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The New York Times Flunks Public Health 101



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The New York Times Magazine has published a fawning article about an ongoing research project, sponsored by the University of California, San Francisco, about women who sought abortions but were unable to obtain them because of the gestational age of the unborn child. The research project is certainly interesting and should be of value to all parties in the abortion debate, but the Times coverage is predictably disappointing. It offers no scrutiny about the preliminary findings and it seriously distorts and misrepresents current public-health research about abortion. 

Throughout the article, the author takes considerable pains to give the impression that there is a strong scholarly consensus that abortion poses no serious health risks to women. He states that “reputable research” does not support claims that abortion results in a higher risk of breast cancer, infertility, and miscarriage, even though there’s an impressive body of research indicating that abortion increases the risk of premature births. Additionally, a number of peer-reviewed studies have found that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Even the 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study — frequently cited and touted by skeptics of the abortion–breast cancer link — finds statistically significant evidence that late-term abortions increase the risk of breast cancer.

The Times article also states that there is “no credible research” to support the idea of a “post-abortion syndrome.” However, there is substantial body of academic research which has linked abortion to a variety of mental-health problems, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, substance abuse, and suicide. In 2011, Bowling Green University professor Priscilla Coleman published a meta-analysis of the results of more than 22 peer-reviewed studies, incorporating data from 877,181 women. This meta-analysis offered the widest-based estimate of mental-health risks associated with abortion; appeared in the British Journal of Psychology, one of the most prestigious psychology journals in the world; and provided plenty of evidence that abortion leads to a range of mental-health problems.

Much of the Times article focuses on the difficult circumstances facing an individual woman who was unable to obtain a late-term abortion, but it does discuss some of the findings of the UCSF study about women denied abortions. The results indicate that, compared with women who successfully obtained abortions, turnaways fared less well both in terms of their physical health and their economic situation. In particular, a higher percentage of turnaways ended up in poverty. But the news is not all bad for those supporting bans on late-term abortion: Almost none of the turnaways regret carrying their pregnancy to term.

All of these findings are interesting, but the Times failed to report the research project’s current findings are preliminary, the data is not publicly available, and the results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The follow-up interviews involved with the research project are scheduled to last until 2016. It appears that the author plans to conduct the research in an analytically rigorous way, but, as with any research project, there will doubtless be legitimate concerns about the study’s methodology. Furthermore, the fact that the study is being sponsored by the University of California, San Francisco, whose research invariably supports easier access to abortion, raises legitimate concerns. News outlets should cover the findings, when they appear, in a measured, thoughtful, and serious way. However, if this article is any indication, such coverage will not appear in the New York Times.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

 



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