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Posted at 04:38 PM ET, 03/07/2012

Abortion research: Is it ever unbiased?

LONDON — In an election year in which women’s reproductive health issues are already front and center, allow me toss one more log onto the fire. A new study has been released challenging the notion that abortion has long-term mental health effects for women.

The study – which was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research - is actually a refutation of an earlier study in the same journal which purported to show that mental health disorders (like panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder) were higher in women who had terminated their pregnancies.

This initial study was used to inform a number of recent state efforts to restrict abortions, including – most recently – the controversial Virginia proposal that would have required women to undergo a transvaginal ultra-sound before going ahead with the procedure.

But apparently, the methodology in the original study was deeply flawed. By including all lifetime mental health disorders of the women in their sample - rather than only those instances occurring after the abortion took place – the study’s claims were utterly unsubstantiated.

As Dr. Julia Steinberg – a co-author on the new, corrective research paper – notes: "This is not a scholarly difference of opinion; their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data.”

 As I read about this debate, I was reminded of two posts earlier this week on this blog by my colleagues Suzi Parker and Karen Tumulty. In the aftermath of Rush-gate and the unfortunate re-colonization of our collective unconscious by the word “slut,” both Suzi and Karen pointed that some liberal voices are as sexist and scathing as some conservative voices are .

Similarly, whatever your political proclivities, you can also balk when confronted with data that don’t support your ideological priorities. I remember my then-Politics Daily editor Melinda Henneberger pointing this out when a study came out showing that abstinence education worked quite well with pre-teens — an uncomfortable truth that those  who favor more explicit teen sex education didn't particularly want to hear.

Prize-winning economist (and Freakonomics co-author) Steven Levitt was vilified when he wrote a social scientific article years ago claiming that the noticeable drop in crime since the 1970s in the United States was largely attributable to the passage of Roe v. Wade.

I myself got a dose of this medicine when I wrote an article last year about a study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine which found that having an abortion was less damaging to a woman’s mental health than having a baby. I got a lot of push back on that story – not just from readers, but pro-life colleagues as well – and it reminded me just how much we all hate to read things that run counter to our pre-existing biases.

Of course, I’m as guilty of this sort of behavior as the next guy or gal. I found it jarring, for example, to read my colleague Mary Curtis’s post “after-birth abortion,” which cites a recent academic paper making a theoretical case for...well, it’s hard to say it without sounding insane.

But as a pro-choice, former academic, I nonetheless found myself trying to rationalize the rather hair-raising implications of this particular scholarly argument by casting it in purely philosophical terms (as the authors meant us to) and discounting its grisly real-world implications.

All of which is to say that none of us parks our ideology at the door when we encounter research that goes against what we believe. That’s human nature. But we need to be aware of these biases and do our best to counter them.

The public policy stakes of failing to do so are simply monumental.

Delia Lloyd, a former correspondent for Politics Daily, is an American journalist based in London. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia .

By Delia Lloyd  |  04:38 PM ET, 03/07/2012

Tags:  abortion, abortion research, abortion and mental health, abortion laws

 
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