The Elephant in the Living Room

Professor David Fergusson, director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study in New Zealand, is firmly pro-choice. But I suspect the good professor might understand if I point out that, lately, he’s been getting a little taste of what it’s like to be pro-life. Fergusson and two colleagues, L. John Horwood and Elizabeth Ridder, conducted a study on abortion and mental health. And they didn’t find what they expected to find. Their report states, “Those having an abortion [under age 25] had elevated rates of subsequent mental health problems including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders.” Their report goes on to say, “The findings suggest that abortion in young women may be associated with increased risks of mental health problems.” Talk about irony. We’re used to hearing about the “mental health” aspects of abortion, of course—but usually, we’re being told that a woman’s mental health is in danger if she doesn’t have an abortion. At the very least, this new study forces pro-choicers to question the all-too-common assumption, an assumption that now is putting young women in danger. Not that most pro-choicers want to hear this, of course—and particularly not now, with the Supreme Court just having agreed to hear an appeal of the partial-birth abortion ban case, where the issue turns on exceptions about the mother’s health. This is why I said that Dr. Fergusson is learning something about what it’s like to be pro-life. This well-regarded researcher and his team normally have no trouble at all getting their work published. But in this case they had to go to four different journals before they could find one that would publish their study. Fergusson has told interviewers that he knows it’s because his findings are too “controversial”—so controversial that New Zealand’s Abortion Supervisory Committee warned him against publishing his work, not for scientific reasons, but for political ones. Well, Fergusson himself dislikes the idea that pro-lifers will use his work, and he knows that his research could have a devastating effect on the abortion movement in his country. In New Zealand, as the Herald explained, “Every abortion requires two ‘certifying consultants’ to approve it on certain grounds, usually that a woman’s mental health would be [otherwise] endangered.” You can see what the implications would be if the greater “mental health” risk turns out to be having the abortion. My hat is off to Dr. Fergusson. Despite the controversy, and despite the fact that his results disagreed with his own beliefs, Fergusson was determined to publish them anyway. And he told the Herald, “It verges on scandalous that a surgical procedure that is performed on over one in 10 women has been so poorly researched and evaluated, given the debates about the psychological consequences of abortion.” That, my friends, is a true professional and a true scientist speaking. It’s people like this who give science a good name. He’s not willing to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room just because no one else wants to talk about it. Instead, he insists on getting the truth out in the open. And that’s what science ought to be all about—not just in New Zealand, but here.


Chuck Colson



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