February 22, 2024

Abortion research sparks debate about scientific objectivity

Dr Catherine De Angelis

A study in a prestigious medical journal which claims that anti-abortion legislation is unnecessary has sparked a bitter debate over advocacy science. Last week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review of research into foetal pain. Based on its conclusions the authors criticised a federal law sponsored by pro-life Senator Sam Brownback. This would require doctors to inform women that their baby might feel pain during the abortion if it is at least 20 weeks old and to offer the possibility of foetal anaesthesia. The authors claimed that the consensus of current research is that foetuses do not feel pain until about the 28th week of a pregnancy and therefore the legislation is ill-informed and unneeded.

The contentious article brought a firestorm of criticism into the office of Dr Catherine DeAngelis, the editor-in-chief of JAMA, from three sides. Some foetal pain researchers questioned the study. Dr Kanwalijeet Anand, a foetal pain research at the University of Arkansas, said: “this is going to inflame a lot of scientists who are very, very concerned and are far more knowledgeable in this area than the authors appear to be.” Anti-abortion extremists also sent flame emails with dozens of what Dr DeAngelis described as “horrible, vindictive” messages. She defended herself by saying that the report was unbiased and objective. In any case, she added, she was a practicing Catholic who did not believe in abortion, although she was pro-choice.

This was largely predictable. But Dr DeAngelis was surprised to learn that two of the five researchers had undisclosed links to the abortion industry. Obstetrician Dr Eleanor Drey runs an abortion clinic at a San Francisco public hospital and medical student Susan J. Lee had worked for several months at the abortion lobby group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Dr DeAngelis insists that the article was objective and not politically biased. But two former editors of the New England Journal of Medicine criticised her judgement. Dr Arnold Relman told the Chicago Tribune that “in a situation as contentious as this, it seems more disclosure should be the rule rather than less.” And Dr Marcia Angell commented: “Suppose it were the other way. Suppose there was an article that said that [foetuses] do feel pain and it was written by people who were involved in the right-to-life movement. Would I want to know that? I think I would.”

This is not the first time in recent years that the world’s largest English-language medical journal has become embroiled in controversy. Dr De Angelis’s predecessor, George Lundberg, was sacked in 1999 after he fast-tracked the publication of a study of students’ attitudes towards sex to coincide with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.