Major scientific studies on the potential harm of abortion pills were retracted on Monday by their publisher, just weeks before the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the availability of such drugs.
Three studies, including two on the potential harms of the abortion pill just, were retracted on Monday by Sage Publishing, an independent academic publishing company. The retraction notice states that an independent review of the studies was conducted due to a single reader’s complaint that the studies included misleading data and that the authors were affiliated with a pro-life organization, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, presenting a conflict of interest.
The authors of the studies say the retractions are a politically-motivated effort to discredit research that was cited in U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s April 2023 decision to suspend approval of mifepristone, the drug used in roughly half of all abortions in the United States. The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in March on the legality of restricting the abortion pill based on Kacsmaryk’s ruling, proceedings that will certainly be impacted by the retractions.
Dr. James Studnicki, a listed author on all three studies in question, told The Daily Wire that the retractions were “completely unjustified” and that the retractions were meant to discredit scientific research that challenged the pro-abortion bias engrained in academia.
Studnicki, who trained at Johns Hopkins University and has spent decades conducting scientific research, said that he and his fellow researchers were targeted “because of the visibility of our work, because of the fact that our work was having such an influence on the discussion about abortion that was occurring in the states and in the courts at the highest levels.”
One of the now-retracted studies, published November 9, 2021, found that the rate of emergency room visits following chemical abortions had spiked 500% from 2002-2015, according to Medicaid claims data. Another one of the studies, published May 20, 2022, analyzed the likelihood of recurring emergency room visits for women who did not disclose to doctors that they had a chemical abortion.
Additionally, the testimony of Dr. Ingrid Skop, who was an author on all three of the articles, was cited multiple times in an August decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals where the court said that chemical abortion drug mifepristone should not be distributed through the mail or prescribed via telemedicine.
Studnicki added that the retractions were emblematic of the politicization of science, pointing to stances on transgender and climate issues widely held by the academic establishment. He said that proponents of abortion were deeply threatened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and were now pushing to banish any research suggesting dangers with abortion out of the academy.
“I think Dobbs really accelerated this, I think there’s a sense of desperation among those in the abortion industry,” he told The Daily Wire ahead of the retraction, which was expected. “They’ve always had the literature to themselves. All of the major health associations are pro-abortion, most of the journals are pro-abortion, all the academic departments in the universities are pro-abortion.”
In previous correspondence with the authors, Sage pushed back against allegations of political bias, saying that issues identified in the articles were based on independent review by “subject experts” and methodological issues with the articles.
Sage declined to comment on the retraction, but directed The Daily Wire to an explanation of its decision.
No issues were raised with any of the studies until April 2023, the same month of Kacsmaryk’s decision, when pharmaceutical sciences professor and abortion supporter Chris Adkins complained to Sage about the article claiming that the study showing an increase in rate of emergency room visits was full of “dishonest science” and “grossly misleading.”
The researchers were not informed of any issues with the articles until June 28, 2023, when they were informed of the complaint from the reader. They responded to the concerns on July 13, and an expression of concern was placed on the article dated July 25.
After months of back and forth with the journal, on November 13, Sage told the researchers that they would be retracting the three studies. The next day, Studnicki was kicked off the editorial board of the Health Services Research and Managerial Epidemiology journal, months before the retractions actually took place.
“In light of the decision to retract three research articles where you are an author, I believe that your term as an editorial board member must now come to an end. As the Editor, I appreciated your contributions to the journal,” Dr. Gregory Garrison wrote to Studnicki in an email viewed by The Daily Wire.
This message came after Garrison had previously highlighted Studnicki’s research in question in an editorial for Sage in March 2022.
On November 16, the researchers sent a letter to Sage requesting more time to respond to the retraction notice, saying that the retractions were “procedurally improper” and suggesting that the real reason for the retractions was to undermine their research ahead of the Supreme Court’s consideration of mifepristone.
“Your decision also reflects a regrettable pattern of using scientific publications as a sword against unpopular findings—regardless of their objectivity. This further undermines the public’s confidence in scientific bodies and does a disservice to your mission to ‘advance knowledge,’” the letter from the authors said.
Days after missing the initial retraction deadline, Sage responded on November 21 to the researchers giving them until November 29 to respond and denying any suggestion that the retractions were politically motivated.
“Sage rejects as spurious your insinuation that the timing of the Retraction Notice was in anyway related to a Supreme Court case,” Sage wrote in a letter viewed by The Daily Wire. “The retraction of the three articles is solely based on the results of the investigation, which was completed in good faith and which Sage had a responsibility to undertake as a COPE [Committee on Publication Ethics] member and to fulfill its responsibility as publisher of the journal. Sage’s primary goal and obligation is, as it has been for over 50 years, to maintain the highest integrity of the academic publishing process. Any suggestion that politics enters into this mission is without basis and is highly insulting.”
Sage claimed that one of the reasons for the retractions was that the researchers did not disclose conflicts of interests. The journal claimed that they were deceived by the CLI researchers and that they did not disclose “blatant conflicts.”
Studnicki, however, said that they had made clear that their work was funded by the Charlotte Lozier Institute and that they had detailed numerous times their affiliations. The institute is the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group. Both articles cited by Kacsmaryk state at the bottom, “This work was supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute.”
Tessa Longbons, another author on the studies, said that Sage was demonstrating a double-standard with the conflict of interests claim, pointing to numerous studies published with Sage Journals where authors affiliated with pro-abortion groups did not disclose conflicts of interests.
For example, in one article published by Sage advocating for mifepristone access, no competing interests were declared despite the fact that the lead author is an abortion proponent and the other authors were members of an academic center that promotes abortion. No conflict of interests were declared in another article from Sage Journals written by a researcher with the openly pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute.
In its letter to the researchers, Sage said that the assertion that they hold pro-life and pro-abortion authors to a different standard was “baseless and needlessly provocative.”
The researchers responded by again pointing out the apparent double standard.
“[If] Sage now purports to have always required ideological disclosures, Sage itself has not maintained that standard it seeks now to impose on us,” the authors said. “Despite Sage’s dismissal of this point as ‘unsupported,’ a cursory search clearly demonstrates that Sage journals have published dozens of articles on abortion access and safety by researchers affiliated with organizations with very public and open positions on abortion.”
Another issue that Sage took with the studies, according to its correspondence with the authors, was that a reviewer on the article was affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Studnicki, however, said that SAGE selects reviewers and the articles went through a double -blind process, meaning that the authors did not know who was reviewing the article and the reviewers did not know whose work they were reviewing.
“We did not select the reviewer at issue, and the reviewer’s identity is still unknown to us. In fact, this reviewer may not have been a CLI associate scholar at the time of his/her review. Likewise, because Sage practices double-blind peer review, the reviewer was equally unaware of our identities when evaluating our work,” the researchers told Sage.
Sage took issue with some of the methodological decisions made by Studnicki and other researchers. It criticized the November 2021 study because it used emergency room visits to measure complications from abortions. Using Medicaid data, the researchers had tracked emergency room visits for women who had confirmed abortions within 30 days of the visit. The researchers broke down the visits into categories, including abortion related visits.
Some critics said an adverse reaction to an abortion should only be counted if the visit involves surgery or hospitalization, but Studnicki disagrees.
”I think that if a woman has an abortion and she starts to bleed or she starts to have serious pain or she sees some sort of discharge that is indicative of an infection, she goes to an emergency room, I think that is a serious adverse event and a complication,” he said.
Studnicki said that none of the issues raised by Sage invalidate the research. He said the concerns are just a matter of researchers deciding to measure things in different ways, and not a matter of faulty data.
Despite the retractions, Studnicki said that he and his fellow researchers will continue to produce quality work, saying that it was a badge of honor to be targeted by pro-abortion advocates.
“This is the greatest testimony to the strength of our science that one could possibly hope for. We are doing all the right things. We intend to continue to do the right things, but it’s probably going to be harder to get things published because they are trying to tarnish our reputation,” he said.