Top Pro-Life Leaders and Researchers Join Call for Retraction of Fetal-Pain Study

Abortion supporters and pro-abortion-rights journalists continue to cite a 2005 article, co-authored by researchers with documented ties to the abortion industry, which claims the unborn don’t feel pain at 20-weeks gestation.

Twenty-week-old unborn child.
Twenty-week-old unborn child. (photo:

WASHINGTON — Pro-life activists and a top geneticist are joining the president of a public-policy institute in calling for the retraction of an article often cited by abortion supporters and mainstream-media outlets to declare that unborn children don’t feel pain in the womb at 20-weeks gestation.

Although the study is more than a decade old, it has been referenced repeatedly by pro-abortion-rights journalists in recent weeks, in response to the continuing passage of state bills that restrict abortion on the basis of the capacity of unborn children to experience pain.

In a statement emailed to the Register, Just Facts President James Agresti called for The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) “to issue a retraction” of its 2005 paper, which Agresti described as “the media’s go-to source for fetal pain.” (Disclosure: Just Facts is a client of the author of this article.)

The JAMA article asserted that unborn babies were probably incapable of feeling pain earlier than 29-weeks gestation.

According to Agresti, who detailed his objections to the study in a fact-check article published in May, “the JAMA paper’s central argument was conclusively refuted by peer-reviewed medical journals less than two years after it was published.”

In addition to scientific objections, Agresti argued that there are ethical considerations that should lead to the study’s retraction. He pointed to a 2005 USA Today article that refuted the study’s declaration that its authors had no financial interests to disclose.

The USA Today article described Dr. Eleanor Drey, one of the authors of the JAMA paper, as “medical director of the Women’s Options Center at San Francisco General Hospital,” which “provides abortions.”

According to the website of the University of California, San Francisco (USCF), Drey continues to serve as medical director of the Women’s Option Center, as well as serving as an associate professor at UCSF’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health.

The JAMA paper’s lead author, Susan Lee, also had links to the abortion industry. Lee, then a UCSF medical student, had earlier “worked for eight months as a lawyer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, now NARAL Pro-Choice America,” USA Today reported.

The New York Times also noted Drey and Lee’s association with abortion, in a 2005 article titled “Study Authors Didn’t Report Abortion Ties.” Reported the Times, “In interviews yesterday, Dr. Drey and Ms. Lee said they did not regard their work as a conflict of interest and so it had not occurred to them to report it to the journal editors.”

And in his own critique of the JAMA article, Agresti — along with citing a range of authoritative medical sources that all indicate that fetal pain can be experienced long before 29-weeks gestation — noted that, along with Drey and Lee’s abortion ties, “Mark Rosen, the last author of the paper … worked in an abortion clinic.”

Agresti concluded that “this paper was published under false pretenses, and its central claim is demonstrably false.”


Other Critics

Agresti isn’t alone in calling for a retraction. A geneticist and a top pro-life leader contacted by the Register agreed JAMA’s paper should be withdrawn.

“I think it would be appropriate for that paper to be retracted,” said David Prentice, Charlotte Lozier Institute vice president and research director, who is also a professor of molecular genetics at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America. “The paper is ethically unsound and scientifically inaccurate.”

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said that JAMA’s study “absolutely ... should be retracted.”

“It has been used as a propaganda tool pushed by the abortion industry to continue to line their pockets and betray the women they claim to want to help and protect,” continued Hawkins. She said, “Having this study in the public eye without acknowledging the people behind it, those who profit greatly from abortion,” would lead to more harm for women and children.

Another critic of the paper, Ave Maria University visiting associate professor Michael New, told the Register that he is “not a fan of the JAMA study,” but “I am a little reluctant to ask journals to retract studies. Human knowledge is always evolving. I would not want to see a study retracted because new data or new methods raised doubts about previous conclusions.”

“Once we start asking journals to retract studies — that could take us down a slippery slope,” said New, who added, “I am confident the unborn can feel pain.”

But New did not hold back from his own criticisms of Drey for her lack of disclosure. “If someone stands to benefit financially from the publication of a given study, that needs to be made clear.”

Media Bias?

In his fact-checking, Agresti criticized several prominent media outlets that uncritically cited the JAMA study without mentioning either its disputed conclusions or that “at least three of the ... paper’s five authors have been involved in the abortion industry.”

Days later, the prominent liberal outlets Rewire and Media Matters declared that mainstream media outlets should give no credibility to pro-life advocates on fetal pain at 20-weeks gestation, with Rewire Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson explicitly citing the JAMA study.

Dan Gainor, Media Research Center’s vice president of business and culture, disparaged media organizations that boost the JAMA study without noting its ethical and scientific shortcomings.

“Media should always put studies in context, pointing out connections here to the abortion industry,” said Gainor. “Journalists are quick to discredit studies they disagree with but reluctant to include context for research that fits their agenda.”

According to Gainor, “[Mainstream] journalists are overwhelmingly biased in support of abortion. It is both a conscious and unconscious bias that factored heavily in how little the media covered the Planned Parenthood video scandal last summer.”

Another study that is often cited by abortion advocates to push back against fetal-pain laws was conducted by the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (RCOG). That study was cited on May 25 by Vox’s Emily Crockett. However, like Washington Post fact-checker Michelle Ye Hee Lee last year, Crockett failed to note at least two major flaws with the RCOG study that make its conclusions untenable — including one of the same flaws found in the JAMA study: that the cerebral cortex is necessary for the unborn to experience the perception of pain.

Lee and Crockett also failed to note that one of the RCOG study’s conclusions was refuted by one of its authors in 2013, according to The New York Times.

Not all publications exhibit similar bias in their coverage of the fetal-pain issue. Rewire’s Jacobson, in her article that was prompted by South Carolina’s new Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act banning abortions after 20 weeks, specifically targeted The Associated Press for an article that gave equal credibility to both sides of the pain debate.

And New pointed the Register to a 2011 article by The Chronicle of Higher Education “where they interviewed several credible biologists and embryologists (not connected to the pro-life movement — and some of whom even supported legal abortion) who felt the unborn could feel pain at 20 weeks.”


Don’t Jump on JAMA

Agresti told the Register that while JAMA should pull its 2005 study, “the staff of a medical journal will need sufficient time to investigate this.” He urged pro-life advocates to “not jump to conclusions about JAMA’s commitment to integrity and accuracy.”

A spokesman for JAMA told the Register, “The editor in chief has received the request for retraction, and it is being evaluated.”

Register correspondent Dustin Siggins writes from Washington.

Register staff contributed to this report.