The Turnaway Study Analyzed by WECARE Director: The Latest Attempt to Reverse Evidence-based, Women-Centered Advances in Abortion Policy


The PLoS ONE study titled “Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study” is riddled with serious design flaws that render the results meaningless. The problematic issues are described in detail below followed by evidence that the true motivation for publishing the study is likely political. In recent years, credible science has informed policy with 26 states, now requiring information regarding mental health effects be shared with women considering abortion. This study is a poor attempt to provide counter “evidence” and obscure the reality of women’s suffering, reminiscent of the highly flawed research from the 70s and 80s.

Methodological Issues:

1)            As reported by the authors, the consent to participate rate is only 37.5%.  This is unacceptable, as the missing 62.5% who were approached and declined were likely the women who had the most adverse psychological reactions to their abortions. With sensitive topic research, securing a high initial consent rate is vitally important and in order to approach being representative, a minimum of 70% should be retained.

2)            The authors note that the sample was comprised of a high concentration of women from low socioeconomic backgrounds, rendering the sample not representative of US women undergoing abortion today. There is an ethical concern here as a well, since providing $350 to participate is coercive, as it would be difficult for most of the women to turn down the money.  

3)            The authors fail to reveal the specific consent to participate rates for each group. Because prior research has demonstrated that second trimester abortions are potentially more traumatizing than first trimester procedures, it is likely that a significantly higher percentage of women in the first-trimester group consented to participate; and the percentage of willing to participate, second trimester participants was likely well under 37.5%. If the rates were comparable, why not report this? Failure to report critical information increases suspicion that this “near limit’ group is in no way representative.  

4)            In the Turnaway Study, women who secured abortions near the gestational limits included women for whom the legal cut off ranged from 10 weeks through the end of the second trimester. There is a wealth of data indicating that women’s reasons for choosing abortion and their emotional responses to the procedure differ significantly at varying points of pregnancy. Women aborting at such widely different points should therefore not be lumped together, particularly when gestational age information is available in the data.

5)            No information is provided regarding how the sites were actually chosen.  What type of sampling plan was employed? Why were only those identified with the National Abortion Federation used? What cities were included? Which areas of the country were sampled?

6)            The majority of the outcome measures are single items, and this is problematic given the many psychometrically sound multiple item instruments available in the literature for the variables examined. Well-trained behavioral science researchers should not attempt to measure complex human emotions in such a superficial manner; and ethically responsible scientists would not extrapolate from such minimalistic assessments to women’s emotional reactions to one of life’s more challenging decisions.

Bias issues:

7) The authors’ uneasiness with recent litigation is stated in the opening paragraph: “Arguments about emotional harms from induced abortion—including decision regret and increasing negative emotions over time—have been leveraged to support abortion regulation in the United States. To uphold a 2007 law banning a later abortions, Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court stated: “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort...” In support of a state-level ban, a researcher testified that abortion “carries greater risk of emotional harm than childbirth.” Arguments about emotional harm have been used to forward parental consent, mandatory ultrasound viewing, and waiting period legislation as well.”  This is a rather odd way to open a supposed scientific investigation and the authors’ unapologetic decision to do so reveals their rather transparent political motivation (i.e., to provide counter results no matter what the scientific cost).

8) The authors’ effort to draw sweeping conclusions from this single, seriously compromised study is evident in their remarks regarding the implications of the study: “Results from this study suggest that claims that many women experience abortion decision regret are likely unfounded.” As scientists we never make such sweeping conclusions based on a single study, particularly when there is an abundant literature comprised of hundreds of sophisticated studies wherein the conclusions are quite discrepant. Courts throughout the US have concluded that women should be appraised of the risks before consenting to abortion; it almost seems silly that these researchers hope to shift the tide based on this study alone.

9) Funding was secured from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation among other sources with a political agenda. As described on their website, “Our work in the United States seeks to advance reproductive health and rights for women and young people by improving access to quality comprehensive sexuality education, family planning and safe abortion care.”