‘Issues in Law & Medicine’: A One-Stop Journal for Anti-Vaccine, Anti-Abortion Pseudoscience
“[I]f most of what you publish supports an anti-choice thinking (or anti-vaccine) and hence is not supported by science should you be entitled to be included in the National Library of Medicine?"
To view the full False Witnesses gallery, click here.
Michael Brown had been dead a year when the movement his death sparked became part of an anti-abortion argument.
Endocrinologist Joel Brind was trying to make a point he’s been making for decades, in an academic article published in the fall of 2015. The longtime abortion opponent was falsely claiming that induced abortion causes breast cancer.
In a contorted argument, Brind tried to use the national catchcry “Hands up, don’t shoot” as an analogy to what Brind believes is an unfair claim that some of his research is flawed due to a methodological error known as reporting bias.
“[T]he concept of reporting bias continues to be falsely relied upon by those who deny the ABC [abortion-breast cancer] link, as if it were established fact, in the same way as ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!’ is falsely attributed to Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO,” Brind wrote.
Just a few months prior, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had cleared Brown’s killer, police officer Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations. In its final report, the DOJ said it could not prove Brown had his hands up in surrender or stated, “Don’t shoot!” before Wilson fired his gun several times into the unarmed teenager’s body. Still, “Hands up, don’t shoot” took on a message all on its own during protests in Ferguson and around the country.
“In short,” Brind continued, “Facts don’t matter when the political agenda of the gatekeepers of public knowledge would have the facts be other than they are.”
But if Brind wanted to prove his point—that facts are often victim to ideology—he could have simply relied on his own work.
Brind is an influential purveyor of several misleading claims about the safety of abortion, especially the debunked theory that it is linked to cancer.
Indeed, the very journal that published Brind’s article appears to be a haven for ideologically motivated scholars and is funded by anti-choice groups with a clear political agenda to criminalize abortion, although those connections are not plainly disclosed.
The soberly titled Issues in Law & Medicine assumes the veneer of any other scientific journal. The federal National Library of Medicine, as well as popular scholarly search engines like EBSCO and LexisNexis, include Issues in Law & Medicine in their medical and legal journal catalogs.
But in reality, this journal publishes articles with a consistent ideological viewpoint on abortion (and other subjects, like assisted suicide), while simultaneously muting its anti-abortion ties.
Rewire reviewed back issues of this journal, along with tax records and public information, and found that Issues appears to be a tool created, edited, published, and disseminated by the anti-choice movement—something the journal does not advertise.
Thus it’s unclear whether the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court understood the journal’s ties when they cited Issues articles claiming there to be a legal distinction between “refusing life-sustaining treatment and demanding life-ending treatment” in their 1997 decision upholding New York’s assisted suicide ban.
In subsequent years, Issues articles have found their way into other legal briefs, often in cases involving assisted suicide. On its website, the journal claims to have been cited in at least 14 state and federal courts of appeal, including two U.S. Supreme Court and seven state supreme court opinions, and to have been cited in more than 1,100 law review articles.
North Dakota’s state health department referenced Brind’s aforementioned article on breast cancer in peddling the claim of a link between induced abortion and the disease in the bibliography to a booklet about pregnancy and abortion.
Rewire has discovered that Issues has been an important Trojan horse for bringing fringe ideas into the academic mainstream. As part of our relaunched False Witnesses series, we are tracing the deep anti-choice connections that fund this publication, and cataloguing the discredited “experts” who use it as a vehicle for their anti-choice propaganda.
Concealed Anti-Choice Ties
Founded in 1985, Issues in Law & Medicine semiannually publishes medical and legal articles about controversial medical procedures. In the last decade, the journal has heavily featured papers about abortion and assisted suicide. Many of the articles published in recent years do not contain original research, but rather are analyses of medical studies or legal issues through an anti-choice lens.
Legal articles published in the journal often focus on strategies to criminalize abortion. For example, a legal analysis published by attorney David L. Rosenthal in the spring 2016 issue focuses on how states should evaluate proposed regulations in order to help ensure that they will survive constitutional challenges, particularly in regards to FDA protocol legislation.
Additionally, the journal has a section called “Verbatim,” where it publishes legal briefs or speeches verbatim.
In keeping with publishing points of view that wildly veer from the medical mainstream, the journal has published articles purporting a link between vaccines and autism, a position that has been thoroughly debunked.
Several of the individuals in our False Witnesses gallery have contributed to Issues. The spring 2014 edition features articles asserting the link between abortion and breast cancer, by a list of authors that includes Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, David Reardon, Dr. Donna Harrison (also the journal’s associate editor), and other ideologically motivated researchers like the Family Research Council’s Patrick Fagan. (The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the Family Research Council as an anti-LGBT extremist group.)
Issues’ spring 2015 edition features two articles co-written by Theresa Deisher, an icon of the anti-vaccination movement and a close ally of anti-choice activists.
A molecular biologist, Deisher worked for mainstream pharmaceutical and biotech firms for about 20 years, but in the late 2000s she began advocating against vaccines and adopting anti-choice positions, including opposing embryonic stem cell research. Deisher helped train David Daleiden to act as a fake biomedical researcher so his group, the Center for Medical Progress, could try to trick abortion providers into saying or doing something in violation of federal fetal trafficking laws.
Deisher has produced and promoted research claiming a link between vaccines and autism at her Seattle-based companies, Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute and AVM Biotechnology, the latter of which she describes as “the marquee prolife biotech company worldwide, certifying that it does not use morally illicit material in any process.”
Deisher’s twist on the vaccine-causes-autism theory brings together both the anti-vaccination and anti-abortion movements: She claims that many vaccines can trigger autism because they were once manufactured in human fetal cell lines and thus contain “unacceptably high levels of fetal DNA fragment contaminants.” Deisher lays out the case that fetal DNA in vaccines causes autism in her article, “Epidemiologic and Molecular Relationship Between Vaccine Manufacture and Autism Spectrum Disorder Prevalence.”
Deisher’s work has been heavily criticized, even by Catholic writers.
According to surgical oncologist David Gorski, managing editor for the blog Science-Based Medicine, Deisher’s Issues study is methodologically flawed and her theory baseless. He says the premise of her theory—that babies are essentially injected with aborted fetuses when they are vaccinated—is baseless:
Although antiabortion antivaccine activists frequently try to make it sound as though scientists are aborting fetuses left and right just to grind them up to make vaccines (presumably twirling their mustaches and cackling evilly as they slice and dice them), in reality there are only two cell lines used this way, and they are so far removed from the original abortions that even the Catholic Church has told its members that not only is it morally acceptable to use such vaccines, but vaccinating children against deadly diseases is a great good.
Further, Gorski calls Deisher’s hypothesis that fetal cells are somehow contaminating vaccines “incredibly implausible on the basis of what we know about molecular biology and human biology.”
In Deisher’s other Issues article, titled, “Sociological Environmental Causes Are Insufficient to Explain Autism Changepoints of Incidence,” she uses a controversial (but generally accepted) scientific concept—hockey stick analysis—to argue that sociological environmental causes over the last several decades cannot explain rises in autism diagnoses. Deisher believes that what can explain increases in autism rates is introductions of new vaccines.
Both articles, in their acknowledgments section, note the research was funded by M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a foundation in Vancouver, Washington, that has donated over the years to anti-choice groups such as Americans United for Life and Alliance Defending Freedom.
Those are not the only ties between the anti-choice movement and the deep pockets that back Issues.
According to its website, the journal is co-sponsored by the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled and the Watson Bowes Research Institute.
What is not mentioned is that the founder of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled is James Bopp Jr., a prominent attorney within the anti-choice movement. The Watson Bowes Research Institute is part of the American Association for Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists (AAPLOG), a prominent anti-choice medical group that pushes falsehoods about abortion risks.
In 1984 Bopp founded the National Legal Center, whose self-described mission is to protect the rights of people with disabilities. The following year, Bopp, through the National Legal Center, began publishing Issues in Law & Medicine, where he served as the editor-in-chief until 2010.
For years, Bopp’s colleague Barry A. Bostrom served as executive editor of Issues, but took over as editor-in-chief in 2010. An ordained minister, Bostrom has been active in the anti-choice movement in Indiana, having served as the director and general counsel of the Indiana Right to Life. Bopp and Bostrom previously worked together at Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, based in Terre Haute, Indiana. Currently, they each own their own practices.
A longtime opponent of abortion, Bopp has served as the general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee since 1978. The spring 2010 edition of Issues is entirely dedicated to the topic of so-called personhood laws as a legal strategy to criminalize abortion at the federal level. Bopp and his former colleague Richard Coleson co-authored a memo in 2007, titled “Pro-life Strategy Issues,” in which they argued that states should not try to pass “personhood” laws or total abortion bans until the Supreme Court is top-heavy with conservative justices likely willing to overturn Roe. Instead, they argued, states should focus on passing restrictions and on working to stack legislatures and the courts with abortion opponents, while keeping abortion alive as a major political issue.
Inside and outside the pages of Issues, Bopp has been explicit that overturning Roe is his end goal.
Bopp has also become a major figure within the conservative movement. He’s perhaps most famous for having defended the conservative nonprofit Citizens United in a successful legal challenge to campaign finance laws that reached the Supreme Court. The 2012 Citizens United decision effectively gutted campaign finance laws, allowing for unlimited corporate spending in elections. And following the 2016 election, Bopp, who is currently challenging bans on soft money in state and local parties, predicted “bright prospects” for campaign finance deregulation under President Donald Trump.
(Citizens United founder David Bossie happens to have close connections to Trump, having served as his deputy campaign manager. Bossie worked with Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, on films and projects for several years before introducing Bannon to Trump in 2011, according to the New York Times.)
The Watson Bowes Research Institute, Issues’ other co-sponsor, has a very small internet footprint. But Michigan business records confirm that AAPLOG registered Watson Bowes as a Michigan-based corporation in 2002. In 2015, more than 60 percent of AAPLOG’s expenses went to Watson Bowes, according to the organization’s tax filings. Again, AAPLOG’s executive director Donna Harrison is the associate editor of Issues.
The fall 2015 edition includes a reprint of presentations given at AAPLOG’s annual Matthew Bulfin Educational Conference in D.C. earlier that year, made by, among others, Joel Brind, Dr. Freda Bush, Dr. Byron Calhoun, Dr. Monique Chireau, Dr. George Delgado, and Lanfranchi. Delgado presented new statistics on his so-called abortion pill reversal protocol, but the paper lacks the features of a typical scientific study.
In its weekly subscriber email newsletters, AAPLOG regularly encourages members to subscribe to the journal. According to AAPLOG’s tax filing, Watson Bowes is “located within AAPLOG,” which describes Watson Bowes as, “an academic institute dedicted [sic] to fostering a fair scientific appraisal of claims pertinent to life issues modeled after the Cochrane Collaboration reviews in health care, but modified into a written debate format claims pertaining to life issues are reviewed by highly qualified experts who support the claim, as well as those who disagree with the claim.”
Despite this claim, Issues in Law & Medicine articles appear to be largely one-sided, at least those published since 2006, which are available on Issues’ website for purchase.
Issues emphasizes that it is a peer-reviewed journal, a process where a researcher subjects her paper to scrutiny by other scientists. The journal does not specify its peer-reviewing policy, but does link to peer-review guidelines of other publications, including the well-reputed journal publisher Elsevier, which enforces a double-blind peer-review policy, in which both the author and the reviewer are anonymous to each other.
Neither the journal, nor its editor, Bostrom, responded to a request for comment.
As of 2014, Issues began publishing a list of the referees it uses to review articles. As with Issues’ editors and many of its authors, many of these 18 referees hold anti-choice views, while some are more active in the movement to ban assisted suicide.
A few of them—Calhoun, Priscilla Coleman, and Dr. John Thorp—belong to Rewire‘s False Witnesses gallery.
Other referees include University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill emeritus professor Dr. Watson Bowes Jr. (of the Watson Bowes Research Institute), Dr. Curtis Harris, Dr. John Seeds, and Brigham Young University law professor Lynn Wardle, each of whom have expressed anti-abortion sentiment in writings and interviews. Wardle ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012 and is a senior fellow of the conservative Ruth Institute, which has long advocated against LGBTQ equality. He has written that, “Roe is an embarrassment to those who believe in the rule of law and in the integrity of the Supreme Court.”
One listed referee, William E. May PhD, a former professor at the Pope John Paul II Institute, appears to have died in December 2014.
To be sure, there are other research organizations with a particular political worldview that publish journals.
For example, the D.C.-based Guttmacher Institute, which seeks to advance sexual health and reproductive rights and was once affiliated with reproductive health-care provider Planned Parenthood, publishes two peer-reviewed journals (Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health and International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health) that are indexed by the National Library of Medicine. But the big difference lies in transparency. Unlike Issues, these journals are clearly identified as publications of the Guttmacher Institute and they clearly identify the journals’ editorial boards on their website.
Issues’ content, publisher, authors, and peer reviewers all point to a journal with a clear political agenda, while positioning itself as a journal that publishes objective scientific research.
To San Francisco-based OB-GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter, Issues does not pass the smell test. Gunter, who works for Kaiser Permanente, has blogged about happening upon the journal while researching something on PubMed. She objects to the journal being indexed by the National Library of Medicine, given its clear tilt away from objective science.
“[I]f most of what you publish supports an anti-choice thinking (or anti-vaccine) and hence is not supported by science should you be entitled to be included in the National Library of Medicine?” Gunter said.
The National Library of Medicine designates Issues with the more exclusive distinction of Index Medicus within its medical journal database called MEDLINE, which includes more than 5,600 other titles. The National Library of Medicine lists a number of criteria for inclusion in this index, including, “objectivity, credibility, and quality of its content.” A committee called the Literature Selection Technical Review Committee reviews journal titles and their content, periodically dropping titles based on their reviews.
Joyce Backus, the National Library of Medicine’s associate director for library operations, told Rewire in a phone interview that when a journal has been cataloged in MEDLINE for a long time, it is rarely subject to re-review unless the journal does something to raise red flags.
Changes in a journal’s business practices, sudden gaps in publication, or article retractions are all examples of events that could prompt the National Library of Medicine to review a journal’s practices and reconsider its inclusion in MEDLINE, Backus said.
MEDLINE has indexed Issues since 1989, which appears to be before the Watson Bowes Institute (and, by extension, AAPLOG) signed on as the journal’s co-sponsor.
Asked if there is anything problematic about Issues failing to disclose its ties to political activists, Backus responded that the National Library of Medicine encourages transparency among the journals in its catalogs when it comes to their peer-review process, their publishing fees, and their publishers. She said readers should be aware of any potential biases that could come out in articles, even unintentional biases.
“We would prefer that journals are transparent about where their support comes from,” Backus said.
While the National Library reviewers don’t pay as much attention to who is financing the journal, Backus said, they would be concerned if a journal’s funders and publishers were controlling the peer-review and editorial process. Editors should ideally have editorial independence and their scientific judgment should be independent of the journal’s publisher, she said.
Backus also told Rewire that the National Library is in the process of systematizing more regular reviews of longtime MEDLINE journals. She noted that the agency plans to specifically review Issues in Law & Medicine this year as part of this broader effort.
She made a separate point that the field of publishing scientific research has changed over the years.
“I would say the expectations around what makes good science has definitely increased,” Backus said. “And I think the reasons that those expectations have increased is that we see examples of less than good science.”