Alexi Sargeant has written an important piece at First Things calling pro-lifers to embrace truth as their first priority. This commitment should bind all rational and moral people, but Sargeant rightly emphasizes that many of those we need to convince on abortion simply don’t trust us.
(Incidentally, the reasons those who disagree with us often react so negatively to our attempts to persuade are quite complex. Trust is part of it, but it also comes from a general dislike of publicly-religious folk, moralists, do-gooderism, and judgement-casting—especially on matters related to reproduction and sexual responsibility.)
Why the trust deficit? Sargeant persuasively argues that when pro-lifers overstate their claims, or even claim things that are false, they undermine their ability to be authentically heard. LifeSiteNews is among the peak offenders in this area, and not just when they are arguing Obama was an “abortion president” leading “a social suicide cult.”
Sargeant notes that a commitment to truth not only involves refusing to perpetuate blatant lies, but also requires referencing statistics “in a conscientious way, without being glib or misleading.”
As an example, he asserts pro-life pregnancy help centers overstate the connection between abortion and clinical depression. He also describes claims of a possible connection between abortion and breast cancer as “patently wrong.” In support of these very strong claims, Sargeant merely links to summaries from the America Psychological Association (APA) and the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Unfortunately, Sergeant shows none of the skepticism for these sources that he (again, rightly) insists pro-lifers should have for those which support their own confirmation bias. There is no view from nowhere in the abortion debate, and we should not be credulous even when it comes to peer-reviewed medical literature—particularly a culture like the United States which has been so badly damaged by the abortion wars.
Consider, for instance, that the prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry published a thorough meta-analysis of studies done on abortion and mental health from 1995-2009. In a monstrously large sample of 877,297 participants in 22 different studies, women who had an abortion were 81 percent more likely to have mental health problems.
And when women who aborted were compared to a control group of women who delivered the baby, the analysis found the former were 55 percent more likely to experience mental health problems. This data is from the largest quantitative estimate available in the world.
It is not surprising that the American Psychological Association would have its finger on the scales (achieved in part, according to the author of the BJP piece above, by not publishing certain data—and refusing to show them to others when requested) given their five-decade-long activist history with regard to abortion rights. The APA has made support of abortion rights their official political position—even declaring abortion rights to be civil rights.
For anyone familiar with publishing in medicine (again, especially, in the United States), this kind of thing would not be news. The bias against anything that would even remotely impinge on abortion rights is in many circumstances simply ruled out prima facie. A colleague in biomedical ethics once showed me reports on a paper she had submitted for a peer-reviewed publication in a medical journal. Her submission was rejected, not on the basis of poor research or flawed argument, but because the implications of her conclusion reflected negatively on “procreative autonomy.”
You think we have deference to sacred truths in moral theology journals? They pale in comparison to what we find in journals of academic and clinical medicine.
In light of these concerns, Sargeant’s very strong claim that those who link abortion and breast cancer are “patently wrong” could use a healthy dose of skepticism. Even the ACS summary he cites contains conflicting data, with some studies showing a link and other studies not.
The ACA summary suggests this conflict could be resolved by the “recall bias” present in some women who, because of abortion stigma, might not always report that they have had an abortion. But then we would expect to find different data in China where there is virtually no abortion stigma and the abortion wars have been virtually nonexistent. On the contrary, however, studies coming from China (and from South Asia) appear to show an important connection between abortion and breast cancer.
Depending on which side(s) of the abortion debate they find themselves, researchers argue other scientists who find conflicting data and come to different conclusions are (1) using bad methodology and/or (2) are politically biased in their approach. (Reading this piece all the way to the end provides a classic example of precisely this.)
Again, especially in a culture deeply wounded by the abortion wars, there is simply no pure or neutral land on which to have these arguments out. Claims that there may be a link between abortion and breast cancer are not only not “patently wrong,” pregnancy help centers can and do cite data to back up such claims.
So let’s be clear: the ugly politics of the abortion wars does not discriminate with regard to the institutions it corrupts. From churches, to activist organizations, to schools, to editorial boards of medical journals—the corrosive effect of these wars shows up in everything from explicitly defended dogmas to unconscious confirmation bias.
This presents a problem for pro-lifers exchanging with the people who think differently from us. Conclusions coming from professional medical organizations are considered by many of these very people to be unassailable—even having a kind of special authority or sacred status. Indeed, in some circumstances one cannot challenge these conclusions without being labeled “anti-science” and an unserious person.
This complicates Sargeant’s goal of (1) achieving dialogue and common ground with many of those who disagree with us by (2) pursing truth above all else. One can surely agree with him, however, that being consistently skeptical of data and conclusions marshalled in the abortion wars (whether or not it is consistent with our own views) puts pro-lifers in a better position to be heard by those who disagree with us.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: a Way Forward for a New Generation.