Last month, The New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial by R. Alta Charo, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. In the editorial, Charo sharply criticizes Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appointees Valerie Huber, Teresa Manning, Charmaine Yoest, and Katy Talento. Charo takes particular issue with Yoest’s past assertions that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. She also criticizes Manning’s concerns about the efficacy of contraception programs and Huber’s support of abstinence-only sex education. Charo states that these four appointees use “alternative facts” and “are also known for a disregard for rigorous research.”
None of these critiques are particularly inventive. Similar attacks on President Trump’s HHS appointees have been published by a range of left-wing publications, including HuffPost, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. More importantly, none of these four women have even slightly unreasonable views on public-health issues.
For instance, backing up Yoest’s view is a body of peer-reviewed research dating back to the 1950s finding that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Skeptics of the abortion–breast cancer link frequently cite the Danish study by Melbye et al., published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, arguing that it is the methodologically strongest study on the topic. But even that study found that abortions after 18 weeks of gestation are correlated with a statistically significant increase in the risk of breast cancer.
Regarding contraception, there are many studies in both economics and public-health journals, from a variety of authors, showing that expanded access to contraception — by means of legalization, distribution, or subsidies — fails to reduce unintended-pregnancy rates. Just this summer, economists David Paton and Liam Wright published a thorough study in the Journal of Health Economics, finding that recent cuts to sex-education and contraception programs in Great Britain led to reductions in teen pregnancy rates.
The notion that these four HHS appointees are anti-science or have policy views outside the mainstream is, to put it charitably, absurd. What is perhaps more disturbing, though, is the growing politicization of The New England Journal of Medicine. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the journal published a superficial analysis of abortion trends in Massachusetts to argue that wider health-care coverage could reduce the abortion rate. In reality, abortion numbers in Massachusetts had been falling for a long time — as they are virtually everywhere — and the enactment of Commonwealth Care in 2006 had very little effect on the trend.
Additionally, prior to the oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell over the HHS contraception mandate, The New England Journal of Medicine released a study analyzing the impact of funding cuts to Planned Parenthood in Texas. The media pounced, claiming that the cuts led to a sharp increase in Medicaid-funded births. However, a closer look at the findings showed that in the affected counties, only 37 additional women had a Medicaid-funded birth.
With Charo’s latest article, it is unfortunate to see a prestigious journal like The New England Journal of Medicine once again placing a higher priority on scoring political points than publishing high-quality medical research.