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The Turnaway Study and the Benefits of Longitudinal Research

The science behind abortion diverges from political rhetoric.

Key points

  • Longitudinal research has significant benefits.
  • The political rhetoric surrounding abortion diverges considerably from results of longitudinal research on the issue.
  • The termination of pregnancy is as much a healthcare issue as is prenatal care, and should be reflected in public policy.

As social scientists, any research methodology that we use will represent a trade-off in terms of the strengths of the study versus potential limitations. No research is perfect, but it can be valid when measures are put in place to protect it from bias and enable the research team the potential to uncover something meaningful about human behavior.

Enter longitudinal research. Longitudinal research involves monitoring a specific population over an extended period of time to measure potential changes or growth regarding whatever is being studied. The benefit is that researchers are able to document change in real time and identify potential long-term impacts of whatever is being studied. The cost, of course, is that these studies require great resources and time, as well as patience.

The Turnaway Study (2020) is a groundbreaking, longitudinal study that tracked 1,000 women over a 10-year period to identify the impact of terminating a pregnancy or being denied the right to abortion. Diane Greene Foster, the Principal Investigator (PI) and author of the similarly titled book, set out to measure the experiences of women who were able to terminate their pregnancies and compare them to those who were denied such a procedure. The study concluded in 2016, before the overturning of Roe, but was designed in part to offer a systematic investigation of the impact of being denied this medical procedure.

The data collected via this study lacks political and cultural rhetoric. In fact, the results of the study have contributed to upwards of 50 published articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. As an educator, I decided to include the results of this research in my Developmental Psychology course when we got to the conception and prenatal development unit of the semester. The reality of pregnancy and the process of labor and delivery is that there is a significant number of pregnant women who choose not to continue with their pregnancies or, due to health-related concerns, are unable to.

In fact, nationwide, data suggests between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 pregnancies will end in termination. While the reasons are manifold, the primary reason, as reported by Greene (2020), was financial concerns. This is a particularly resonant finding, as in the aftermath of the overturning of Roe, researchers have identified that women living in poverty will be disproportionately impacted by more restrictive laws regarding access to abortion. In fact, similar to nationwide numbers, Greene (2020) identified among the sample of 1,000 participants in her study that at least half were living in poverty—and that a slightly higher number of women in poverty sought abortion later in their pregnancies (which is less common than first trimester terminations).

In fact, data from this study documented many ways in which women were hurt by carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term: for example, continued pregnancy and childbirth are associated with larger physical health risks, so great that two women forced to continue their pregnancies died from childbirth-related causes. Many other women experienced complications from delivery that extended over the next five years, increased chronic head and joint pain, hypertension, and poor self-rated overall health. In the short run, women experienced increased anxiety and loss of life satisfaction after being denied an abortion, and those with violent partners found it difficult to extricate themselves after the birth.

I highlight these findings to note that social scientific research does not occur in a vacuum and that as researchers it is imperative that we study topics that resonate with what is happening in the larger society and culture. Moreover, I was struck by student responses in the aftermath of sharing these findings and others from the study in class. A number of students emailed me to thank me for discussing termination of pregnancy from a scientific perspective, sharing data without commentary and rhetoric, and covering a “controversial” topic that faculty are often hesitant to approach.

I put the term controversy in quotations above because termination of pregnancy is the other side of the pregnancy coin: It is a healthcare issue as much as prenatal care, labor, and delivery, all of which we cover. In fact, in a country that has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized, developed nation, it is imperative that students in academic environments understand the stakes associated with being denied access to abortion.

Indeed, a discussion of abortion access must include the risks that pregnancy pose to women and the extent to which those risks are amplified for women who are already marginalized and oppressed. This study demonstrates the significant role that longitudinal research can play in identifying the realities of public policy based on bad-faith arguments and without the consultation of researchers and medical professionals. Ultimately, the science behind abortion tells a much different story than the political rhetoric that drove the reversal of Roe, constituting dire consequences for everyone.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2022


Greene Foster, D. (2020). The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or being denied—an Abortion. Scribner: New York, NY.

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