Science vs. ideology: Psychologists and post-abortion mental health
In previous posts, I have discussed the Task Force of Mental Health and Abortion, formed in 2007, to review the research on abortion's potential mental health consequences. In mid-August, the committee's work will be voted on by the APA Council of Representatives at their annual convention in Boston. I have found what may be an indication of how the APA will report. In the June 2008, APA Monitor, Rebecca Clay wrote an article on how the right wing misuses scientific research. In her article titled, “Science vs. ideology: Psychologists fight back against the misuse of research,” Clay interviews abortion researcher Nancy Adler regarding how anti-abortion psychologists are seeking legitimacy for their perspective by, shudder, doing research and reporting in peer-reviewed journals. I wonder if the task force will see things much differently than Dr. Adler.
In other issue areas, special-interest groups have assumed the trappings of science to bolster ideology-driven claims. One example is so-called “post-abortion syndrome,” a scientific-sounding name for something most researchers say doesn’t exist. Nancy E. Adler, PhD, a professor of medical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, is one of them. She has found that the rate of distress among women who’ve had abortions is the same as that of women who’ve given birth. Adler and other experts reviewed the literature in the late 1980s as part of an APA panel and found no evidence of a post-abortion syndrome. Even the anti-abortion Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, refused to issue a report on abortion’s supposed psychological impact when President Ronald Reagan asked him to, citing the lack of evidence of harm.
Since then, says Adler, anti-abortion advocates have become more world-wise.
“They’re using scientific terminology,” she points out. They’re also gaining credibility by getting published in mainstream journals.
But such research often has methodological problems, Adler claims.
“Women are not randomly assigned to have abortions,” she points out. “Women who are having abortions are having them in the context of an unwanted pregnancy, which usually has some other very stressful aspects. Their partners may have left them. They may have been raped.”
In addition, says Adler, proponents of the syndrome don’t mention the base rate of depression and other psychological problems in society as a whole. And they always attribute such problems to abortion rather than any other possible causes.
A new APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion will examine such issues in a report later this year.
I think this is probably signals how the APA’s task force report will turn out. The good guys use good methods and the bad guys use the “trappings of science” and are being sneaky by “getting published in mainstream journals.” I guess the way to tell the good research from the bad is not the quality of peer-reviewed work but the ideology of the researcher. What I get from Clay’s article is this: When an APA-approved policy position is supported, it is science; otherwise, it is ideology.