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

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 (www.justfactsdaily.com/fetal-pain-facts-and-falsehoods/) 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.

    1. 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.

      1. It’s a shame you cannot assume that Just Facts can reasonably focus on an individual issue independently of the other issues on which is makes positions.

        1. I can conclude that “Just Facts” is a right-wing think tank that is only going to present “Facts” that it thinks refute the left-wing positions it abhors. It is not going to present facts that suggest that any of its right-wing positions are wrong.
          The biases of “Just Facts” are obvious. While everyone has biases, it is clear to me that what is presented on the “Just Facts” website is propaganda, right-wing propaganda, and not just facts. If you have any problems with that statement, try reading a selection of “Just Facts” articles and you will see that not one of the articles presents important facts that would tend to suggest that right-wing positions are actually wrong.

          Let us take an example: “Just Facts” top article: “Income, Wealth, and Poverty”…
          1. the definitions of income omit inheritances. Inheritance is an important source of wealth and income for a certain proportion of the population.
          2. Income is presented first as a numerical average, then as median figures, without explaining the difference– although there is an obvious difference, which is explained by skewing of the numerical average with small numbers of people who have very high incomes.
          3. In the section on sources of income, inheritances are omitted from the “sources of income” and the following statement appears:
          “In 1979, roughly 40% of U.S. households received more in federal, state, and local government benefits than they paid in federal taxes…”
          State and local taxes, like sales taxes, are completely omitted from the “paid” column and are not further discussed… such taxes are regressive, as opposed to the federal income tax, which is progressive.

          3a. In the same section, the following statement is presented:
          ” Government benefits can suppress market income by:
          providing the means and incentive not to work.[56] [57]
          reducing the incentive to work by cutting take-home pay (if taxes are raised to pay for the benefits).[58] [59] [60]
          depressing wages by decreasing productivity-enhancing investments (if governments borrow the money to pay for the benefits).[61] [62]”
          Notice that “government benefits suppress market income” is a statement of opinion, which is followed by “reasons” that are given references (which I did not peruse)… “reasons” that include conclusions such as “produce the means [obvious] and incentive [not so obvious] not to work” and “reducing the incentive to work” and finally “decreasing productivity-enhancing investments”… these are all conclusions that right-wing ideologues swear by, namely that government benefits make poor people lazy (“reduced incentive to work”) and the money would be better spent on “productivity-enhancing investments” (in what way investments enhance productivity is not described, but this could be debated for a long time and is certainly not obvious.)
          The observation that poor people want to work and would work if given the opportunity is never revealed nor discussed; this is perhaps the most important aspect of the entire “welfare” controversy. Right-wing ideologues insist that welfare benefits make people lazy (especially black people– this is a common canard that is presented in movies from the thirties and forties from the mouths of black actors.) They ignore the obvious statements from the mouths of the poor people themselves, who say “Just give me a job! I need work to be able to respect myself.”

          4. I could continue if I had time, but in summary, the long series of statements and tables presented by “Just Facts” has the appearance of presenting all of the objective facts when it in reality omits or distorts certain important facts that tend to change the import of the overall picture in a “left-wing” direction. This is propaganda disguised as objective facts.

  3. 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)?

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