The APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion was chaired by Dr. Brenda Major, psychology professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. The same day the APA Council of Representatives approved the report, the Elliot Institute’s David Reardon released the following presse release. The release claims Dr. Major did not release data, collected with help of a federal grant, when requested. APA ethics guidelines would require the sharing of such data. This is relevant since Dr. Major’s task force called for more research and yet, she is being accused of failure to facilitate this recommendation by holding back the release of the data. Given the serious nature of these allegations, I asked Dr. Major, via email to APA spokesperson, Rhea Farberman, to confirm or deny the allegations and to provide comment in response. The APA response is at the end of this release.
For Immediate Release
August 13, 2008
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 Major’s response to 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However, a researcher familiar with Major’s work, David Reardon of the Elliot Institute, has seen portions of Major’s unpublished findings.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 supporting a link between abortion and subsequent health problems from coming to light.
“Brenda’s last published study using this data set was released in 2000, after she moved to her present facility in 1995,” said Reardon. “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 additional summary statistics we had requested 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. But she simply doesn’t respond to their calls, emails, or letters,” said Reardon.
“This is very troubling on two counts. First, it the APA’s own ethics rule, 8.14, requires research psychologists to share their data for verification of findings. Secondly, she 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 released 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,” said Reardon. “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.
“In my view, it is irresponsible not to report the significant findings associated with individual symptoms. For example, she found that a number of women reported that they tried to cope with negative feelings about their abortions by drinking more or taking drugs. 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.”
Reardon believes that the newly released APA Abortion Task Force report is also flawed by a pattern of wording and reporting which 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 “There 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 those familiar with the literature will see that it 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 in the ideal case of a low risk abortion patient is an admission that there is indeed some evidence that a single abortion can pose a risk to the mental health of a emotionally stable, adult woman,” said Reardon. “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 and press releases all fail to emphasize five key points which are clear in the literature and even explicitly or implicitly stated within the 91-page Task Force report. The five points he believes should be made, without room for controversy are:
1. Some women suffer emotional harm from abortion.
2. Some women feel pressured into unwanted abortions.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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,” says Reardon. “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.”
“The fact is that coerced abortions are more common than wanted abortions. Studies show that over 60% of American women are having abortions, often against their moral beliefs, because they feel pressured into it by third parties. These women need therapist and family members to be open to and responsive to their pain, not dismissive of it as an anomaly. Sadly, this is an ideological report that simply ignores the concerns and needs of those women for whom abortion has been a heartache rather than a triumph.”
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APA’s “Ethical Principles Of Psychologists And Code Of Conduct” regarding Sharing Research Data for Verification’
Copy of HHS letter and Brenda Major’s Response
PO Box 7348
In an email, APA spokesperson, Rhea Farberman, supplied the following statement in response to the press release.
The APA’s report is a rigorous review of the best available science. It calls to light the need for more research to better understand the potential mental health effects of abortion. It is disappointing to see it met with personal attacks.
This does not seem to me to be an adequate response to the substantial allegations made by Dr. Reardon. I waited to post the release until I could get a reply from the APA. I followed up with Rhea and will post any further comments.