Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

JAMA: No plan to retract article on fetal pain, despite outcry from anti-abortion activists

with 6 comments

JAMAJAMA has announced it does not intend to retract a 2005 review article about fetal pain, despite requests from anti-abortion activists who claim it has been misused in debates about the procedure.

Earlier this month, JAMA told one anti-abortion critic that it would take a look at the paper, which suggested that fetuses can’t feel pain before the third trimester. Critics have argued that newer findings have shown pain sensation appears earlier in gestation, yet the 2005 data continue to be cited in the discussion around abortion. What’s more, critics have lamented that some of the authors failed to mention their ties to the abortion industry.

But in a letter sent yesterday to James Agresti, Howard Bauchner, Editor in Chief at JAMA and The JAMA Network, writes:

…there is no evidence that the article on fetal pain by Lee et al published in JAMA 2005 should be retracted.

Getting into specifics, Bauchner notes that the 2005 paper words its conclusions carefully, using modifiers such as “probably” and “unlikely,” making the uncertainty around the topic clear.

Virtually all review articles, such as the article by Lee et al, represent a summary of the evidence available at the time of the review of a topic. Although subsequently published reports may add to the existing evidence on a topic, or propose alternative theories, that new information does not require retraction of previous review articles. In addition, for the article by Lee et al, there is no evidence supporting other issues that would necessitate retraction, such as fabrication or falsification.

Regarding the conflicts of interest, Agresti has claimed that two of the authors of “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence” worked in abortion clinics, and the lead author has served as a lawyer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, now NARAL Pro-Choice America. To this point, Bauchner writes:

With respect to the issue you raise regarding potential conflict of interest, the information we have indicates that the authors complied with the journal conflict of interest requirements in 2005. Moreover, in other published articles in which questions have been raised about whether authors have fully disclosed their affiliations and interests, those types of questions have not necessitated retraction.

You can read the entire letter from Bauchner to Agresti here.

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  • Professor Headbutt June 15, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I’m pro-life, but I have to agree with this decision. The fact that political hacks misrepresent science is not a good enough reason to retract the science. And I certainly don’t want us going down the track of retracting studies because other studies found something different.

  • Dustin Siggins June 15, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    Retraction Watch folks,

    First and foremost, thanks for covering this. For reader disclosure, I am the author of the original article about the call for retraction, and Agresti’s organization is a client. I received no compensation from Just Facts for the article, and I am making this comment on my own.

    Second, I noticed two small but important issues with this post:

    1. The post misidentified Agresti as an anti-abortion activist. He is not. Most accurately, he is the president of an independent public policy institute, Just Facts. Your original post made the same error. The article the original Retraction Watch post links to was published by me, and I distinguished between the “pro-life leaders” who “join[ed] call for retraction” of the study, and Agresti — the person the pro-life leaders were joining.

    I made a similar distinction in the body of the article. This is both because Agresti is not an “anti-abortion critic,” but also because Just Facts covers a wide variety of public policy issues.

    2. The above piece says, “Agresti has claimed that two of the authors of ‘Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence’ worked in abortion clinics, and the lead author has served as a lawyer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, now NARAL Pro-Choice America.”

    However, in his post ( and comments elsewhere, Agresti cited USA TODAY and The New York Times. This is not a “claim” by Agresti, but rather conflicts of interest that were reported and factually proven by two national media outlets.

    “Claimed” indicates that the conflicts of interest are being initiated in an unproven fashion by Agresti.

    • Ken June 16, 2016 at 4:00 am

      I think it might best be described as an independently right-wing think tank which is mainly interested in being anti-abortion, anti-gun-control, anti global warming, anti-Obamacare, complaining about the deficit and not much else. So not completely about abortion.

  • Chris June 16, 2016 at 3:56 am

    Jesus everything about this makes me uncomfortable. Don’t envy anyone who is involved.

  • Lee Rudolph June 16, 2016 at 7:52 am

    The phrase “the abortion industry” is extremely tendentious, and I think it should be changed here (and not used again). Would anyone ever use the phrases “the colonoscopy industry” (conceivably) or “the appendectomy industry” (surely not)?

  • Sharon O'Connor June 16, 2016 at 11:53 am

    L. Rudolph makes an excellent point.

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