Pro-lifers call for JAMA to retract 2005 paper about fetal pain

JAMAPro-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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12 thoughts on “Pro-lifers call for JAMA to retract 2005 paper about fetal pain”

  1. Given the history of falsifications by the Catholic Church, and its bias regarding this topic, the other sources cited mentioned by Agresti would have to be given a very close look before this complaint should be taken seriously.

    1. Care to name some falsifications? And then perhaps you might to critique the issue at hand instead of ad hominem.
      For example:
      In the above you can reference articles 30 and 31, namely:
      30. Gitau R, Fisk NM, Teixeira JM, Cameron A, Glover V. Fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal stress responses to invasive procedures are independent of maternal responses. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2001;86:104–9.
      31. Littleford J. Effects on the fetus and newborn of maternal analgesia and anesthesia: a review. Can J Anaesth. 2004;51:586–609.

      It really is a massive, illogical cognitive leap to assume pain is only perceived by the fetus once delivered from the womb.

  2. The “Just Facts” piece neglects to mention that one of the articles it links to gives a recipe for “selective feticide” for “pregnancy reduction” and gives doses of fentanyl or remifentanil for fetal analgesia prior to feticide (you know, abortion.) An excellent read.

  3. From the National Catholic Register an excellent comment

    “Another critic of the paper, Ave Maria University visiting associate professor Michael New, told the Register that he is “not a fan of the JAMA study,” but “I am a little reluctant to ask journals to retract studies. Human knowledge is always evolving. I would not want to see a study retracted because new data or new methods raised doubts about previous conclusions.””

    I find some of the comments on the authors wrong. Almost everyone has some financial interest in having their papers published. Many papers are published to provide further backing to a prior belief. How many researchers who published papers contradicting this paper listed their religious beliefs? Or the fact that they probably didn’t do abortions. At the time any O&G doctor would either have done or not done abortions.

    I have occasionally looked at articles from the early 20th century biostatistics literature. In amongst them are papers about relationship between head shape and criminality and other similar topics. Should we go through the lot and remove them, especially the papers on eugenics? No, they are wrong but are also historic.

  4. If this paper gets retracted, there will be massive repercussions for all prenatal research that has been published.

  5. Subsequent research leading to an evolution in the knowledge base, is NEVER a good reason to retract. The paper reported on what was the best science at the time. That science has (allegedly) been superseded, but that’s just the nature of science!. It’s not a justification to go around selectively erasing history.

    If we do what the pro-life kooks want across all of science, we should just implement a rolling window, automatically retracting everything that’s been in the literature for more than 20 years, because clearly it’s old and therefore wrong.

    The irony here appears to be lost on the pro-lifers… given the rather ancient status of their favorite fairy-story book, it should be a prime candidate for retraction. I look forward to a response from JAMA along the lines of “sure, if you retract the bible first”.

    1. With all due respect, Mr. Brookes, the Bible is composed of many books, none of which fall under the genre of “fairy tale”. I’d avoid making exegetical stands here, especially since Catholicism is both Scripture and Tradition.

  6. So while I am not a fan of removing things from the literature, certainly I am a fan of notifying the reader of the bias (which in this case appears substantial) for the authors. Certainly that (at least) should be noted in the paper.

  7. Obviously, this call for retraction and the 2005 study itself are just tiny elements in the American drama about abortion. In this theatre it will not make any difference whether the study should be retracted or not. So, one should just leave it as is. The rest of the civilized world has moved on carefully to deal with abortion.

  8. Yes, the data are historical, and they can never be erased from history-nor should they be. The point, however, of a retraction, especially when dealing with such socially/politically contentious activities as abortion, is to prevent further use of the uncorrected data in new arguments, either through reference or by quotation, by anyone, to advance political goals.

  9. By the way, if you want to know what “Just Facts” is really about, read their “About” section:
    James Agresti: ” He is also the author of Rational Conclusions, a meticulously researched and acclaimed book evidencing factual support for the Bible across a broad array of academic disciplines.”
    ?Factual support for the Bible, eh? There’s a “scientific” document– that was completed almost 2000 years ago.
    Then there is this:
    “we are conservative/libertarian in our personal viewpoints”…
    I won’t elaborate on the implications of that statement.

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