Scientific Integrity Problems – Psychology
The following letter (lightly edited) was sent in December, 2021.
Membership Department, American Psychological Association (APA)
I have been a member since 1996, and have (for identification only) served as membership chair and 2013 president of Division 48, peace psychology.
I tolerated having occasional disagreements with APA organizational policy because this was my profession’s organization, and whenever one belongs to a specific community, it is better to stay and work through disagreements than to withdraw and have no more influence. For example, our whole division was discouraged over the APA’s role in “enhanced interrogation,” but over the years that eventually worked out in a more satisfactory manner (see pages 7-9 and later here). Having people who thought it important to stay rather than leave was important.
In the same way, I have been disturbed by the organization’s positions and activities about feticide. The Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion with its 2009 report never had a call for nominations, and its membership didn’t reflect the diversity of perspectives on the topic. I was a reviewer for the first draft of that report, and spent a good 30 to 40 hours going through it carefully for comment. The second version of the report did not receive similar review.
I thought its conclusion highly debatable, but it was never debated. No forum for proper scientific interchange with those of different perspectives was ever arranged.
The press release announcing the report was sent out the day before it was actually voted as accepted by the Council. Contrary to Psych 101, the vote to accept it was held by show of hands in front of everyone. I attended that Council meeting, and I perceived a political rally rather than a sober discussion.
Nevertheless, I stayed and made attempts to address my concerns. People of good will have differing opinions, and I am accustomed to dialog with people in a respectful manner.
Now, however, we go beyond the merely debatable. You have put out a press release that states something that is blatantly inaccurate: Texas abortion law likely to lead to worse mental health for women, says APA president
The statement of Jennifer F. Kelly, PhD. says:
Our position is based on scientific research showing that women who are denied abortions are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, lower life satisfaction and lower self-esteem compared with women who are able to obtain abortions . . . Research also suggests that adding barriers to accessing abortion services may increase symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
Here is the wording of the abstract of the APA Task Force report, the overview of studies:
Two issues were addressed: (a) the relative risks associated with abortion compared with the risks associated with its alternatives and (b) sources of variability in women’s responses following abortion . . . The most rigorous studies indicated that within the United States, the relative risk of mental health problems among adult women who have a single, legal, first-trimester abortion of an unwanted pregnancy is no greater than the risk among women who deliver an unwanted pregnancy. Evidence did not support the claim that observed associations between abortion and mental health problems are caused by abortion per se as opposed to other preexisting and co-occurring risk factors.
Observe: the issue of mental health problems from not getting an abortion was not addressed at all. Since it was clear that the authors would have liked to make that claim if they could, they clearly could not.
The conclusion was a lack of mental health problems from the abortion only, and then only for specified people (women who represent less than half of all abortions). The risk was “no greater” for abortion as opposed to giving birth. They did not find that it was less.
Subsequent to the report, there was a “Turnaway Study” done by an advocacy group, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH). Three years after their abortions, two-thirds of the women approached declined to be interviewed; half of those remaining dropped out. Therefore, the sample is badly skewed toward those having fewer problems. The questions asked were shallow. The comparison group – those turned away – had the feature of being further along in their pregnancies than those who received abortions, so they were actually not a proper comparison group. This study is often cited, but I see that Dr. Kelly did not cite this one in the press release.
In any event, this is one study, and APA guidelines (Wilkinson, 1999) are clear that just one study does not a conclusion make. It is a mosaic of studies that lends itself to conclusions.
Dr. Kelly’s statement mentions only one study, apparently that of Herd, Higgins, Sicinski, & Merkurieva (2016). From the abstract:
Using the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a 60-year ongoing survey, we examined associations between unwanted and mistimed pregnancies and mental health in later life . . . We found that in this cohort of mostly married and White women, who completed their pregnancies before the legalization of abortion, unwanted pregnancies were strongly associated with poorer mental health outcomes in later life.
What they found was that when mainly young married White women lived in a time when they could be trapped in undesired marriages amid assumption that career and children could not both be done simultaneously, then that did not work out well for them. It was a time period in which women who had suffered domestic abuse kept it quiet and had nowhere to go, so that having children meant they were all the more trapped, and exacerbated the problem. These features strike me as enough to account for the observed results.
This study says nothing whatsoever about women who live in current times under current conditions. In short, this is a study that never actually addresses the question of what happens when abortion is restricted.
Again, citing only one study does not a conclusion make. Yet there is quite a bit of literature that does directly address questions of what happens when specific abortion restrictions are put in place. Having written a book chapter on this (MacNair, 2016, pp. 240-255), if you check its reference list you can see what ought to go in the mosaic of studies (once studies since 2016 are added) before a proper conclusion can be drawn.
Dr. Kelly implies that what she says is the consensus of researchers, or that the research as a whole lends itself to the conclusion she draws. It simply does not. Cherry-picking only those studies that support a desired conclusion is well established as being inimical to science. This also diminishes my confidence in how scientifically rigorous APA is on other matters with which I am less familiar.
When the Task Force was convening, I was approached by a post-abortive woman who runs an organization of such women who feel they were wronged by their abortions – the circumstances that compelled or persuaded them, and the traumatizing nature of the abortion itself. She said she could arrange to have the Task Force sent thousands of testimonies. I explained to her carefully that they were doing an overview of quantitative studies and a torrent of one-sided personal stories would not be helpful. She understood, and the Task Force was spared a barrage of heartfelt stories.
But those women are still stinging that their voices were never heard. No one representing their understanding was ever allowed a voice. The recent APA press release is stunningly insensitive to them.
The American Psychological Association is an organization which has broken the rules of proper scientific inquiry. APA is also portraying the features I cite in my work on peace psychology as supporting violence, including dehumanization (the unborn child is never even so much as mentioned), oversimplification, euphemisms, pressures for conformity, and a glaring in-group/out-group dynamic in which I am clearly in the out-group.
My attempts to call for more discussion and debate have gotten nowhere, and I have been trying for many years (see for example pages 3-4). As long as this intolerable situation remains, I am afraid I can no longer be a part of this.
(in APA Style)
American Psychological Association (2021, September 3) Texas abortion law likely to lead to worse mental health for women, says APA president. Retrieved from Texas abortion law likely to lead to worse mental health for women, says APA president
Herd, P., Higgins, J., Sicinski, K., & Merkurieva, I. (2016). The implications of unintended pregnancies for mental health in later life. American Journal of Public Health , 106(3), 421-429.
MacNair, R. M. (2016). Peace psychology perspectives on abortion. Kansas City, MO: Feminism & Nonviolence Studies Association.
Major, B., Appelbaum, M. Beckman, L., Dutton, M. A., Russo, N. F., & West., C. (2009). Abortion and mental health: Evaluating the evidence. American Psychologist, 64(9), 863-890.
Wilkinson, L. & Task Force on Statistical Inference, APA Board of Scientific Affairs (1999). Statistical methods in psychology journals: Guidelines and expectations. American Psychologist. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-03403-008
Update: While the APA membership department only gave a sorry-you-feel-that-way response, APA’s press office did respond with a substantive note with helpful content. Rachel is drafting a response to them, and we’ll post any further updates here.
For a post Rachel wrote previous on the American Psychological Association, see:
For excerpts from the book Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion that we’ve published as posts, see: