British Pregnancy Advisory Service logo

16 January 2010

USA: Renowned clinical psychologist dies

Henry P. David, whose research on the psychological effects of abortion was hugely influential, died on 31 December 2009 at the age of 86.

The Washington Post reports:

In the late 1960s, Dr David became one of the first to study the psychological aftermath of abortion. He guided younger psychologists to do similar research, and their combined efforts helped alter the prevailing assumption among clinicians that abortion was a source of mental health problems in women.

Their work influenced the public debate. As opposition to abortion mounted in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan asked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a report on the psychological effects of abortion. Koop, a vocal anti-abortionist, was widely expected to denounce abortion as a risk to women’s mental health.

After surveying 250 studies, including those by Dr. David and scientists he had mentored, Koop refused to issue the report, citing inconclusive evidence. Koop later called the psychological harm caused by abortion “minuscule from a public health perspective.’’

Dr David was best known for his study on unwanted children, the result of a chance meeting at a late-1960s cocktail party in Prague. Dr. David, who was in Czechoslovakia for research, struck up a conversation with the head of the country’s public health service. She asked whether he would be willing to find out what had become of Czech children whose mothers had wanted abortions but could not get permission. Struck by the unusual scientific opportunity presented by the communist government’s penchant for detailed recordkeeping, he agreed.

With the help of two Czech colleagues, Dr. David tracked 220 children whose mothers had twice requested and been denied abortions. He compared them with 220 children whose parents had wanted them, matching each against a counterpart with similar socioeconomic background, birth order and parents’ marital status.

He reported that by age 35, the unwanted children were less likely to have graduated from high school and have satisfying relationships. And he showed that they were more likely to be jailed and experience addiction.

The study, presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1989, resulted in the Czech government’s decision to more freely permit abortion. It also gave ammunition to American abortion rights advocates in their efforts to challenge state laws requiring parental consent for abortions.

Read the obituary in full here:

Henry David dies; psychologist studied abortion’s effects. Washington Post, 15 January 2010