ABORTION & MENTAL HEALTH – Correcting the scientific record on abortion and mental health outcomes

by Julia H Littell, Kathryn M Abel, M Antonia Biggs, Robert W Blum, Diana Greene Foster, and many others

BMJ, 27 February 2024; https://www.bmj.com/content/384/bmj-2023-076518.full

The authors argue that better adherence to ethical standards for correction or retraction of unreliable publications is essential to avoid harmful effects on public policy, clinical practice, and public health.

The scientific community has contended with unreliable research for decades. Ideally, fatally flawed studies will be detected by peer reviewers and rejected by journal editors, but these processes are subjective, varied, and susceptible to error. Post-publication critiques can identify important flaws, and public debate can shed light on the nature of these problems, but these actions do not correct the scientific record. Thus, when authors are unwilling or unable to make sufficient corrections, published papers occasionally have to be retracted to correct the scientific record.

Standards for correction and retraction have been established by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), and editors’ professional associations, including the Council of Science Editors, World Association of Medical Editors, and European Association of Science Editors. These organisations provide guidance on best practices for science editors and journals. However, problematic science continues to remain uncorrected. The importance of correcting the scientific record has been highlighted by the use of four unreliable studies on the mental health outcomes of abortion in US court cases to restrict access to abortion.

Four abortion studies

In 2002, the BMJ published a cohort study concluding that the risk of depression was higher in women who had an abortion compared with those who continued an unwanted first pregnancy. Independent re-analysis of the same data found that this study incorrectly identified unwanted first pregnancies and did not control for pre-pregnancy levels of depression, and after correction of these errors abortion was not associated with increased risk of subsequent maternal depression. The BMJ published criticism of …