Anti-Choice ‘Science’: The Big Tobacco of Our Time

The issues might have changed, but the techniques now widely used by conservatives to distort science and, with it, public policy, remain the same.

The issues might have changed, but the techniques now widely used by conservatives to distort science and, with it, public policy, remain the same. Shutterstock / RHRC

To view the full False Witnesses gallery, click here.

First Big Tobacco, then climate change denial, and now, the anti-choice movement.

The issues might have changed, but the techniques now widely used by conservatives to distort science and, with it, public policy, remain the same.

They create nonprofits, staffed with die-hard ideologues, and set about producing and promoting bogus science, to build the illusion of dissent or doubt over conclusions drawn by peer-reviewed scientific or medical research. They develop their own “research findings” to suit their ideological views. Then they deploy scare tactics, all with the goal of passing laws that suit their agenda.

In this case, the agenda is to promote the theory that abortion harms women’s health—physically and mentally. It’s a strategy anti-choice activists have been working on for decades, but in recent years, sympathetic state attorneys general have been increasingly relying on a cadre of so-called experts who will defend and promote anti-choice laws.

Rewire has detailed the various organizations and individuals involved in what might best be called the “False Witness” industry. We reviewed scores of public records from state attorneys general and health departments, interviews of officials and legitimate researchers, and a close examination of both the tax filings and the scholarly works of these organizations and individuals.

Our investigation reveals the close connections between many of the ostensibly independent “research” groups that feature prominently in the anti-choice movement. Several groups, such as the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the Reproductive Research Audit, and the World Expert Consortium for Abortion Research and Education, share many of the same officers and experts.

Our work details how the scientific and medical claims of these groups and individuals have been publicly discredited in episodes ranging from lying to the public, presenting false data in scientific journals, and being forced to retract articles that proved to be works of fiction presented as fact. Other doctors and professors catalogued in this gallery carry impressive credentials, appear to be apt in their fields, and are technically qualified to testify on reproductive-health issues. However, fueled by their religious or political beliefs (or both), many of these professionals have testified in support of unproven or discredited theories.

Our research also shows that, despite the documented problems with these “experts,” states have paid members of this group nearly $658,000 dollars since 2010 for testimony in both legislative and court hearings—paving the way for laws, policies, and legal opinions that are buttressed by “facts” that are “truthy” at best, or explicitly false at worst. That number is likely the tip of the iceberg, since it is based only information from states that complied with our records requests.

The impact of these False Witnesses has been wide-reaching: According to Aziza Ahmed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, who has studied the use of evidence in abortion litigation, courts are now accepting as fact what were once recognized as shoddy, “fringe” notions.

“The courts are acting politically and you’ll see that they’re doing a lot of work to legitimize what they call ‘conservative evidence,’” Ahmed said. She said this has put progressives in a “quagmire” of disputing unscientific claims—a debate that simply sows more doubt in the public’s mind. “The only way to deal with that is to acknowledge the politics of the courts and how the courts in today’s very anti-choice environment are making it possible for conservative ‘scientific’ arguments to have so much legitimacy.”

Rewire’s research has identified 14 people who have played an outsized role in creating and spreading key falsehoods about abortion. We have found that they are affiliated with a small number of key groups that give these bogus notions an official gloss but which are little more than vehicles for manufacturing doubt.

WECARE, Founded by Discredited Researcher

WECARE was founded in June 2011 by Priscilla K. Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, to further the idea that abortion harms women. In addition to publishing questionable research and analysis, WECARE advertises ideologically driven scholars and professors to testify against abortion rights during legislative hearings or in the courts.

Coleman, who has a PhD in life-span developmental psychology from West Virginia University, has dedicated her career to establishing a causal relationship between abortion and mental illness. She is one of the small number of individuals whose incessant and unscientific claims have contributed to state laws that repeat that falsehood as a legislative “finding.”

In recent years, Coleman has testified in Alaska, Ohio, South Dakota, and even before the U.S. Congress, our research has found. Records obtained from these states show that she has earned a minimum of $10,875 for her work in North Dakota alone.

In February 2013 Alaska state Sen. John Coghill (R-Fairbanks), invited Coleman to testify in support of a bill he sponsored that would have eliminated the use of state Medicaid funding for abortions deemed medically necessary due to mental illness.

“I am of the opinion that abortion is never justified based on mental health grounds and abortion should not be paid for by the state of Alaska due to the presence of any form of mental illness in women,” said Coleman, as reported by the Anchorage Daily News; she was armed with citations from her large body of research, which she claimed documents “the association between abortion and declining mental health status.”

The problem with Coleman’s supporting research was that most of it was her own work, which had been thoroughly and embarrassingly debunked back in 2009.

The article in question appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research and was co-authored by Catherine T. Coyle, Martha W. Shuping, and Vincent M. Rue (another member of our False Witnesses gallery.)

The study purported to analyze the relationship between induced abortions and a range of diagnosed mental health disorders using data from the National Comorbidity Survey for the years 1990 through 1992. Coleman’s team concluded that women who had reported having one or more abortions were likelier than those who had not reported having abortions to have been diagnosed with panic disorders and attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, mania, depression, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Coleman’s study has been referenced by states’ attorneys to defend various state laws requiring doctors to tell women that abortion increases their risk to mental disorders. Among those is a 2005 South Dakota law that forced doctors to to tell women an abortion will put them at risk for depression or suicide—even though this alleged connection is at odds with the medical consensus on this issue. Coleman was also widely cited in a South Dakota legislative task force report that helped to inform that law.

Other researchers quickly pounced on major problems with Coleman’s article, and even Alan F. Schatzberg, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who edits the journal, along with Harvard Medical School professor Ronald C. Kessler, determined that Coleman’s analysis did not support her “assertions that abortion led to psychopathology in the NCS data.” Yet, for reasons it has declined to state, the journal did not retract Coleman’s article, a fact she repeats in defense of her otherwise eviscerated work.

Despite this public disgrace, Coleman is regularly called as an expert witness to testify about abortion-related policies, and has done so on the taxpayer’s dime. Between November 2013 and February 2014, the state of North Dakota paid Coleman more than $10,000 for expert testimony for abortion litigation, according to records Rewire obtained through a public records request. The state has been embroiled in litigation related to a series of anti-abortion bills since 2011.

And Coleman is not alone. Since founding WECARE in mid-2011, she has fortified relationships with other anti-choice researchers who have also been caught playing fast and loose with science, or outright lying, and yet who continue to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars to jet around the country, peddling their falsehoods in state houses and courtrooms.

Other WECARE affiliates include: Dr. Byron C. Calhoun, who has lied about the rates of abortion-related injuries in West Virginia; Dr. Elard S. Koch, whose attempts to disprove well-established links between lack of access to safe abortion care and higher rates of maternal death and illness have been challenged by a federal judge; Dr. Monique Chireau, an assistant professor of obstetrics-gynecology at Duke University, who promotes abstinence-only sex education; Dr. Martha Shuping, who has co-authored discredited research with Priscilla Coleman; and Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, who promotes the unfounded theory that abortion causes breast cancer.

Nearly all are members of the False Witnesses gallery and more information about them can be found in their individual profiles.

Two other groups that—like WECARE—supply lawmakers and reporters with medical professionals who hold minority views on abortion, are the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG), an organization of approximately 2,500 obstetrician-gynecologists who oppose abortion rights (by contrast, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has approximately 57,000 members) and the Molecular Epidemiology in Life Sciences Accountability (MELISA) Institute in Concepción, Chile, which bills itself as a “private non-profit institution for advanced biomedical research.”

AAPLOG houses three False Witnesses: Executive Director Donna Harrison, who frequently claims that emergency contraception is abortion, and at-large board members Calhoun and Chireau.

Elard Koch founded and directs the MELISA Institute, which also houses three False Witnesses: Calhoun, Chireau, and Dr. John Thorp, a North Carolina-based obstetrician-gynecologist who serially testifies in court unfounded assumptions that problems from abortion are likely grossly under-reported. Thorp’s expert witness reports have also been influenced by anti-choice activist Vincent Rue.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute and Reproductive Research Audit

Whereas WECARE exists to lend credibility to the minority viewpoint that there is a significant, direct correlation between induced abortion and mental health disorders, the Charlotte Lozier Institute and Reproductive Research Audit exist to throw doubt on the majority viewpoint that abortion is a safe procedure that does not present physical and mental risks at a significantly higher rate than other procedures or life events.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute is the “education and research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, a Beltway nonprofit that focuses on electing anti-choice politicians to Congress. The SBA List has been around since the early 1990s, but the Charlotte Lozier Institute was only founded in 2011—in an attempt by the anti-choice movement to rival the widely respected Guttmacher Institute as a trusted source of abortion-related research. It boasts as members several of the same people who work with Priscilla Coleman.

Though it masquerades as a research institute, the Charlotte Lozier Institute has so far produced little in the way of original research and data-gathering and has instead published more commentaries and analyses of others’ research that support its agenda on abortion and end-of-life issues. The group has also called for more standardized and robust reporting of abortion statistics by state health departments—under the guise of better understanding the risks of abortion. Yet, all the while, its parent organization, the SBA List, works every day to criminalize abortion. The Charlotte Lozier Institute reported spending $11,411 in 2012 seeking out academic and policy experts to provide oral and written testimony in favor of policies that restrict access to legal abortion, and boasts several False Witnesses members as “associate scholars.”

These include Calhoun, as well as Jacqueline C. Harvey, “a scholar of public policy and bioethics” with a PhD in public administration and public policy, and Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michael-Dearborn, who has a PhD in political science and a master’s degree in statistics. According to their Twitter updates, New and Harvey appear to be involved romantically.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute files with the Internal Revenue Service as the Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund. The Fund’s public tax filings show that it is far from a true research institute, but is instead a political organization aligned with the Republican Party and intended to argue against reproductive rights.

Charles A. Donovan serves as president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. He’s worked in the Beltway for decades for a variety of national conservative and religious right organizations, including the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council, and the Heritage Foundation. He currently sits on the board of directors of the Family Research Council and Heartbeat International, a crisis pregnancy center network based in Columbus, Ohio.

In 2012, the group reported spending approximately $688,000 on the “Free Speech Project” it launched in 2010, donating most of that money to the James Madison Center for Free Speech in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the ActRight Legal Foundation in Plainfield, Indiana.

The James Madison Center is associated with James Bopp, Jr., who is involved with the infamous Citizens United case. Bopp was previously counsel for ActRight, an umbrella organization intended to help fund Republicans’ political campaigns, created by officers of the National Organization for Marriage, a national nonprofit that since 2007 has been campaigning against marriage rights for gay men and lesbians in the United States and abroad.

Charlotte Lozier also reported spending more than $46,000 collecting data on abortion and on collecting state and county-level data “to evaluate the effectiveness of marketing and other communications strategies to increase patient traffic to care centers,” referring to so-called crisis pregnancy centers designed to dissuade women from having abortions. The group reported spending approximately $44,000 on focus-group and polling research in 2012, exploring among other things “public attitudes toward the legal permissibility of abortions performed for the person [sic] of destroying an unborn child of a particular sex.”

Reproductive Research Audit (RRA) is a project of the Center for Morality in Public Life, a nonprofit based in Fairfax, Virginia, and founded in 2010, whose stated purpose is “to integrate good ethics with daily living.” Two of RRA’s regular contributors are Harvey and New, who are also affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

RRA’s stated mission is “to shine a light on the methodology of scientific studies on reproductive health issues, exposing their bias, flaws and propensity to ignore data that does not support a pre-determined political agenda. Too often, such articles, rife with error, are cited as legitimate research, and are used to further efforts in favor of increased access to abortion and contraception.”

As with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, RRA works to undermine research that supports abortion rights policies, particularly research produced by the Guttmacher Institute. But in some cases, RRA’s research critiques misrepresent the study or analysis in question. And in other cases, RRA contributors completely distort the research they are purporting to “audit.”

For example, we have documented an instance where RRA’s Harvey tried to debunk a Guttmacher study, which documented the lengthy distances women traveled to access abortion services in 2008. Harvey inadvertently distorted the study, because she had not actually read it, but rather made assumptions based on the abstract alone.

“I regret that I worked from an incomplete source when a complete source was available and for the subsequent errors that caused,” wrote Harvey in a Reproductive Research Audit article dated July 31, 2013, in which she attempted to correct errors she had made in a critique of a Guttmacher Institute study after admitting to not having read the Guttmacher study.

Yet Harvey, like her fellow False Witnesses, continues to publish work that has an impact not only on the public debate, but on the constitutional rights of millions of Americans who wish to exercise control over their own reproductive health and future.

Correction: A version of this story included the line “For a month’s work in the fall of 2013, for example, the state of North Dakota paid Coleman more than $10,000 for expert testimony for abortion litigation.” In fact, that money was paid between November 2013 and February 2014. We regret the error.