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Reagan's officials 'suppressed' research on abortion

  • 16 December 1989
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  • CHRISTOPHER JOYCE , WASHINGTON DC
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LEADING health officials of the former US president, Ronald Reagan, suppressed research on abortion because they opposed the procedure, a congressional committee charged this week. A report from the House of Representatives' committee on government operations singled out C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, and officials of the government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for particular criticism.

According to the committee, Koop refused to publish a study of the physical and psychological effects on women of abortion because the study found no evidence that the procedure harms women. And at the CDC, at least one scientist whose research focused on abortion had his findings censored, and another was demoted, the committee stated.

The committee's report is the first from Congress on abortion since the Supreme Court's decision to allow the procedure in 1973. Every year, about 3 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 years have an abortion in the US.

The White House commissioned a study of the aftereffects of abortion on 30 July 1987. After consulting 27 professional and scientific organisations, Koop drafted a report saying that while no evidence existed of adverse physical effects, there was inadequate evidence to draw any conclusions about psychological damage.

Koop decided not to publish the findings. Instead, he wrote to Reagan claiming that scientific evidence either of physical or of psychological effects was inconclusive. Anti-abortion groups have used the letteras ammunition to challenge the Supreme Court's decision.

Representative Theodore Weiss, a Democrat from New York who oversaw the congressional investigation, says that the White House wanted Koop to produce a study that would condemn abortion. When the report failed to provide the evidence, says Weiss, 'he therefore decided not to issue a report, but instead to write a letter to the president which would be sufficiently vague as to avoid supporting the pro-choice position that abortion is safe for women'.

David Grimes, a consultant to Koop on the report and formerly chief of the Abortion Surveillance Branch at the CDC, says that the risk of women dying during abortion has dropped more than fivefold since the court legalised it in 1973. Now there is less than one death per 100 000 procedures. 'That is less than the risk of death from an injection of penicillin,' Grimes told the committee.

Childbirth, however, is at least seven times as likely as abortion to cause maternal death. Neither the Koop report nor his letter to Reagan mentioned these figures. He also neglected to mention that deaths from illegal abortions dropped from about 1000 a year in the 1940s to none in 1979.

Koop has told anti-abortion groups that the evidence of psychological damage to women from abortion appeared to be 'minuscule'. A foe of abortion, Koop urged these groups to base their case on better studies because existing ones are poor methodologically.

Federal funding of research on contraception has halved since 1980 and last year stood at just $9.5 million. Government officials often treat those who do research on abortion with hostility.

According to Grimes, in 1983, the White House wanted Willard Cates, then in charge of the reproductive health division of the CDC, to be fired or transferred because he appeared to back abortion. Cates was demoted and moved to the section on sexually transmitted diseases.

Grimes also told the committee that the CDC censored two articles he had written for medical journals, one because it mentioned the word abortion twice in a manuscript of approximately 5000 words. In 1985, the CDC assembled a group of experts to write guidelines to prevent transmission of AIDS from mother to fetus. 'It was tacitly understood by everyone present that the word 'abortion' could not appear in a federal document during the Reagan administration,' Grimes told the committee. The published guidelines made no mention of abortion as an option for a pregnant woman infected with HIV.

Grimes resigned from the CDC shortly after the incident. 'There has been a major exodus from the CDC,' he said. 'This mentality has had a chilling effect on research . . . they want family planning out of CDC now,' he said. Scientists at the CDC published 29 articles on abortion in 1980. But by 1988 that number had shrunk to seven. The committee notes that the CDC still publishes data on the rate of maternal mortality from abortion, but it stopped comparing those numbers with mortality from childbirth five years ago.

The committee said that more spending on contraceptives would reduce the need for abortions, and called for an end to political interference in health research. Weiss also noted that the lack of funding for contraceptive research has precluded the introduction of a new abortion pill, called RU-486, for political reasons.

The congressional report carried strong dissent from anti-abortionists on the committee. Seven members said that it reflected 'an unambiguous pro-abortion bias'. They argued that science cannot be divorced from politics. 'While science is extremely valuable,' the dissenting group wrote, 'science is not God.'

From issue 1695 of New Scientist magazine, 16 December 1989, page
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