Termination of pregnancy for medical reasons: A mental health perspective

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Termination of pregnancy for medical reasons (TFMR) occurs when a pregnancy is ended due to medical complications that threaten the health of a pregnant individual and/or fetus, or when a fetus has a poor prognosis or life-limiting diagnosis. It is distinct from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists identification of all abortions as medically indicated. Common indications for TFMR include life-threatening pregnancy complications (eg, placental abruption, hyperemesis gravidarum, exacerbation of psychiatric illness), chromosomal abnormalities (eg, Trisomy 13, 18, and 21; Klinefelter syndrome), and fetal anomalies (eg, neural tube defects, cardiac defects, renal agenesis). In this article, we discuss the negative psychological outcomes of TFMR, and how to screen and intervene to best help women who experience TFMR.

Psychiatric sequelae of TFMR

Unlike abortions in general, negative psychological outcomes are common among women who experience TFMR.1 Nearly one-half of women develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and approximately one-fourth show signs of depression at 4 months after termination.2 Such symptoms usually improve with time but may return around trauma anniversaries (date of diagnosis or termination). Women with a history of trauma, a prior psychiatric diagnosis, and/or no living children are at greater risk. Self-blame, doubt, and high levels of distress are also risk factors.2-4 Protective factors include positive coping strategies (such as acceptance or reframing), higher perceived social support, and high self-efficacy.3,4

Screening: What to ask, and how

Use open-ended questions to ask about a patient’s obstetric history:

  • Have you ever been pregnant?
  • If you’re comfortable sharing, what were the outcomes of these pregnancies?

If a woman discloses that she has experienced a TFMR, screen for and normalize psychiatric outcomes by asking:

  • Symptoms of grief, depression, and anxiety are common after TFMR. Have you experienced such symptoms?
  • What impact has terminating your pregnancy for medical reasons had on your mental health?

Screening tools such as the General Self-Efficacy Scale can help assess predictive factors, while other scales can assess specific diagnoses (eg, Patient Health Questionaire-9 for depression, Impact of Event Scale-Revised and PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 for trauma-related symptoms, Traumatic Grief Inventory Self Report Version for pathological grief). The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale can assess for depression, but if you use this instrument, exclude statements that reference a current pregnancy or recent delivery.

How to best help

Interventions should be specific and targeted. Thus, consider the individual nature of the experience and variation in attachment that can occur over time.5 OB-GYN and perinatal psychiatry clinicians can recommend local resources and support groups that specifically focus on TFMR, rather than on general pregnancy loss. Refer patients to therapists who specialize in pregnancy loss, reproductive trauma, and/or TFMR. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy may be appropriate and effective.3 Online support groups (such as Termination of Pregnancy for Medical Reasons; can supplement or fill gaps in local resources. Suggest books that discuss TFMR, such as Our Heartbreaking Choices: Forty-Six Women Share Their Stories of Interrupting a Much-Wanted Pregnancy.6 Also suggest ways to facilitate conversations with children around TFMR, which is described in a series of books by Katrina Villegas ( Inquire about support rituals, such as naming their child, holding a memorial service, and/or recognizing their due date. Also, for a woman who has experienced TFMR, remember to screen for anxiety in subsequent pregnancies.

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