Pro-life activists have asked JAMA to retract a 2005 paper that suggested fetuses can’t feel pain before the third trimester.
Critics are arguing 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, they note, some of the authors failed to mention their ties to the abortion industry.
The 2005 paper has been cited 191 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science. We spoke with Howard Bauchner, Editor in Chief at JAMA and The JAMA Network, who told us something similar to what he said last week, when PETA asked to retract a paper they claim could be harmful to elephants:
…all requests for retraction are carefully evaluated. At this time we are reviewing the request as well as the references that were cited.
Reporting of Conflict of Interest has changed over the past 10 years, but nevertheless are evaluating that issue.
In a statement to the National Catholic Register, the president of “Just Facts” James Agresti asked JAMA to retract the paper, which he dubbed “the media’s go-to source for fetal pain.”
Agresti details his critiques of “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence” at Just Facts last month, citing other sources that say pain begins much earlier in gestation. What’s more, he notes that two authors 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.
The New York Times reported on the missing affiliations for two authors in 2005, and quoted then-editor of the journal:
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.
The damage, argues Agresti, is that major media outlets continue to publish the conclusions from the 2005 paper. For instance, he links to a New York Times article from last month about when fetuses feel pain, which reports:
In recent years, abortion opponents have cited concerns over fetal pain to pass state-level restrictions on abortions occurring at 20 weeks or later — or to pass laws requiring doctors to tell women that a fetus may feel pain at that stage of development.
But many doctors reject those claims, saying a fetus’s brain and nervous system are not developed at 20 weeks to feel pain. They cite a wide-ranging 2005 study that found a fetus was unlikely to feel pain until the third trimester of a pregnancy, or about 27 weeks. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in 2013 that no subsequent research had contradicted that study.
The affiliation listed for all authors on the 2005 paper is the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). An email for corresponding author Mark Rosen, now emeritus professor at UCSF, bounced; we contacted first author Susan Lee, who is still affiliated with UCSF, and will update with anything we learn.
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