Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Constructing Women as Mentally Troubled: The Political and Performative Effects of Psychological Studies on Abortion and Mental Health

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Constructing Women as Mentally Troubled: The Political and Performative Effects of Psychological Studies on Abortion and Mental Health

Article excerpt

Abstract

In recent years, there has been a growing body of research that claims that there is a link between abortion and mental health problems among women. While there is extensive critique of this research, there is less of an understanding of the wider social and political implications of disseminating the idea that women who have abortions are mentally troubled. This paper examines the political and performative effects of this body of psychological research that represent abortion as pathological and those who seek it as needing legal protection, focusing particularly on the context of New Zealand. A two-fold critique is developed: first, I look at the political implications of this research; namely, the way that anti-abortion groups in New Zealand have used this research to galvanise support to restrict access to abortions. Second, I also consider its performative impact, in terms of the ability for such research to be constituted as 'truth', edging out alternative explanations of women's heterogeneous experiences of abortions.

Key words

abortion, mental health, performative, abortion politics, abortion law

Introduction

In academic and popular discourses in New Zealand, abortion is increasingly being linked with causing mental health problems. The claim that abortion causes mental health problems is propagated by 'neutral' psychologists and politicised anti-abortion groups alike (Lee, 2003). Such studies seek to make universal claims about the (negative) mental health effects of abortion and ignore the social landscape that stigmatises abortion and the variation in women's experiences of abortion. The linking of abortion and mental health in these studies frames women considering abortion as mentally troubled subjects. Consequently, only mentally competent people are trusted to make healthcare decisions. Discursively connecting abortion with mental health problems constructs women considering abortion as incompetent and always already unable to rationally choose abortion. Accordingly, psychological research on abortion and anti-abortion claims that abortion causes mental health problems can discursively undercut women's autonomy, resulting in restrictions on abortion in order to 'protect' women. This paper explores the wider socio-political effects of the abortion-mental health scientific discourse in New Zealand. It begins by examining the discursive links between abortion and mental health in order to contextualise debates in the New Zealand context. Following this, the second part of this paper considers the way that anti-abortion groups have used the studies politically in their effort to restrict access to abortion, and the performative effect of the studies in constructing ideas of 'truth' (that abortion is pathological) based on the ideas described in them (Butler, 2010).

Abortion and mental health: An overview of the debate

In psychological discourses, there is no accepted link between abortion and mental health, yet, the question of whether abortion causes mental health problems has been continually reresearched (Boyle, 1997). There has been psychiatric and psychological research into this issue for over 70 years (Lee, 2003; Taussig, 1936). In 1989, Sarah Romans-Clarkson conducted a comprehensive review of studies from 1955-1980 on the psychological effects of abortion. She found that 'the unanimous consensus is that abortion does not cause deleterious psychological effects' (p. 555). Consequently, Romans-Clarkson recommended an end to studies on the psychological effects of abortion. In accordance with this view, Ellie Lee (2003) argues that in the 1980s, a mainstream psychological consensus that abortion does not cause mental health problems was reached. Lee contends that the profession's acceptance of the competing discourse that motherhood leads to mental health issues, such as post-partum depression, meant that claims that abortion causes mental health problems were not accepted. …

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