Chair of APA Abortion Report Task Force Violates APA Ethics Rules
Lead Author Refuses to Release Abortion Data Collected Under Federal Grant
Springfield, IL (August 13, 2008) – The credibility of a new report on the mental health effects of abortion from the American Psychological Association is tarnished by the fact that the lead author, Dr. Brenda Major, has violated the APA’s own data sharing rules by consistently refusing to allow her own data on abortion and mental health effects to be reanalyzed by other researchers.
Major, a proponent of abortion rights, has even evaded a request from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to deliver copies of data she collected under a federal grant. Because her study of emotional reactions two years after an abortion was federally funded, the data she collected is actually federal property. But in response to a 2004 HHS request for a copy of the data, Major excused herself from delivering the data, writing, “It would be very difficult to pull this information together.”
However, a researcher familiar with Major’s work, David Reardon of the Elliot Institute, has seen portions of Major’s unpublished findings. Reardon, who has published over a dozen studies on abortion and mental health, believes Major is withholding the data to prevent her findings, which support a link between abortion and subsequent mental health problems, from coming to light.
“Major’s last published study using this data set was released in 2000, after she moved to her present facility in 1995,” Reardon said. “Immediately after that publication, one of my colleagues requested a break down of details which had only been superficially summarized in one her tables. One of her grad students replied on her behalf with the requested statistics within 48 hours. So it clearly wasn’t at all difficult for her team to access the data. Plus, with modern electronic data bases and multiple backup procedures in place at universities like hers, it is nearly impossible to lose such data.”
According to Reardon, Major has not responded to any further requests regarding the data since early in 2000.
“I know of a number of experts in the field who have requested the data, even within the last six months,” he said. “But she simply doesn’t respond to their calls, emails, or letters.”
Reardon said that Major’s refusal to respond “is very troubling on two counts.”
“First, the APA’s own ethics rule-8.14-requires research psychologists to share their data for verification of findings,” he said. “Secondly, Major is the chair of the APA Abortion Task Force which is, at least in theory, supposed to bring full and clear light to this issue. But how can we trust the objectivity of a report prepared by a task force composed exclusively of pro-choice psychologists, especially when the chair and lead author has a history of withholding data and findings which may undermine her ideological preferences?”
According to Reardon, the additional details from Major’s study published in 2000 actually revealed that a significant number of women interviewed by Major did attribute negative reactions to their abortions-but those findings have never been published.
“There is no doubt that she has selectively reported her findings,” Reardon said. “We have seen in the unpublished tables details about specific negative reactions which were obscured in her published report by combining them with three to eight other reactions to create watered down, composite scores.”
He added that he felt it was irresponsible not to report the significant findings associated with individual symptoms.
“For example, Major found that a number of women reported that they tried to cope with negative feelings about their abortions by drinking more or taking drugs,” Reardon said. “But she has never not fully shared the details on these reactions in any of her published studies, and by refusing to share her data for reanalysis by others, she has prevented anyone else from reporting these findings either.”
What the Report Says
Reardon believes that the newly released report from the APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion is also flawed by a pattern of wording and reporting that tends to obscure, rather than clarify, what researchers have found about the mental health effects associated with abortion. The primary conclusion of the report, as highlighted in the APA news release, is that “[t]here is no credible evidence that a single elective abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in and of itself causes mental health problems for adult women…”
According to Reardon, this nuanced statement is intended to convey a message that abortion has no mental health risks. But, he says, those familiar with the literature will see the Task Force actually admits that there is compelling evidence that there are negative effects for:
- women who have multiple abortions, which accounts for about half of all abortions);
- women who abort of a wanted pregnancy because of coercion or pressure to abort from third parties and may account for about 20-60% of all abortions;
- minors who have abortions; and
- women with preexisting mental health problems in which case abortion may not “in and of itself” be the sole cause of mental health problems but may instead trigger or aggravate preexisting problems.
“Even the modifier that there is ‘no credible evidence’ of mental health risks for low-risk abortion patients is an admission that there is indeed some evidence that a single abortion can pose a risk to the mental health of an emotionally stable adult woman,” Reardon said. “In fact, the report itself identifies a whole host of studies providing such evidence, but it mutes a clear presentation of the findings of these studies by focusing on the limitations of each study’s methodology, which all studies have, in order to justify ignoring their clear implications.”
While Reardon agrees that the body of the report includes admissions that abortion does negatively impact some women, he is deeply concerned that the summary, introduction and conclusion of the report, as well as the press releases issued to the media, all fail to emphasize five key points that are clear in the literature and even explicitly or implicitly stated within the 91-page Task Force report.
The five points Reardon believes should be made, without room for controversy are:
- Some women suffer emotional harm from abortion.
- Some women feel pressured into unwanted abortions.
- There are well established risk factors identifying the women most likely to suffer negative psychological factors to abortion, including being pressured into an abortion, and that it is incumbent on therapists treating women considering an abortion, and abortion clinics, to screen for these risk factors and to give appropriate counseling in light of any identified risk factors.
- A nationally funded longitudinal prospective study (such as recommended by Koop in 1989) of psychological factors related to reproductive health (including abortion) is long overdue and should be undertaken as soon as possible.
- Therapists should be alert to unresolved issues associated with a past abortion and should sensitively give women the opportunity to discuss such issues and should provide appropriate care or referrals whenever such issues are raised.
“By failing to call on therapists to be alert and sensitive to the negative emotional experiences women attribute to their abortions, the Task Force has allowed ideology to trump sensitivity,” Reardon said. “Instead, they are ignoring the reality of how and why abortions take place and are instead focused on drawing conclusions regarding the safety of abortion for an emotionally stable, pro-choice, adult woman who is freely choosing a wanted abortion without any moral qualms. But that doesn’t reflect the reality of most abortion situations.”
Reardon noted that studies show that over 60 percent of American women are having abortions, often against their moral beliefs, because they feel pressured into it by third parties; and that over 70 percent do not receive the appropriate counseling to make a free decision.
“These women need counselors and family members to be open to and responsive to their pain, not dismissive of it as an anomaly,” he said. “Women facing unplanned pregnancies need professionals who will be aware of the risks of abortion and the realities that the women might be facing, and help them find meaningful resources and support. Sadly, the APA report is an ideological report that simply ignores the concerns and needs of those women for whom abortion is or has been a heartache, rather than a real choice.”
Learn More: Read the APA’s Ethical Principles Of Psychologists And Code Of Conduct regarding Sharing Research Data for Verification. Read the copy of the HHS letter and Brenda Major’s response.