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Takeaways from the UCSF Abortion “Turnaway” Study

by | Jan 3, 2013

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Educational & Research

Part 1: Set up for a Spin

Dr. Randall K. O’Bannon is director of Education and Research for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund.

Dr. Randall K. O’Bannon is director of Education and Research for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund.

The results haven’t been published in any official journal just yet, but the press has already been touting a story about a study out of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) looking at the difficulties faced by young women “denied” abortions in the U.S. As we shall see in this five-part series the researchers are hardly the model of academic objectivity.

Lead by Diana Greene Foster, their two-part agenda is clear. First, “prove” that women really are better off economically, physically, emotionally having an abortion, even if those happen to be late abortions, than they would be if they gave birth. Second, abortion clinics should reexamine—and end—any self-imposed gestational limitations they have placed on when they will abort babies.

Here are a few examples of how the media responded. The headline for the U.S. News & World Report (11/20/12) screams “Study Shows Women Who Had Abortions less Likely to Suffer Poverty.”  The online magazine Slate reported (11/14/12) that women who were turned away from abortions were more likely to be living in poverty, to report stress and anxiety and have more physical complications than their aborting counterparts. 

Kathleen Geier, a blogger for the Washington Monthly (11/19/12) said that the study findings “strongly support” the conclusion that “women who received abortions did much better than those who were denied abortions against their will.” (To be fair, as we shall see in Part Five, Geier did see some possible problems.)

Given the way that the same press has dismissed or ignored study after study appearing in reputable journals connecting abortion to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and other mental health problems, the ready acceptance and promotion of this study, before its findings have undergone peer review or public scrutiny is all the more remarkable,

Though one must be careful to watch for bias in any publication, even an academic one, the peer review process helps protect against common errors and misuse or misrepresentation of data, e.g., selecting a non-representative sample, mistaking correlations for causation, overlooking hidden factors, etc. As we shall see several of these biases could be an issue here.  Though UCSF has promised to release study results in late 2012, to date, no full formal report has appeared in a professional peer reviewed journal at this point.

While the lack of a formal published study makes it difficult to do a full analysis, we do know a few details from press coverage, P.R. releases from the website, and conference presentation summaries.

What the UCSF researchers have done is conduct a five year “prospective longitudinal” study beginning in 2008 looking at the repercussions of a woman being “turned away” from an abortion clinic.  Though the precise nature and size of control and study groups seems to vary according to the aspect being examined, 956 women altogether appear to have taken part in the study. That includes 452 women who had abortions and were just under the gestational limits set by the clinics, 231 women were just over the limit (by less than three weeks)  and did not receive abortions, and 273 who abortions in the first-trimester.

Women in the study were recruited from 30 clinics across the country where there were no clinics nearby performing abortions at later gestations.

There are some states which do not officially allow abortions after certain gestational limits unless there is a health issue (these post-viability laws, however, are useless because of open-ended health exceptions), or do so as a consequence of a law prohibiting abortions after an unborn child has been shown to experience pain widely accepted to occur by 20 weeks (yet to be tested in court). There is nothing in federal law that prohibits abortions at any gestation, except those performed by the partial-birth abortion method.

Though there are a few scattered clinics which perform abortions right up to the legal state limit, for the most part, clinics self-impose their own cutoffs. This may be because of equipment limitations, the abortionist’s lack of training with later procedures, or even the staff’s squeamishness at later abortions. The clinics used in the study had gestational limits on when they would abort ranging from 10 weeks to 26 weeks.

One clear but unspoken aim of the study is to change those limitations.

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Sources of Information on the UCSF “Turnaway” Study:

“Turnaway Study,” report of the UCSF group doing the study, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health website, at www.ansirh.org/research/turnaway.php , accessed 11/29/12.

Summaries of UCSF research team presentations on “Turnaway” study at American Public Health Association 140th annual meeting and expo, San Francisco, CA, October 27-31, 2012, apha.confex.com/apha/140am/webprogram/Session36974.html and    apha.confex.com/apha/140am/webprogram/Session36913.html, accessed 11/13/12

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Categories: Abortion