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Researchers question retraction of studies showing risks of chemical abortions

In this photo illustration, a person looks at an Abortion Pill (RU-486) for unintended pregnancy from Mifepristone displayed on a smartphone on May 8, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia.
In this photo illustration, a person looks at an Abortion Pill (RU-486) for unintended pregnancy from Mifepristone displayed on a smartphone on May 8, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. | OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Pro-life researchers are questioning an academic publishing company's decision to retract studies that suggested significant health risks associated with taking chemical abortion drugs as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a case related to the abortion pill. 

Sage Publishing announced Monday that it had retracted three studies, citing undeclared conflicts of interest and issues with the researchers' conclusions. Sage Publishing alleged that the study authors did not disclose their ties to pro-life organizations, such as the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

In its retraction notice, the publishing company also alleged that an independent reviewer assessed the studies in response to a reader's complaint about the presentation of data in the studies. The reviewer reportedly determined that some of the data presentation could affect the conclusions.

Sage said it became aware that "a peer reviewer who evaluated the [2021] article for initial publication" was also affiliated with Charlotte Lozier Institute, ruling the "peer review for initial publication was unreliable." Sage says that the same reviewer also peer-reviewed two other articles by the same lead author in 2022 and 2019. 

Sage's "independent post-publication peer review" of the three articles found problems with "the study design and methodology," "unjustified or incorrect factual assumptions," and "material errors" in the author's analysis of the data. 

The three studies Sage Publishing retracted were cited by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in an April 2023 ruling suspending the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval of the chemical abortion pill. 

In a Wednesday statement provided to The Christian Post, Jim Studnicki, vice president and director of data analytics for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, believes that the Dobbs ruling in June 2022 may have played a part in the decision. Studnicki is one of the authors listed in the three studies.

"I think Dobbs really accelerated this; there's a sense of desperation among those in the abortion industry," Studnicki stated. "They've always had the literature to themselves. All of the major health associations are pro-abortion, most of the journals are pro-abortion, all the academic departments in the universities are pro-abortion."

In an interview with The Christian Post, Tessa Longbons, another one of the authors listed in the three studies and a senior research associate at Charlotte Lozier Institute, said that the publication's decision was "disappointing" and "disheartening." According to Longbons, she and her colleagues addressed each of the concerns the publication brought to their attention. 

Regarding the accusation that the study authors had not disclosed their ties to pro-life organizations, Longbons asserted that she and her fellow researchers never concealed this fact. 

"We fully disclosed who we were affiliated with," the senior research associate told CP. "All of us have our affiliations listed, and we reported that the studies were funded by Charlotte Lozier Institute." 

"And furthermore, we included biographies for each author that provided more details about who we are, where we work, and the type of work that we do," Longbons continued. "So all of the information was provided upfront to the journal and presented so that readers can also see who we are and what we're working on."

In response to an inquiry from The Christian Post, Sage declined to comment and directed the outlet to its Monday statement announcing the retractions. 

According to the timeline of events that led to the retraction, science professor Chris Adkins complained to Sage in April 2023 about the 2021 study that found the rate of emergency room visits after a chemical abortion increased by over 500% from 2002 through 2015. Adkins argued that the study authors exaggerated their findings and represented them in a manner that he described as "grossly misleading." 

The webpage outlining the authors' research also questioned why Sage retracted the pro-life studies for "undisclosed conflicts of interest," citing examples of the publication reportedly not holding researchers affiliated with pro-choice institutions to the same standard.

The pro-life researchers did not receive word about the reported issues with the studies until Sage sent them an email in June 2023. After the Charlotte Lozier Institute responded on July 13, 2023, Sage published an expression of concern that same month, announcing that it had begun an investigation. 

Finally, in November 2023, Sage informed the researchers that it had retracted the three studies. In addition, on Nov. 14, Studnicki was kicked off the editorial board of the Health Services Research and Managerial Epidemiology journal. The HSRME is a journal owned by Sage.

On Nov. 16, researchers requested more time to respond to the criticism, with Sage responding on Nov. 21 and giving them until Nov. 29. The researchers provided the publication with a rebuttal, which Sage acknowledged it had received on Dec. 6. The publication proceeded to retract the three studies on Feb. 5, 2024. 

Longbons defended the research, citing issues with abortion data in the United States as the reason why the November 2021 study used Medicaid data. The pro-life researcher stated that the study's methodology is "very clear." 

"As chemical abortion has been increasing in the U.S., we just wanted to see what's been going on," Longbons said. "And how does the safety of chemical abortion compare to surgical abortion?" 

"And there really wasn't any other study that was doing that so comprehensively, looking at all ER visits and then all ER visits specifically related to pregnancy," she continued. "So, we wanted to fill that research gap."

While Longbons acknowledged there are opportunities to focus on questions regarding the specific types of emergency room visits and the reason women visit the emergency room, the researcher argued that this is not indicative of a flaw in their study. 

"That's just an opening for future research that we would like to do and that we would like other people to do," she said.

The researcher argued that academic journals and institutions appear to have become more politicized in recent years, promoting ideology instead of science. Longbons stated that this latest trend is "concerning."

"When we listen to scientists, we trust them to give us the facts," she stated. "We trust them to be giving us the truth. And not just their own viewpoints."

Michael New, an assistant professor of social research at the Catholic University of America and senior associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told The Christian Post Thursday that he believes Sage is prioritizing politics over public health. 

"Indeed, much of the rationale that Sage used to retract these studies does not withstand serious scrutiny. Contrary to Sage's claims, the authors made clear their affiliations with various pro-life groups," the pro-life researcher stated. "Additionally, the fact that one of the reviewers of these studies was a Lozier Institute scholar is irrelevant." 

New contends Sage's review process is "double-blind," meaning that the authors and the reviewers were unaware of one another's identities. New also expressed doubt that a study would be accepted based on one supportive review. 

"Sage's other justifications for retracting the study include a variety of technical arguments raised by an outside scholar," New continued. "However, journals usually retract studies in response to scholarly misconduct. Examples of this would include either misrepresenting or falsifying data."

"They do not generally retract studies because of differences of opinion about the analysis or interpretation of data," he added. 

Instead of retracting the studies, New believes the publication should have allowed the authors' critic to publish a response, stating that this would have created a dialogue between academics. As a result, the scholarly community could decide who it thought had the more compelling argument. 

"Unfortunately, instead of facilitating a debate between academics, Sage has decided to effectively weaponize academic publishing and take a clear stance in favor of legal abortion," New stated. "Sadly, this is further evidence that many journals are now prioritizing the promotion of left-wing causes over the dissemination of high quality research."

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: samantha.kamman@christianpost.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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