This past Wednesday, JAMA published a review of research into fetal pain. The researchers concluded that fetuses are not physically capable of feeling pain until sometime after the 28th week. (No surprise there – you can’t feel pain if you don’t have a working cerebral cortex). The JAMA report conflicts with a proposed pro-life law, which would require women seeking abortion to be told that their fetuses will suffer pain, and would require anesthetic for the fetus (which can complicate the procedure).
Now it turns out that three of the article’s five authors had potential conflicts of interest.
The editor, Dr. Catherine D. DeAngelis, of The Journal of the American Medical Association, said in an interview that had she been aware of the activities, the journal most likely would have mentioned them. But she added that the disclosure would not have kept the article from being published, because editors and outside experts who had read the manuscript before publication had found it scientifically sound.
One author, Susan J. Lee, a medical student, is also a lawyer who for eight months from 1999 to 2000 worked in the legal department at Naral, an abortion rights group. Another author, Dr. Eleanor A. Drey, performs abortions and is medical director of an abortion clinic.
Neither tried to conceal those activities from reporters before the journal article was published. […] Anti-abortion groups criticized the journal’s failure to mention the two authors’ work and said their backgrounds revealed a bias that cast doubt on their findings.
In addition, a third author, Mark Rosen, is a professor and vice-chair of the University of California – San Francisco’s department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, which is affiliated with the women’s health clinic Dr. Drey runs. (That’s a very weak connection, but many pro-lifers seem to consider it a big deal, so I thought I should mention it.)
Pro-life blogger GrannyGrump comments:
So the results of this “study” boil down to the equivalent of research by R. J. Reynolds showing that cigarette smoke doesn’t have any effect on children.
A few points.
- The researchers didn’t think it was necessary to point out that an oby-gyn performs abortions (what a shock!), or that a student who worked on this study, also worked for NARAL for less than a year over five years ago. Clearly, the researchers were wrong. The researchers should have disclosed all their affiliations to JAMA, even ones that seemed obvious or minor, and let JAMA’s editors decide if they were relevant or not.
- GrannyGrump’s argument is an Ad Hominem. Logically, research is legitimate or not based on how well or poorly it is done; you can’t just look at the researcher’s affiliations and conclude that it must be bad research. (However, conflicts of interest can be a legitimate warning sign, letting us know to view the research methodology carefully.)
- Obviously some medical experts on abortion are going to be doctors who perform abortion, or medical professors who teach about abortion. It goes too far to imply, as GrannyGrump seems to, that experts writing about their own fields are as biased as a tobacco company study. Yes, it raises a legitimate question of conflict of interest; but so does having heart surgeons write articles about heart surgery.
- This particular article passed through JAMA’s peer review process. And it’s not original research – it’s a review of peer-reviewed medical research on the subject. Both these facts make the JAMA article completely different from the faux-research put out by tobacco companies – and make it likely that the findings are legitimate.
- Finally, the pro-life press is full of studies conducted and funded by professional pro-life advocates – and many of those studies are never published in legitimate peer-reviewed journals. It seems unlikely that pro-lifers would be willing to hold their own studies to the standards they’re holding this study to.
Bottom line: It’s no surprise that the pro-lifers have been attacking this study with ad hom attacks on some of the authors, rather than attacking it on the scientific merits.