Theocracy meets dodgy science

If you go to court in the US on any issues to do with abortion or IVF you might end up confronting a judge who decides your case on his personal theocratic beliefs or one who relies on dodgy science.

Recently the Alabama chief justice, Tom Parker, who ruled that embryos are ‘extrauterine children’, gave a clear example of the theocratic foundation of his thinking when he said: “The people of Alabama have declared the public policy of this State to be that unborn human life is sacred. We believe that each human being, from the moment of conception, is made in the image of God, created by Him to reflect His likeness … [they] have required us to treat every human being in accordance with the fear of a holy God who made them in his image.”

In April last year another judge, Matthew Kacsmaryk, in Texas this time, ruled to suspend the FDA’s two decades’ long approval of the medication abortion drug mifepristone, saying he would suspend the FDA’s two-decade-old approval. He paused the ruling so the federal government can appeal which the FDA has done with the support of Joe Biden.

Kacsmaryk cited three studies when he ruled that the drug be taken off the market. Two argued that that the drug causes a burden on the public health system and the third surveyed Florida abortion providers linking them to malpractice and disciplinary issues.

Nature (27/2) reported that the publisher, Sage, has now retracted two of the papers as well as the third on Florida abortion providers. Subsequent investigation showed that one of the peer reviewers who evaluated the three papers for Sage was affiliated with an anti-abortion organisation.

Sage was alerted to the problem by Chris Adkins, a pharmaceutical scientist from South University in Savannah Geogia, who came across the Sage papers which claimed mifepristone-induced abortions caused elevated incidence of emergency-room (ER) visits compared to surgical abortions.

He told Nature: “I found issues in the paper that I felt compelled to reach out to the journal” given the decision’s impact.

James Studnicki, lead author of three of the papers and director of data analytics at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Arlington Virginia (which describes itself as a pro-life organisation) said there was “no legitimate reason for Sage’s retractions.”

Nature reported that other anti-abortion researchers have threatened lawsuits against publishers who question their research. Chelsea Polis, an epidemiologist, cited as an example a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Psychiatry pointing out concerns about methods used in the paper.

Nature said that many scholars, including Polis and her colleagues, have published letters pointing out concerns about the methods used in the paper, which concluded that there’s an increased risk of mental-health problems after an abortion.

Polis has also been sued because of a complaint she lodged that led to a paper retraction. She told Nature that legal threats discourage academics from speaking out about problematic papers. “At least in my field of sexual and reproductive health I don’t feel compelled to action. At present there is a lot of risk in taking on this kind of work, and very few advantages.”

Nature also said that an internal panel of investigation by the BMJ recommended that a paper by Priscilla Coleman, a psychologist retired from Bowling Green State University, should be retracted. Coleman threatened legal action after she was told the paper was being investigated.

The whole sorry affair represents a much bigger problem. While the right wingers constantly argue they are being silenced, attack ‘wokeness’ and ban books from schools and libraries (even dictionaries in Florida) they deploy legal strategies, arguable research and claims of victimhood to promote their views while silencing others.

Science has often been politically controversial in the US and Australia with the most egregious example being the long disinformation campaigns about climate change.

Fortunately, in Australia most of them don’t end up in court and when they do it is very, very rare that the courts are as controversial as the US Supreme Court has become.

But some of these legal issues about journal articles on abortion will end up in the US Supreme Court and it would be unwise to assume the Supreme Court won’t decide the issue on anything other than ideological grounds.

As Americans used to say with pride – only in America- and now much of the rest of the world says it with rueful ironic intent.

On the other hand, every new development on the abortion front as shown by the reaction to the US Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v Wade, costs Republicans votes.

But don’t despair – there is yet more good news. US Science magazine reports that University of Pennsylvania climate scientist, Michael Mann, was awarded more than $US1 million in a lawsuit against bloggers who accused him of scientific misconduct in inflammatory terms, likening his treatment of data to what a noted child molester did to children.

Mann is famous for his 1998 ‘hockey stick’ paper, which reported a sharp increase in global temperatures after the Industrial Revolution.

John Spitzer brought the Nature and Mann papers to the blog’s attention.