregnancies were the absence of a suitable co-parent, as well as inconvenient timing of the pregnancy.  

Across the board, almost all of the women in The Turnaway Study who received abortions had high levels of certainty in their decision, both before and after the medical procedure. In fact, 95% of the women in the study who had abortions said that they made the correct decision for themselves. Further, the vast majority of women who received abortions did not report any substantial difficulty in coping with their decision.  

Contrary to how it is often presented in far-right media, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. Carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth presents far more health risks than legally ending a pregnancy. While no one in the study died from having an abortion, two of the women who were denied abortion passed away during childbirth, far more than the U.S. maternal mortality rate would predict.  

The Turnaway study provides a scientific and evidence-based argument for why women’s socioeconomic, mental, and physical wellbeing are contingent on reproductive autonomy and abortion access. Furthermore, the findings of this study invalidate any and all arguments that attempt to establish that abortion harms women. In fact, the study highlights the irony of the false claim that abortion bans protect women.  

As the findings of this study support, it is abortion access, not restriction, that safeguards women’s wellbeing. Abortion access allows women to take control over their bodies. However, as the Turnaway Study demonstrates, the implications of abortion access go far beyond this. 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 

More Information: 

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 

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