"Research" and "findings" on which the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals relied for evidence in considering a law mandating that doctors tell women abortion is linked to higher rates of suicide has been found by a large number of researchers and medical bodies to be "an outright lie."
Earlier this year, an analysis by leading researchers completely discredited a key article used as “evidence” by the state of South Dakota and anti-choice supporters in their arguments to the 8th Circuit Federal Appeals Court supporting a law forcing doctors to tell women seeking to terminate a pregnancy that abortion is linked with higher risks of suicide and depression.
The researchers also called on the editors of the Journal of Psychiatric Research (JPR) in which the article was originally published in 2009 to retract the article, a step now under consideration by the editors, one of which cited the article’s “serious deficiencies.”
The article is titled “Induced abortion and anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders: Isolating the effects of abortion in the national co-morbidity survey” (Coleman et al., 2009).
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In the article, lead author Priscilla Coleman and her colleagues purported to show a relationship between past abortions and mental disorders that were present “at the time of data collection, providing assurance that in most cases, the abortion preceded the diagnosis,” thus ostensibly supporting a causal relationship between abortion and subsequent mental health. The analysis relied, to a great degree, on previous work done by Coleman and her team.
In October 2010, however, Julia Steinberg of the University of California San Francisco and Lawrence Finer of the Guttmacher Institute published in the journal Social Science & Medicinea re-analysis of the National Comorbidity Survey data set on which Coleman based her work. Their analysis demonstrated that the share of women in the Coleman study was much too high for events occurring in the past 30 days (the measure most similar to “present or absent at the time of data collection”), and also identifying a number of other errors the analytical approach used in the Coleman paper.
In response, Coleman and colleagues published a corrigendum (correction) that same year attempting to explain why their case made sense. Only it didn’t. Further inquiry only turned up more problems with the Coleman analysis.
A letter to the editor by Steinberg and Finer published in the March 2012 issue of the JPR detail the study’s “fundamental analytical errors that render its conclusions invalid.”
“We are now able to replicate the numbers in the corrigendum,” write Steinberg and Finer, “and, equally importantly, we are also able to deduce the specific analyses performed.”
We conclude that the corrigendum is an insufficient response. Once the problem of incorrect weighting is resolved, a more serious problem becomes evident, involving untrue statements about the nature of the dependent variables and associated false claims about the implications of the findings. [Emphasis added.]
“Most egregiously,” they continue, “the study by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues did not distinguish between mental health outcomes that occurred before abortions and those that occurred afterward, but still claimed to show a causal link between abortion and mental disorders.”
Subsequently, the journal’s editor-in-chief and the director of the data set used in the study concluded in an accompanying commentary that “the Steinberg-Finer critique has considerable merit,” that the Coleman paper utilized a “flawed” methodology, and that “the Coleman et al. (2009) analysis does not support [the authors’] assertions.”
Sources indicate that the journal’s editors, including Alan Schatzberg, editor-in-chief of JPR, are discussing a retraction of the Coleman paper, and Rewire is awaiting a reply to an email to Dr. Schatzberg asking for clarity on the status of the retraction.
Priscilla Coleman is a professor at Bowling Green State University and the Director of WeCare, a gathering place for anti-choice “academics” attempting to use flawed research methods and analysis to undermine peer-reviewed evidence and to “create” evidence supporting anti-choice, anti-science ideologies. Her bio cites as one of her most “recent studies” an analysis that appeared in the British Journal of Psychiatry which was among those later completely debunked by the UK Royal Academy of Medical Colleges.
In reference to the critique of Coleman’s work, Steinberg states:
This is not a scholarly difference of opinion; their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data. The shifting explanations and misleading statements that they offered over the past two years served to mask their serious methodological errors.
“The errors are especially problematic,” Steinberg continues, “because Coleman later cited her own study in a meta-analysis of studies looking at abortion and mental health. The meta-analysis, which was populated primarily by Coleman’s own work, has been sharply criticized by the scientific community for not evaluating the quality of the included studies and for violating well-established guidelines for conducting such analyses.”
“Studies claiming to find a causal association between abortion and subsequent mental health problems often suffer from serious methodological limitations that invalidate their conclusions,” says Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute. “In thorough reviews, the highest-quality studies have found no causal link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems.”
So now we have a court decision upholding a law that clearly requires medical doctors to lie to women, outright, all of which is based on falsified evidence.
Freedom in America?
We will keep you updated on what is happening with retraction of the Coleman article.
First Big Tobacco, then climate change denial, and now, the anti-choice movement.
The issues might have changed, but the techniques now widely used by conservatives to distort science and, with it, public policy, remain the same.
They create nonprofits, staffed with die-hard ideologues, and set about producing and promoting bogus science, to build the illusion of dissent or doubt over conclusions drawn by peer-reviewed scientific or medical research. They develop their own “research findings” to suit their ideological views. Then they deploy scare tactics, all with the goal of passing laws that suit their agenda.
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In this case, the agenda is to promote the theory that abortion harms women’s health—physically and mentally. It’s a strategy anti-choice activists have been working on for decades, but in recent years, sympathetic state attorneys general have been increasingly relying on a cadre of so-called experts who will defend and promote anti-choice laws.
Rewire has detailed the various organizations and individuals involved in what might best be called the “False Witness” industry. We reviewed scores of public records from state attorneys general and health departments, interviews of officials and legitimate researchers, and a close examination of both the tax filings and the scholarly works of these organizations and individuals.
Our investigation reveals the close connections between many of the ostensibly independent “research” groups that feature prominently in the anti-choice movement. Several groups, such as the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the Reproductive Research Audit, and the World Expert Consortium for Abortion Research and Education, share many of the same officers and experts.
Our work details how the scientific and medical claims of these groups and individuals have been publicly discredited in episodes ranging from lying to the public, presenting false data in scientific journals, and being forced to retract articles that proved to be works of fiction presented as fact. Other doctors and professors catalogued in this gallery carry impressive credentials, appear to be apt in their fields, and are technically qualified to testify on reproductive-health issues. However, fueled by their religious or political beliefs (or both), many of these professionals have testified in support of unproven or discredited theories.
Our research also shows that, despite the documented problems with these “experts,” states have paid members of this group nearly $658,000 dollars since 2010 for testimony in both legislative and court hearings—paving the way for laws, policies, and legal opinions that are buttressed by “facts” that are “truthy” at best, or explicitly false at worst. That number is likely the tip of the iceberg, since it is based only information from states that complied with our records requests.
The impact of these False Witnesses has been wide-reaching: According to Aziza Ahmed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, who has studied the use of evidence in abortion litigation, courts are now accepting as fact what were once recognized as shoddy, “fringe” notions.
“The courts are acting politically and you’ll see that they’re doing a lot of work to legitimize what they call ‘conservative evidence,’” Ahmed said. She said this has put progressives in a “quagmire” of disputing unscientific claims—a debate that simply sows more doubt in the public’s mind. “The only way to deal with that is to acknowledge the politics of the courts and how the courts in today’s very anti-choice environment are making it possible for conservative ‘scientific’ arguments to have so much legitimacy.”
Rewire’s research has identified 14 people who have played an outsized role in creating and spreading key falsehoods about abortion. We have found that they are affiliated with a small number of key groups that give these bogus notions an official gloss but which are little more than vehicles for manufacturing doubt.
WECARE, Founded by Discredited Researcher
WECARE was founded in June 2011 by Priscilla K. Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, to further the idea that abortion harms women. In addition to publishing questionable research and analysis, WECARE advertises ideologically driven scholars and professors to testify against abortion rights during legislative hearings or in the courts.
Coleman, who has a PhD in life-span developmental psychology from West Virginia University, has dedicated her career to establishing a causal relationship between abortion and mental illness. She is one of the small number of individuals whose incessant and unscientific claims have contributed to state laws that repeat that falsehood as a legislative “finding.”
In recent years, Coleman has testified in Alaska, Ohio, South Dakota, and even before the U.S. Congress, our research has found. Records obtained from these states show that she has earned a minimum of $10,875 for her work in North Dakota alone.
In February 2013 Alaska state Sen. John Coghill (R-Fairbanks), invited Coleman to testify in support of a bill he sponsored that would have eliminated the use of state Medicaid funding for abortions deemed medically necessary due to mental illness.
“I am of the opinion that abortion is never justified based on mental health grounds and abortion should not be paid for by the state of Alaska due to the presence of any form of mental illness in women,” said Coleman, as reported by the Anchorage Daily News; she was armed with citations from her large body of research, which she claimed documents “the association between abortion and declining mental health status.”
The problem with Coleman’s supporting research was that most of it was her own work, which had been thoroughly and embarrassingly debunked back in 2009.
The study purported to analyze the relationship between induced abortions and a range of diagnosed mental health disorders using data from the National Comorbidity Survey for the years 1990 through 1992. Coleman’s team concluded that women who had reported having one or more abortions were likelier than those who had not reported having abortions to have been diagnosed with panic disorders and attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, mania, depression, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs.
Coleman’s study has been referenced by states’ attorneys to defend various state laws requiring doctors to tell women that abortion increases their risk to mental disorders. Among those is a 2005 South Dakota law that forced doctors to to tell women an abortion will put them at risk for depression or suicide—even though this alleged connection is at odds with the medical consensus on this issue. Coleman was also widely cited in a South Dakota legislative task force report that helped to inform that law.
Other researchers quickly pounced on major problems with Coleman’s article, and even Alan F. Schatzberg, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who edits the journal, along with Harvard Medical School professor Ronald C. Kessler, determined that Coleman’s analysis did not support her “assertions that abortion led to psychopathology in the NCS data.” Yet, for reasons it has declined to state, the journal did not retract Coleman’s article, a fact she repeats in defense of her otherwise eviscerated work.
Despite this public disgrace, Coleman is regularly called as an expert witness to testify about abortion-related policies, and has done so on the taxpayer’s dime. Between November 2013 and February 2014, the state of North Dakota paid Coleman more than $10,000 for expert testimony for abortion litigation, according to records Rewire obtained through a public records request. The state has been embroiled in litigation related to a series of anti-abortion bills since 2011.
And Coleman is not alone. Since founding WECARE in mid-2011, she has fortified relationships with other anti-choice researchers who have also been caught playing fast and loose with science, or outright lying, and yet who continue to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars to jet around the country, peddling their falsehoods in state houses and courtrooms.
AAPLOG houses three False Witnesses: Executive Director Donna Harrison, who frequently claims that emergency contraception is abortion, and at-large board members Calhoun and Chireau.
Elard Koch founded and directs the MELISA Institute, which also houses three False Witnesses: Calhoun, Chireau, and Dr. John Thorp, a North Carolina-based obstetrician-gynecologist who serially testifies in court unfounded assumptions that problems from abortion are likely grossly under-reported. Thorp’s expert witness reports have also been influenced by anti-choice activist Vincent Rue.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute and Reproductive Research Audit
Whereas WECARE exists to lend credibility to the minority viewpoint that there is a significant, direct correlation between induced abortion and mental health disorders, the Charlotte Lozier Institute and Reproductive Research Audit exist to throw doubt on the majority viewpoint that abortion is a safe procedure that does not present physical and mental risks at a significantly higher rate than other procedures or life events.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute is the “education and research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, a Beltway nonprofit that focuses on electing anti-choice politicians to Congress. The SBA List has been around since the early 1990s, but the Charlotte Lozier Institute was only founded in 2011—in an attempt by the anti-choice movement to rival the widely respected Guttmacher Institute as a trusted source of abortion-related research. It boasts as members several of the same people who work with Priscilla Coleman.
Though it masquerades as a research institute, the Charlotte Lozier Institute has so far produced little in the way of original research and data-gathering and has instead published more commentaries and analyses of others’ research that support its agenda on abortion and end-of-life issues. The group has also called for more standardized and robust reporting of abortion statistics by state health departments—under the guise of better understanding the risks of abortion. Yet, all the while, its parent organization, the SBA List, works every day to criminalize abortion. The Charlotte Lozier Institute reported spending $11,411 in 2012 seeking out academic and policy experts to provide oral and written testimony in favor of policies that restrict access to legal abortion, and boasts several False Witnesses members as “associate scholars.”
The Charlotte Lozier Institute files with the Internal Revenue Service as the Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund. The Fund’s public tax filings show that it is far from a true research institute, but is instead a political organization aligned with the Republican Party and intended to argue against reproductive rights.
Charles A. Donovan serves as president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. He’s worked in the Beltway for decades for a variety of national conservative and religious right organizations, including the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council, and the Heritage Foundation. He currently sits on the board of directors of the Family Research Council and Heartbeat International, a crisis pregnancy center network based in Columbus, Ohio.
The James Madison Center is associated with James Bopp, Jr., who is involved with the infamous Citizens United case. Bopp was previously counsel for ActRight, an umbrella organization intended to help fund Republicans’ political campaigns, created by officers of the National Organization for Marriage, a national nonprofit that since 2007 has been campaigning against marriage rights for gay men and lesbians in the United States and abroad.
Charlotte Lozier also reported spending more than $46,000 collecting data on abortion and on collecting state and county-level data “to evaluate the effectiveness of marketing and other communications strategies to increase patient traffic to care centers,” referring to so-called crisis pregnancy centers designed to dissuade women from having abortions. The group reported spending approximately $44,000 on focus-group and polling research in 2012, exploring among other things “public attitudes toward the legal permissibility of abortions performed for the person [sic] of destroying an unborn child of a particular sex.”
Reproductive Research Audit (RRA) is a project of the Center for Morality in Public Life, a nonprofit based in Fairfax, Virginia, and founded in 2010, whose stated purpose is “to integrate good ethics with daily living.” Two of RRA’s regular contributors are Harvey and New, who are also affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.
RRA’s stated mission is “to shine a light on the methodology of scientific studies on reproductive health issues, exposing their bias, flaws and propensity to ignore data that does not support a pre-determined political agenda. Too often, such articles, rife with error, are cited as legitimate research, and are used to further efforts in favor of increased access to abortion and contraception.”
As with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, RRA works to undermine research that supports abortion rights policies, particularly research produced by the Guttmacher Institute. But in some cases, RRA’s research critiques misrepresent the study or analysis in question. And in other cases, RRA contributors completely distort the research they are purporting to “audit.”
For example, we have documented an instance where RRA’s Harvey tried to debunk a Guttmacher study, which documented the lengthy distances women traveled to access abortion services in 2008. Harvey inadvertently distorted the study, because she had not actually read it, but rather made assumptions based on the abstract alone.
“I regret that I worked from an incomplete source when a complete source was available and for the subsequent errors that caused,” wrote Harvey in a Reproductive Research Audit article dated July 31, 2013, in which she attempted to correct errors she had made in a critique of a Guttmacher Institute study after admitting to not having read the Guttmacher study.
Yet Harvey, like her fellow False Witnesses, continues to publish work that has an impact not only on the public debate, but on the constitutional rights of millions of Americans who wish to exercise control over their own reproductive health and future.
Correction: A version of this story included the line “For a month’s work in the fall of 2013, for example, the state of North Dakota paid Coleman more than $10,000 for expert testimony for abortion litigation.” In fact, that money was paid between November 2013 and February 2014. We regret the error.
Once a legislature accepts bogus facts, a larger problem can arise: Courts will frequently defer to the factual findings of state legislatures, which provides a gaping loophole for junk science to wend its way into judicial decisions all the way up to the Supreme Court.
The legislators relied on evidence from David C. Reardon, one of the people who in the early 1980s helped concoct a faux mental illness that he calls “post-abortion syndrome.” But, as detailed in Rewire’s False Witnesses series, Reardon lacks any credentials as an authority on reproductive health care, and to call him such would be specious, to be polite.
Reardon has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and according to his public LinkedIn profile, he focuses on IT. Some of his patents have been used by a Texas-based firm called NovelPoint Security LLC, which claims that major tech companies have violated his patents, conduct also known as patent-trolling.
In addition to his electronics degree, Reardon used to claim that he had earned a Ph.D. in biomedical ethics from Pacific Western University-Hawaii, but that “school” was shuttered by the state in 2006 after an investigation concluded that it was a diploma mill. Reardon makes no mention of that credential on his current LinkedIn profile.
The South Dakota report concluded that abortion leads to serious mental illness, as well as risk of suicide and breast cancer—claims that have all been debunked by reputable professional research organizations. Those “findings” helped frame a 2005 South Dakota law that requires doctors to give women warnings about depression and suicidal ideation, despite the fact that medical evidence does not support any of those claims. This and other laws based on Reardon’s bogus notions have transformed South Dakota into a state where the constitutional right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term now hangs by a filament.
It’s a pattern that is all too familiar in state legislators around the United States, said Caitlin Borgmann, a law professor at the City University of New York who is an expert in the role of courts and legislatures in protecting constitutional rights.
“There’s a risk of this whenever you have a hot-button social issue because advocates know that social science matters,” Borgmann told Rewire. “You’re always at risk that they’re going to try to find evidence that support their position, even if it’s not based on sound methods or from someone who has the right example to give that opinion.”
Once a legislature accepts these bogus facts, a larger problem can arise: Courts will frequently defer to the factual findings of state legislatures, which provides a gaping loophole for junk science to wend its way into judicial decisions all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Unfortunately it is true that the courts sometimes do look to the legislative record, and in fact they did that when they looked at the partial-birth abortion ban, in Gonzales v. Carhart,” Borgmann said. “The effect of that is that you can have decisions that affect people’s constitutional rights being made on very shoddy factual findings.”
Experts in One Area, Testifying in Another
Of the many uses for a law degree, Teresa Stanton Collett has developed a new one: She is frequently called upon to testify in favor of forced pregnancy laws, yet her evidence has trampled into the terrain normally left to sociologists, psychologists, and, well, people who understand data.
In 2012, Collett testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice and suggested that pregnant minors are often pressured into having an abortion by their older boyfriends. Collett cited figures from a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “suggesting that there is [sic] in fact differences in power and status between the sexual partners.”
Collett has also testified in Alaska, in two lawsuits challenging restrictions on minors’ ability to obtain abortions without the involvement of their parents. Since 2010, Collett has earned $176,000 from just two states—Alaska and Oklahoma—that hired her to support laws intended to strip away the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
In her testimony in these cases, Collett assessed data from a wide range of sources, which she used to bolster claims that requiring minors to obtain parental consent in order to have an abortion affects the rates of teen pregnancy and teen abortions.
While there’s nothing wrong with lawyers citing statistics, Janet Crepps—senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the plaintiffs, Planned Parenthood of Alaska, in these cases—told Rewire that the problem was that Collett went beyond citing statistics, and used them to do her own analysis and draw her own conclusions.
“What she did was she went onto the website where there is publicly available information, like how many births there were to a certain age group, how many abortions there were, and she offered testimony that the parental involvement requirement in Texas had had a certain impact,” Crepps said. “Our objection was that she was not qualified to offer that kind of information, because she’s not a social scientist and she couldn’t take into account confounding variables, such as a reduction overall in the abortion rate throughout the country, whether there had been a change in sex education or access to birth control. And she was just offering raw numbers the way you or I could go to the website and say, ‘Oh, look, here’s how many abortions that were before the law, and here is how many that were after the law, so the law must be having X effect.’”
“We objected again because she’s not a social scientist, and the fact that she’s read a bunch of studies doesn’t in my opinion make her an expert,” Crepps concluded. “But the judge let that testimony in.”
New has also testified before Congress in favor of anti-choice laws. In March 2012, for example, he testified before the House Judiciary Committee in support of the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA), which would prohibit the act of transporting a minor across state lines in order to obtain an abortion. In his testimony, New told the committee, “I am confident the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act would lead to both fewer abortions and better public health outcomes for teen girls.”
New claimed that “the knowledge that their parents will be involved with an abortion decision provides teen girls with a strong disincentive to engage in unprotected sexual activity,” based on a 2003 Journal of Health Economics study, which he says found that parental involvement laws reduced the pregnancy rate of 15- to 17-year-olds by 4 to 9 percent.
However, New’s true intention is not simply to provide objective evidence of how laws will affect women and girls. As he has publicly admitted, his real goal is to effectively ban abortion.
In 2012, New spoke on a panel at the socially conservative Values Voter Summit, an annual conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Family Research Council. During his PowerPoint presentation, New explicitly stated that laws often cloaked in the pretense of protecting women are in fact intended to make abortion impossible to access.
“The best thing you can do when you get home is support a variety of state pro-life bills, and essentially, if your state has them, they can be strengthened,” New said. “Require the woman to see an ultrasound, or require two trips to the clinic. That raises the costs; that stops the abortion from happening.”
Borgmann, of the City University of New York, said that ideology is highly relevant, as it can affect an expert’s credibility. And while legislative hearings are not bound by the same rules as courts, it’s still important for lawmakers to ask tough questions to discover if ideology is trumping the objective view of experts appearing at legislative hearings.
“You can’t compare legislatures to courts or expect them to have the same procedures because they serve a very different function,” she said. “The most you could hope for is that legislators would recognize the flaws in the process and take things with a grain of salt, and take a look at the background of the people testifying.”
Judges Wise Up to Some False Witnesses
Courts, said Borgmann, are a different forum: They should view factual “findings” by legislatures with a heavy dose of skepticism, especially given that anti-choice activists have clearly realized that state legislatures provide a gaping loophole in the otherwise strict rules about what judges will allow as expert evidence.
In certain cases, judges are already calling out these experts for their failure to disclose the fact that they are anti-choice zealots, or that their research has been discredited.
In September and October 2014, judges lambasted both Texas and Alabama for hiring a collection of so-called experts to testify in favor of repressive abortion laws. The experts in question were John M. Thorp and James C. Anderson—both members of the False Witnesses group. Their testimony was orchestrated by a third False Witness, Vincent M. Rue.
According to Molly Redden’s report about the Alabama case in Mother Jones, U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson obliterated Anderson’s claims about the risks of abortion:
“Either [Anderson] has extremely impaired judgment; he lied to the court as to his familiarity with Rue; or he is so biased against abortion that he would endorse any opinion that supports increased regulation on abortion providers. Any of these explanations severely undermines Anderson’s credibility as an expert witness.”
This type of scrutiny is not only welcome, but is in fact the way that courts are supposed to operate, said Borgmann. Recent studies have found that some appellate courts have broken their own rules about evidence, and have gone so far as to do their own online research—a step that opens the judicial process up to the influence of propaganda, especially in contentious areas such as reproductive rights.
A better approach, said Borgmann, would be for lower courts to cast a doubtful eye over any findings from state legislatures, and to aggressively test the qualifications and biases of any purported expert testimony.
“Courts should be very careful when they are looking at laws where the legislature has limited constitutional rights,” she said. “Testimony that happens in court has a much better chance of revealing problems like that someone doesn’t even have an education in the area they’re talking about, or that their theories are widely discredited. These things should come out in trial.”