Neuroscientist Stephen Sammut saw a scientific gap in research on the effects of drug-induced abortion and decided to tackle it in his area of expertise: pre-clinical research using rat models.
The hypothesis, he told me, was simple, but no one he knew of had investigated it: “If pregnancy is a normal physiological process … terminating a viable pregnancy using abortion is going to potentially cause significant physiological and ultimately behavioral issues.”
Sammut’s research, published in May in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, demonstrates that drug-induced abortions have negative effects on rats’ well-being, including “a clear reduction in grooming, an unkempt coat, a reduction in exploratory behavior … a reduction in general activity, increased immobility and the assumption of a stooped/hunched posture in the corner of the cage.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should have looked at studies’ like Sammut’s before allowing abortion-inducing drugs to go to market, but it didn’t, Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told me.
“It raises concerns that there may be a biological basis for depression after abortion with Mifeprex,” one of the drugs Sammut tested, she said. “There needs to be a lot more research. It’s a serious question, and I think the academic community needs to take this question seriously, and answer it.”
Sammut tested abortion drugs on pregnant and nonpregnant rats. He gave the drugs to the pregnant rats at about 12 to 14 days of gestation, the equivalent of 28 to 40 days of human gestation.
Pregnant rats who received the abortion-inducing drugs became listless. Their interest in food, the researchers, and a sugar-water mix plummeted. Sammut did not see those symptoms in the nonpregnant rats who took the drugs or the pregnant rats who had miscarriages from natural causes.
Anita Showalter, associate dean for clinical education at Pacific Northwest University, told me that the research provided some evidence to one of her longtime hunches that the female body processes natural miscarriage and induced abortion very differently.
With miscarriage, she said, “there is a slow change back to the normal physiology. When you have a pregnancy going gung ho, and you abruptly change physiology, that makes a much more abrupt and disruptive change to the creature.”
The loss of a baby through miscarriage can cause anguish, guilt, and even shame. Rats likely don’t feel shame or regret, so the depression-like behaviors they demonstrated could have resulted from physiological changes related to the abortion. Those changes might affect women, too.
While Sammut looked primarily at behavior that indicates a general lack of well-being, other scientists have researched the physical risks of drug-induced abortion. Steven Aden, chief legal officer at Americans United for Life, pointed to a 2009 Finnish study that found that 20 percent of drug-induced abortions led to adverse effects for the mother such as hemorrhage and incomplete abortion requiring surgical follow-up. Only 5.6 percent of surgical abortions resulted in complications for the mothers.
“I think further study is warranted,” Aden told me. “Women need to be informed about all these risks so they can make a better choice about chemical abortion.”