Demographer and reproductive health researcher Diana Greene Foster, Ph.D., has spent a decade studying the impact of unwanted pregnancies on the women who seek abortions — and the ones who are denied them.
Using research laid out in her book “The Turnaway Study” and its corresponding lecture course, Foster gave a TED Talk at TEDWomen in Atlanta, Georgia earlier this week about the mental, physical, and socioeconomic consequences that occur when women are denied access to abortion.
Foster and her team of researchers followed 1,000 American women over the course of five years. They were separated into three groups: women who received an abortion in the first trimester, women who were narrowly able to receive an abortion, and women who were turned away when attempting to access abortion care.
Foster began her Talk by quickly summarizing the stories of two women from generations before: One — Sally — who was able to access an abortion, and another — Dorothy — who was forced to carry an unintended pregnancy to term and put the baby up for adoption.
As it turns out, Sally went on to have other children, including Foster’s father. And the baby Dorothy gave up for adoption was Foster’s mother. So, she shared, both her work and her life are intimately tied to the outcomes of unintended pregnancy.
“Women often give many reasons: housing and financial circumstances, their relationship with the man involved in the pregnancy, their need to take care of existing children,” Foster said in her Talk. “More than half of those seeking abortions nationally are already parenting at least one child.”
Ultimately, the Turnaway Study helped demystify a lot of commonly held beliefs about abortion.
For instance, although restrictions in abortion care often coincide with concern for the mental harm inflicted by abortion, 95% of women included in the study reported that having an abortion was the right decision for them over five years after the procedure.
“We found no mental health harm from abortion,” Foster said. “Instead, we saw higher anxiety, lower self-esteem, and lower life satisfaction for women denied abortions.”
Foster also shared that women who were turned away and experienced childbirth in the observed group were more than three times as likely to be unemployed than women who obtained abortions.
“Working with economists, I was able to show that those that received and those that were denied abortions were similar economically for years before the year of the unwanted pregnancy, but for years after, we see more debt, lower credit scores, and a greater chance of eviction and bankruptcy,” Foster explained.
Additionally, Foster’s research found a significant divergence in the physical wellbeing of women who received an abortion, compared to those who did not receive an abortion.
“We find worse physical health for women who carried their pregnancy to term and gave birth,” Foster said in her Talk. “Consistent with a vast medical literature, we see that childbirth is associated with greater risks than abortion including hemorrhage, eclampsia, and even death.”
How does this data impact abortion care in the United States?
In the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, Foster pointed out the extreme differences between women’s healthcare access in the United States in comparison to global trends.
“The overwhelming international trend is towards liberalizing abortion laws, and not like the United States, of imposing new restrictions,” Foster said in her Talk.
Her current work takes place in Nepal, as she and her colleagues study abortion in a global context. She was just named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow for her continual work to provide reliable data for what has become a heavily politicized topic.
“Nepal has one of the world’s best abortion laws. It’s available up to 12 weeks for almost any reason, and beyond that for generous, common reasons. And it’s free in public hospitals,” Foster told Good Good Good. “That is a huge innovation that we [the United States] don’t have.”
Foster shared that the Turnaway study looked at the differences of wellbeing in children based on whether their mother was able to access an abortion in the U.S. Looking at Nepal’s more liberal abortion policy, Foster proposed the study to look at a place where rates of child stunting could be more dire without abortion care.
“It’s a lot of lessons learned for the U.S.,” she said. “They have a better policy than we do.”
While Foster is a demographer and academic — not a politician — her work provides vital data abortion advocates can use to better provide care for Americans experiencing unintended pregnancy. She told Good Good Good her research has been used in court cases in both the U.S. — and even in Chile.
Additionally, she is energized by the fact that better data means that conversations surrounding abortion can be destigmatized.
“The important thing is to center the person who is pregnant when they don’t want to be, to understand their motivations. If it’s just an abstract political thing, you’re like ‘Mother or fetus. What’s more important?’ and that doesn’t really get you anywhere,” she told Good Good Good.
“Our research shows it’s completely clear that people know how to judge their own circumstances and make decisions that are right for themselves. They’re not thinking of the politics. They’re not thinking of the law. They’re just trying to make a good decision for themselves and their kids and their family and their future.”
In addition to wider abortion access, Foster called for more generous social programs, comprehensive healthcare coverage, and extensive childcare and parental leave in her TED Talk.
To make those programs — and abortion care in general — more commonplace, it’s important to have evidence that legislators and judges can consider, to “not just vote on ideology,” as Foster shared.
In the complicated constellation of human life, bodily autonomy, and data, Foster stands in the middle; eager to learn from the rest of the world. Her research, both domestic and international, aims to provide women, children, and families greater health outcomes — and to provide the general public a more complete truth.
“Yes, I wouldn’t be here if Dorothy had been able to get an abortion. I also wouldn’t be here if Sally hadn’t gotten an abortion. My dad wouldn’t have been born,” she said.
“We’re all here for all the crazy accidents that led to the long line of people leading up to us. All we can want for the future is that our kids have more say over the trajectory of their lives than our ancestors did.”