Handicapping the APA abortion and mental health task force report

Last week, I reported the concerns of peace advocates, Consistent Life, about the upcoming American Psychological Association report regarding potential mental health consequences of abortion. In one of their letters to APA President Alan Kazdin, CL Executive Director, Bill Samuel, wrote:

It is accordingly with great concern we note APA has not taken sufficient care with a highly volatile issue, that of abortion. APA has held a position of abortion as being a civil right for women since 1969, and therefore has a clear political stand. Yet the Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion had no call for nominations; it was formed by Division 35, whose position is stronger and more focused than that of the national organization; and the final make-up of the task force had half the members as strong public advocates of the pro-choice view. Advocates of the view that abortion is violence to both unborn children and to women, which could balance such biases, are ominously absent. There are several well-qualified researchers who would have been pleased to serve on the panel, had the panel been selected with balance in mind.

Consider also that the report of this task force is scheduled to come out during an election year, 2008. The APA position is in accord with that of one of the major political parties, and in opposition to that of the other. When a prestigious organization puts out a report on a politically volatile issue at a time when political passions run particularly high, any imbalance on the task force will not pass unnoticed. Surely critics and observers will highlight the fact that members of such a task force were unbalanced in favor of those whose views matched the political position of the organization. The absence of those who could best challenge assumptions, provide alternative explanations, and offer differing interpretations of the same data will not be overlooked. We hope you will pause to reflect upon how partisan this will appear.

Dr. Kazdin wrote back to say that the APA report “must be grounded in the strongest, peer-reviewed science available…” This is of course the correct answer but I maintain that the Consistent Life people have raised valid points of concern. The task force report is to be released in August at the APA convention if approved by the Council of Representatives.

Beyond the appearance of bias, there is a more obvious indication of how the APA will report the research on abortion and mental health consequences. In the June 2008, APA Monitor, Rebecca Clay wrote an article on how the right wing misuses scientific research. In her article titled, “Science vs. ideology: Psychologists fight back against the misuse of research,” Clay interviews abortion researcher Nancy Adler regarding how anti-abortion psychologists are seeking legitimacy for their perspective by, shudder, doing research and reporting in peer-reviewed journals. Do you think the task force will see things much differently than Dr. Adler?

In other issue areas, special-interest groups have assumed the trappings of science to bolster ideology-driven claims. One example is so-called “post-abortion syndrome,” a scientific-sounding name for something most researchers say doesn’t exist. Nancy E. Adler, PhD, a professor of medical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, is one of them. She has found that the rate of distress among women who’ve had abortions is the same as that of women who’ve given birth. Adler and other experts reviewed the literature in the late 1980s as part of an APA panel and found no evidence of a post-abortion syndrome. Even the anti-abortion Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, refused to issue a report on abortion’s supposed psychological impact when President Ronald Reagan asked him to, citing the lack of evidence of harm.

Since then, says Adler, anti-abortion advocates have become more world-wise.

“They’re using scientific terminology,” she points out. They’re also gaining credibility by getting published in mainstream journals.

But such research often has methodological problems, Adler claims.

“Women are not randomly assigned to have abortions,” she points out. “Women who are having abortions are having them in the context of an unwanted pregnancy, which usually has some other very stressful aspects. Their partners may have left them. They may have been raped.”

In addition, says Adler, proponents of the syndrome don’t mention the base rate of depression and other psychological problems in society as a whole. And they always attribute such problems to abortion rather than any other possible causes.

A new APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion will examine such issues in a report later this year.

I think this is probably signals how the APA’s task force report will turn out. The good guys use good methods and the bad guys use the “trappings of science” and are being sneaky by “getting published in mainstream journals.” I guess the way to tell the good research from the bad is not the quality of peer-reviewed work but the ideology of the researcher. What I get from Clay’s article is this: When an APA-approved policy position is supported, it is science; otherwise, it is ideology.

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  • http://aebrain.blogspot.com Zoe Brain

    The issue is one of good science vs cooking the books to serve a political agenda.

    We need to shackle all the variables we can, compare like with like.

    That means not comparing those refused an abortion of a malformed foetus in the first trimester as the result of violent incestual rape with those to whom it is seen as a casual means of contraception – thereby “proving” that Abortion Is Good. It also means not comparing those forced by family pressures to abort a child they want to keep with normal motherhood to “prove” that Abortion Is Bad.

    There’s been too much of both. The APA’s biased position is due to the backlash against the Comstock laws and other religion-based positions in the past. While understandable, it’s still bad science. I have no faith that their political opponents will be any better.

    For the record, I believe abortion in the third trimester is infanticide. In the first, it is regrettable, and should not be treated lightly, and certainly not as a form of contraception. But my beliefs should not be allowed to bias studies on the psychological effects on the mother. That’s another issue.

  • jayhuck

    Warren,

    It doesn’t sound like she was taking issue with , GASP, the fact that their research was appearing in peer-reviewed journals, it looks like she’s taking issue with their methodologies. Am I wrong?

    Abortion is a fact of life – something I deem a necessary evil because to me, the other option is worse – and I think has been proven to be so.

    Perhaps we should next study the psychological effects not just on women who have abortions, but who have, for whatever reason, had to carry babies to term that they absolutely didn’t want. Not to mention the effects on the baby, their spouse, etc…

    I realize this is a hot-button issue, and I completely understand the desire to defend life – especially that of the unborn, but it isn’t simply the life of the unborn child that has to be taken into consideration. And while I think education and perhaps even the social sciences can help to curb/curtail abortions – and I sincerely hope this is the case – this can’t and shouldn’t impinge on a woman’s right to choose.

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