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Living in states with abortion trigger laws associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression after Roe was overturned, new study finds

A photo illustration shows a piece of paper printed with the preamble to the Constitution and the words Roe v. Wade. The paper is torn down the middle, and the left half is blue, while the right half is red.
Anxiety over abortion restrictions and bans can stem from worrying about the ability to receive lifesaving medical care during pregnancy, according to a new study. (iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, upended women’s reproductive rights and led to confusion and fear about the status of abortion access across the country. Part of that chaos stemmed from “trigger laws” in 13 states, which had implemented legislation that was ready and waiting to limit or outright ban abortion once SCOTUS made the move to end the constitutional right to the procedure.

Now, a new study from Johns Hopkins University is shedding further light on the impact of that decision. The research, which was published on Tuesday, found that living in states with abortion trigger laws “was associated with a small but significantly greater increase in anxiety and depression symptoms” after SCOTUS’s decision when compared to living in states without trigger laws. This comes on the heels of another recent study that looked at how abortion restrictions are affecting ob-gyns, with 70% of them reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of Roe v. Wade being overturned and the abortion restrictions that followed in many states.

In this latest study, which analyzed questionnaire data from over 718,000 participants between December 2021 and January 2023, researchers found that female respondents ages 18 to 45 who lived in trigger states were significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression symptoms after the SCOTUS decision.

“This finding could be related to many factors,” the study’s authors wrote, “including fear about the imminent risk of abortion denial; uncertainty around future limitations on abortion and other related rights, such as contraception; worry over the ability to receive lifesaving medical care during pregnancy; and a general sense of violation and powerlessness related to loss of the right to reproductive autonomy.”

Ben Thornburg, one of the authors of the study, tells Yahoo Life one interesting finding from the study was that male respondents were less likely than women to experience an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms after the Dobbs decision.

"We found that adverse mental health impacts were driven primarily by females of reproductive age," he tells Yahoo Life.

Women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider, who was not affiliated with the study, tells Yahoo Life she isn’t surprised by its findings. “The American Psychological Association had put out a warning prior to the announcement of the Dobbs decision stating that if the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to obtain an abortion, mental health issues would very likely rise,” Wider says. “They cited decades of research, which highlighted harm to women’s mental health — depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc. — if abortions were restricted or outlawed entirely.”

Although abortion isn’t banned nationwide (it’s currently illegal in 14 states), Wider warns there could be ever further-reaching mental health consequences to state bans and restrictions. “The effects of the Dobbs decision go way beyond limiting abortion in certain states,” she says. “It has physical and psychological ramifications that will reverberate among women all over the country as reproductive rights are threatened and curtailed.”

Dr. Kristin Raj, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who was not affiliated with the study, says the study does have limitations. It doesn’t confirm that a change in self-reported anxiety and depression symptoms is necessarily the result of the Dobbs decision, and “the clinical significance of this change in the depression/anxiety measure used is also unclear,” she tells Yahoo Life. However, other research has also found a higher prevalence of mental distress in women of reproductive age after Roe was overturned.

“Overall, we can take away that women of reproductive age experienced an increase in depressive and anxious symptoms after the time period of the Dobbs decision, and those living in trigger states experienced a greater increase in symptoms than their counterparts in non-trigger states,” Raj says. “The lasting change on these symptoms remains to be studied.”