What is The Turnaway Study

The Turnaway Study by Diana Greene Foster takes a look at the consequences and effects women experience when they have an abortion or when they are denied one due to being too far along in their pregnancy. The study looked at around 1,000 women from 40 states who had been recruited to the study from 21 abortion clinics over a period of five years. “The purpose of the Turnaway Study is to provide, as concretely as possible, an understanding of how unwanted pregnancies and abortion affect the lives of women and their children.” (pg. 257) 

The premise of the book is that abortion is healthcare and that denying women access to abortion, which is merely a medical procedure, is harmful to them emotionally, physically, and financially. The case is made that women who are able to have the abortions they seek out are better off emotionally, financially, and physically in the future. 

The Central Problem

I agree that making abortion illegal makes no sense and is harmful to women in many ways… If. If abortion isn’t killing a human being. 

Throughout the entire book, the humanity of preborn children is ignored. Foster states at the beginning that resolving the question of whether abortion kills a human being is not the purpose of her work. That’s a problematic way to start since the answer to that question greatly affects whether access to abortion should be legal. Everything hinges on this question because if abortion doesn’t kill a human being, then it is healthcare, and women should be able to easily access it. But if abortion does kill a human being who has the basic right to be protected from violence, then the difficult, tragic circumstances facing women do not justify killing an innocent human being any more than they would justify killing a newborn infant. 

To illustrate why this matters so much, imagine the whole premise of Foster’s book was that women should have the choice to kill their newborn infants for the myriad of problems that exist in the lives of women. Imagine the personal stories included were about women who found themselves in difficult, awful situations and they had an infant in their arms. Imagine it being argued that if she had the choice to kill her infant, she would be able to provide better for her five year old child? Or if she killed her infant, she wouldn’t have to be tied to an abusive partner anymore? Or if she killed her infant, she would be able to go to school, not have to derail her life plans, and have opportunities that would otherwise be lost? 

Because Foster’s assumption is that abortion is “routine healthcare” (pg. 19), this question isn’t important or relevant to her research. This should be a red flag. 

Abortion disrupts a perfectly normal, natural biological process by killing a human being in the womb. One’s definition of “healthcare” is truly warped if it includes actions that starve, poison, crush, dismember, and induce a heart attack of an innocent human being. As I’ve written elsewhere: “Healthcare has never been about harming people or killing them to somehow ‘benefit’ someone else’s health or life. It has never been about pitting two people against each other, allowing the more powerful one to kill the weaker and more dependent one. Yet this is what abortion does to the devalued, preborn human beings in this debate.”

It’s really hard to avoid the fact that the being abortion kills is a human. This reality sneaks into Foster’s writing in her chapter on drug and alcohol abuse. Foster notes that, women who are carrying unwanted pregnancies to term who smoke, use drugs, or have a problem [with] alcohol use may need help to reduce substance abuse and the resulting chance of adverse outcomes for the baby.” (pg. 114) (italics mine) If harming the being inside the womb in the same act harms the baby outside the womb, doesn’t it make more sense to see the being in the womb and the baby she becomes as the same human being? 

Moreover, our schizophrenic laws protect preborn children from violence when they are “wanted.” It is often double-homicide to kill a pregnant woman. We frown upon women who use drugs and alcohol while pregnant since that causes harm to the human fetus. In those same states, that same preborn baby is suddenly considered “not human” if she isn’t “wanted” and her death is considered “a medical procedure” and “basic health care for women.” 

Findings, admissions, and other notes

While I fundamentally disagree with Foster’s view of abortion and think her avoidance of the central question needs to be kept in mind, I think her research is helpful, and pro-life advocates should be aware of it. Here are some highlights from the findings of The Turnaway Study, including startling admissions and some other interesting information: 

1. An overwhelming majority of women who are denied an abortion are glad they didn’t have one.

A significant finding in her study that doesn’t get much attention from pro-choice advocates and Foster herself shows that women who are denied an abortion are thankful they didn’t get one once their child is born. Right after the baby was born, 88% of women no longer wished they had had an abortion. By one year, that number jumped to 93%. By five years, 96% of women no longer wished they had had an abortion. (pg. 126)

For a book whose main point is that being denied an abortion hurts women, the inconvenient truth on this page shows that 96% of women are glad they didn’t get an abortion and are happy to have the child whose life they might have ended. 

If you just look at the two-page document made available to the public summarizing the findings of The Turnaway Study, you would think that only results of women being turned away from abortion are that they are harmed and having a miserable time trying to care for the children they wanted to abort. While having children is no doubt difficult and life-changing, this finding is important to note: 

“How did women feel about their pregnancy a week after seeking the abortion? — at least ‘a little bit’ of sadness (74% of women), regret (66%), and guilt (62%), and just under half reported feeling anger (43%). There was no difference between women who received versus were denied an abortion in how they felt about their pregnancies, with one exception. We were asking about emotions one week after women either received or were denied the abortion and, at that point, women who were denied were more likely to feel happiness about the pregnancy than women who received an abortion (60% vs. 27% for those just under the limit who received). However, the fact that women denied abortions were still less likely to report happiness about the pregnancy than regret and sadness tells me that we can’t say that those who report happiness were entirely glad they became pregnant.” (pg. 121) (bolding mine) (italics original)

2. Abortion laws and other restrictions save the lives of unborn children.

A common pro-choice talking point is that abortion laws do not work, and women find ways to obtain them regardless of the laws. This is not entirely true. While there will always be some women who find ways to obtain abortions and go around the law, the same is true of every single other law we have on the books protecting human beings from violence. Some people will violate those laws and hurt people anyways. That doesn’t mean we should just eliminate the laws. 

With this in mind, it’s important to know that laws against abortion prevent many women from obtaining them, and lives are saved. Foster says that if abortion laws are left up to the states, she estimates that a quarter to one-third of women will carry their “unwanted” pregnancies to term. (pg. 288) So far we are seeing an increase in live births in the U.S., showing us that abortion laws do cause the number of abortions to go down.

While looking at access to abortion, Foster notes that in Texas, when House Bill 2 passed in 2013, that ended up reducing the abortion rate by 14%. (pg. 71)

She even concedes that just making abortions unaffordable stops many of them from happening by saying, “next time someone says ‘banning abortion doesn’t stop abortion,’ you can say ‘Actually, just making abortions unaffordable stops a significant fraction of people from having them.’” (p. 68, 305)

3. Regarding mental health, carrying unwanted pregnancies to term does not cause mental harm to women.

A significant point Foster also admits is that carrying an “unwanted pregnancy to term is not associated with mental health harm.” (pg. 109) Foster says she was surprised about this finding. 

She also notes that “Over time, women’s mental health and well-being generally improved, so that by six months to one year, there were no differences between groups across outcomes.” (pg. 109) (Italics mine) 

The summary of The Turnaway Study made public online makes no mention of this. The study claims that having unwanted pregnancies is harmful to women, and they just list various financial, relational, and economic hardships faced by women who have children. The only thing this shows is that having children and caring for them is challenging especially when the woman’s current social situation is in shambles. No one denies that. Pro-life advocates can find common ground here as we encourage and support people to find non-violent solutions to the many challenges women face. 

4. We need to put The Turnaway Study’s claims about abortion regret in perspective.

The Turnaway Study says that having abortions does not harm women and that women don’t even really think about their abortion after. Foster notes that some of the participants of the study said they only thought about the abortion when they would get the phone call to answer questions about it. She says only a small minority of women regret their decision to abort. (pg. 308) 

Note that this study tracks women for five years after their abortion. It’s very possible it may take them much longer to get to a place where they regret their abortion or women who regret their abortion may not want to participate in this kind of study.  My colleague Kaitlyn Donihue regularly works with post-abortive women and men. While the timeline of when someone regrets her abortion can vary, most of the participants in post-abortion healing retreats Kaitlyn facilitates are in their 50s. This indicates that coming to terms with the fact that abortion ended the life of one’s child can take a really long time for people to recognize, admit, and process.

While I think that people’s feelings matter and shouldn’t be ignored, I also think in terms of the moral question, how women feel about abortion is irrelevant. People can feel at peace with unjust and immoral actions they’ve committed. While I care very much about people’s feelings, emotions, and experiences, when it comes to the moral question of whether abortion is right or wrong, feelings and emotions are not going to help us. This is why we need to repeatedly return to the central question in the abortion debate: “What is the unborn?”

5. Foster cites a debunked study and an erroneous Tylenol claim.

I found it disappointing but not surprising that Foster cited the meaningless and debunked Raymond and Grimes study that claims that abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth. (pg. 142) The comprehensive analysis of this study by the Equal Rights Institute (ERI) points out that “The two data sets RG compares differ dramatically; one covers everything meticulously, and the other is filled only at the whim of individual organizations. There is no meaningful or valid comparison of the two that can be made.” Reading ERI’s whole article is well worth your time. 

Foster also claims that abortion is safer than taking Tylenol. (pg. 145) Attorney Erik Baptist helps us see why this claim is so unhelpful and misleading, pointing out that this claim “compares Tylenol abuse with mifepristone use.” He goes on to illustrate why this claim is not helpful: “Imagine that a teenager is trying to convince his parents to let him buy a motorcycle instead of a car. He presents data about the relative safety of the two vehicles, comparing the number of motorcycle fatalities that take place nationwide in ideal conditions, when the driver is wearing a helmet and driving responsibly, with the number of car fatalities that take place when the driver is intoxicated, unbuckled, and speeding.” 

It’s also worth asking, “Safer by what measure?” If pro-lifers are right that abortion is killing a human being, then it makes no sense to claim that abortion is “safer” than Tylenol. It’s essentially trying to claim that it’s more dangerous to humans to take Tylenol than it is to kill a human being in the womb. That’s ridiculous. 

6. We should note how the study’s claim about bonding will affect our conversations and argumentation related to bonding. 

This study finds that “Women who got the abortion they wanted and then went on to have a child later reported feeling more closely bonded to their child than the women who were forced to carry the unwanted pregnancy to term.” (pg. 38) And, “Women feel less emotionally attached to the child born of an unwanted pregnancy than women feel to the next child born after having an abortion.” (pg. 207) 

I’ve heard the opposite claim made by some pro-life advocates, so I’d be careful when making that claim in conversation as it appears the opposite is true for many women. And again, it is worth stating, this has nothing to do with whether abortion is right or wrong. 

7. The majority of women who chose adoption were glad they did. 

Pro-life advocates should be careful when bringing up adoption as a solution to an unwanted pregnancy. While adoption is a way to redeem a broken situation, it is really difficult for the women who choose it. We may see adoption as the perfect solution for women: they don’t have to kill their baby, and they don’t have to care for a child for whom they aren’t prepared. But Foster finds that women very often “say they could not stand the idea of the child being out in the world without their knowing the child and having some control over how the child was being cared for.” (pg. 209) 

On the flip side of this, though, the study also shows that an overwhelming majority of women who choose adoption are glad they did so after the fact: 

“The women who had the hardest time emotionally were those who placed the child for adoption. They were far more likely than women who decided to parent the child to wish they could have had the abortion. At the time of being turned away, 90% of women who later placed the child for adoption reported that they still wished they could have had the abortion (compared to 63% who later chose to parent the child). At five years, 15% of women who placed for adoption, compared to 2% of women who parented, reported that they still wished they could have had the abortion.” (pg. 126) 

So note that after five years, 85% of women who placed their child for adoption were glad they didn’t have the abortion. 

8. A few additional notes 

Common statistic cited from Turnaway: “95% of women in our study reported that having an abortion was the right decision” (pg. 255)

Most common reason women have abortions: “Not having enough money to provide for a child, or for another child, is the most commonly reported reason women want to terminate a pregnancy.” (pg. 173) Not a good time to have a child. (pg. 205)

Second-trimester abortions: “The quiet truth about abortion between 20-24 weeks is that it is often a problem of late recognition of pregnancy followed by real obstacles – financial, travel-related, and legal – to getting an abortion.” (pg. 88) 

Suicide: the study finds no link between abortion and suicide. (pg. 113)

Stress: initially women who were denied an abortion had higher stress levels, but by six months, the two groups “had converged and stress levels were similar between women who received and women who were denied abortions for the next two years.” (pg. 116) 

Stories matter 

Foster includes many personal stories of women who have had abortion or been denied one, and I find her inclusion of them valuable because understanding people’s stories is an important part of having good conversations. The stories in her book show us that people’s lives are oftentimes complicated and difficult; and when a woman is pregnant and doesn’t want to be, that is a really hard place to be. We should sympathize with these women and understand that emotionally and psychologically, abortion is a difficult issue to work through. 

Our conversations shouldn’t dismiss the very real realities in which women find themselves when having a child feels like one of the worst things that could be happening to them.

Foster also helpfully illustrates that how we talk about abortion in the presence of others matters especially when we are in the company of people we don’t know. She shares how a woman at a local gathering in her neighborhood commented, “I don’t know how anyone could kill their baby.” This woman left shortly after she made this comment, and as soon as she was gone, a few of the women began opening up to others that they had had abortions. The pro-life woman was unaware of how her words had affected a room full of women who had had experience with abortion, and they felt like they couldn’t talk to her about it. 

A chapter is dedicated to the backgrounds of many women who choose abortion. This is important because being opposed to abortion doesn’t limit our love and care to preborn children. Their mothers (and fathers) matter, too. Foster found that many women who had abortions had a history of neglect, assault, abuse, and other traumas leading to PTSD. (ppg. 117-120) Many women walking into abortion clinics are broken, abused people who need our care, love and help; and abortion is presented to them as a way to help fix their broken situation. 

We should always talk about abortion as if we know someone who has had an abortion is standing next to us. As far as it depends on us, we should try to cultivate a life that shows those around us that even if we may disagree about major issues and choices, we love people and care about them; and that we are concerned about other people and what drives them to make those choices.

Conclusion

Abortion kills an innocent human being with equal rights to you and me. While every person in Foster’s study matters, and all of their difficult situations warrant our compassion, challenging circumstances do not justify killing a human being. 

We need to bridge the divide between born people and the preborn ones we cannot see yet. Their weak, vulnerable invisibility doesn’t make them lesser human beings. 

Foster says, “Our moral and legal opinions should be based on an accurate understanding of our world.” (pg. 8) I agree, and in particular, I think these opinions should be based on an accurate understanding of who counts as one of us. Given the history of humanity and how often people have answered that question incorrectly, supporting abortion should give us pause because we might be killing human beings like you and me. In fact, I think the evidence supports just that

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash 

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Rebekah is a Training Specialist with Justice For All. You can follow her work at jfaweb.org/rebekah-dyer

 

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.