Dr. Stanley Henshaw: Reflections on Four Decades of Abortion Research

Abortion research has always been an important focus of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, and some of the earliest work in this area was conducted by Dr. Stanley Henshaw during his tenure at the Guttmacher Institute, from 1979 to 2013. In his distinguished career, he published numerous studies on abortion providers, patients and restrictions, as well as on unintended pregnancy and family planning services. For the 50th anniversary of Perspectives, Senior Editor John Thomas asked him to share his professional and personal reflections on working in the sexual and reproductive health field.


JT: Dr. Henshaw, you received your undergraduate degree in physics. How did you get from there to a Ph.D. in sociology and a career in the reproductive health field?

SH: By my junior year in college, it had become clear that I would not be able to extend the frontiers of physics, and I got interested in social science. In high school, I had never even heard of sociology. So it was easier to complete a major in physics than start over in social relations (the social science major at Harvard), and I could take pretty much any social science courses I wanted.

JT: You have been centrally involved in research on abortion since the late 1970s. What challenges did you and your colleagues face then?

SH: One difficulty was getting funding for research projects. Funders wanted to know how many lives your project would save or how many abortions would be facilitated, not what basic research could discover. And some funders didn’t want to be associated with abortion. In the 1970s and early 1980s, we worked closely with the abortion surveillance unit of the Centers for Disease Control, but as the political climate changed with the election of Ronald Reagan, this relationship eventually ended. Researchers today are fortunate that some foundations value abortion research.

JT: You have published many studies in Perspectives over the years. You published a study in 1983 on the characteristics of abortion patients, and a follow-up in 1985. Earlier in that decade, you coauthored two assessments regarding attitudes about abortion, one among all women and the other among those who had had an abortion. Any surprising findings in these early studies?

SH: I am still surprised that so many abortion patients say they are opposed to abortion. Don’t they realize that many other women need abortion services for the same reasons they do? Our most interesting finding was that the abortion rate among Catholics was higher than that among Protestants. After we excluded minorities with high abortion rates—Hispanics and blacks—the findings were unchanged: White Catholics had a higher abortion rate than white Protestants. Many people had a hard time believing this.

JT: Did you purposely focus much of your career on abortion research, or did that focus evolve over time?

SH: No, I needed a job and learned from a woman I met at a Fourth of July party that a research position was open at Guttmacher. I had a good background in survey methods and some experience in public health and demography, but no particular interest or expertise in reproductive health. My first major project at the Institute was compiling data on the impact of 10 years of legal abortion in New York State; this made me the go-to person for studies involving abortion. Allowing women to terminate a pregnancy is one of the few policies dealing with a social problem (unintended pregnancy) that gives people what they want, is good for society (fewer unwanted children) and saves money (less expense for prenatal care and childbirth).

JT: How did the increasingly hostile political environment in the 1990s influence what you studied and how you conducted research?

SH: Much of our research involved surveying abortion providers or convincing them to administer questionnaires to their patients. As the environment grew more hostile, many providers understandably became more suspicious and reluctant to reveal information. Others, however, were eager to help more than ever. Actually, the controversy over abortion made our research more interesting and relevant.

JT: You have often testified in legal and public health fora about abortion rates, access and restrictions. What were those occasions, which could be politically charged, like for you?

SH: I think my experiences testifying in court were similar to those of many expert witnesses. Opposing lawyers would do everything they could to portray me as a biased and unreliable witness. Some were hostile and clearly antiabortion, but even those who sympathized with our prochoice positions could be difficult. The depositions were particularly stressful. They are recorded, so any misstatement may be used against you at trial. I needed to support every statement I made with published studies. Fortunately, almost all abortion research demonstrates the safety and benefits of the procedure, so it is much easier to be a witness on the prochoice side than on the antichoice side.

JT: What do you see as current and future challenges in conducting abortion research? What aspects need to be better understood?

SH: The basic facts about abortion are well studied and understood. What isn’t understood as well are the emotional factors underlying abortion attitudes and the norms pertaining to abortion and contraception. Stigma research touches on this topic, but it tends to be psychologistic rather than sociological. And more research on the effect of restrictions is always needed. In particular, we need to better understand how parental involvement requirements affect minors.

JT: Your life’s work has made you a leading expert on abortion provision. What do you believe is the main impact of your decades of research on abortion and reproductive health in the United States?

SH: I think the research by myself and colleagues has been successful in providing the factual foundation for sound public policy. We have supplied much of the data now used by advocates and policymakers.

JT: Are there any lessons or words of advice you would like to share with younger colleagues?

SH: Abortion researchers should continue the tradition of conducting unbiased research. It is regrettable that antichoice research that is biased and dishonest is sometimes influential, but we must adhere to our scientific values.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine