The age-old question: Science and political interests in the debate over abortion

Andre is CMF's junior researcher in Public Policy and Advocacy.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Political agendas hiding behind science are nothing new. A particularly famous episode occurred in the 1950s, where tobacco companies tried to instil doubt in scientific reports that found correlations between smoking and bad health by funding research of their own. Yet, the idea that science can be used as a vehicle for political interests has not disappeared; it has just become much more subtle.

We can see that promotion of limitless abortion may now be on the menu. We need to question the objectivity of the science we see published, and realise that subtle biases may be at play that could affect their conclusions. Yet we also need to bear in mind that science is only one consideration in these debates. There are societal and theological considerations as well.

New research, titled Women’s Mental Health and Well-being 5 Years After Receiving or Being Denied an Abortion: A Prospective, Longitudinal Cohort Study, by Biggs et al. (otherwise known as the ‘Turnaway Study’) concludes that women denied late-term abortions are at greater risk of ‘initially experiencing adverse psychological outcomes’. The authors suggest that we get rid of laws that put abortion limits in place, as they claim there is no evidence to back them up.

However, the study itself suffers from a few significant flaws, as can be found in this article. One point of contention revolves around the thorny issues of vested interests. Funding for the Turnaway study was secured from such sources as the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, which promotes ‘family planning and safe abortion care’, so we can sense that some sort of bias may be operational.

The sweeping conclusion drawn up by the Turnaway study confirms these suspicions. Scientists tend not to advocate for changes in the law after only one study, particularly on one with such widespread impacts, due to the uncertainties and debates involved in the science itself. That this study does raises concerns about political motivation.

There is a slippery slope here. Their results showed that there is generally more distress among mothers who were turned away from late term abortion. Yet, this finding is then used to justify scrapping laws that provide time limits to termination. Nothing is stated about psychological support, counselling or options of adoption or help in keeping the baby.

This proposal has its foundation on the claim that ‘numerous studies and reviews on this topic have found no evidence that abortion leads to negative mental health outcomes’. While there have been studies that do concur with this viewpoint, no consideration is paid to studies that have found just the opposite to be true.

One 2011 paper concludes, from an analysis of 22 other studies on this question involving 877,297 participants, that women who aborted experienced an 81% increased risk for mental health problems and a 55% increased risk of experiencing mental health problems when compared exclusively to those whose unintended mentalhealthdrugs xanax pregnancy was delivered. This alone shows an alternative point of view, though see here for an evaluation of this article’s strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, a major review by the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows the negative effects of historical mental problems, pressure, negative attitudes on abortion and immediate reaction on mental health outcomes. For further examples, see here and here.

This at least puts paid to their main justification for changing the law, as, whatever you may think of the alternate side and the deficiencies that may be present in these studies too, scientific argument does exist and there are compelling arguments on this side. It is not cut-and-dry (other studies are referenced here).

So the authors’ conclusion that their data leads to a necessary advocacy of women being allowed to have their ‘wanted procedures’ at any time during pregnancy can be questioned.

But can we also question the underlying assumption that there is some mental health benefit to abortion? Current UK abortion laws, if applied strictly, are set-up to allow for abortions only in scenarios where the risk of mental illnesses is greater if the termination is not carried out than if it is. Certain studies indicate that abortions carry no mental health benefits (including here).

If this is the case, 98% of abortions occurring under mental health grounds in 2015 would have be illegal in the UK under Section 1a of the Abortion Act 1967.  Therefore, numbers of abortions would be much fewer than currently occurs, if the law was followed correctly.

We can therefore suggest that, if the NHS promotes health, then we may question whether abortions be carried out at all, like this article does? Yet it is important to note that this is a question that science does not answer on its own: it is also a question of morals, ethics, theology, the law and what we want and expect from medical institutions.

Hidden and potential political bias is what allows for conclusions that align to the agenda of the backers. We need to look critically at all scientific articles that seek to inform this debate and assess whether they pass basic tests of good science.

 Therefore, we need to be watchful of any attempts to manipulate science politically, and we must hold people to account when they misinform or ignore other sides in debates. But we must realise that science on its own is insufficient to answer questions of societal organization for us.

Why must we hold scientists to account? Because our God is truth and we are his watchmen, who attempt to seek truth in this broken and complex world. We can still advocate for causes we are passionate about and which we believe God calls us to do. We must realise that science is one consideration, but truth covers all. We must remember this too, as we go into the abortion debate.



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