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A Dangerous Kind of Political Science

September 12, 2012

When Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) made his now infamous claim that victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant because their bodies will “shut that whole thing down,” his was a particularly egregious but certainly not unique instance of junk science being used to justify a political stance.

In this case, Akin was explaining his support for the Republican Party platform (unchanged in more than two decades) that calls for outlawing abortion in all instances except when the life of the mother is endangered. One imagines that Akin also believes that girls who are the victims of incest can also summon their bodies to create an inhospitable environment for pregnancy. Meanwhile, what expertise backs up Akin’s warped version of basic reproductive biology? As we learned, Akin serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and his education includes a BS in management engineering from Worcester Polytechnical Institute and a Master of Divinity at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

Was there no high school biology in this educational journey? No sex education or even a frank talk with a parent about where babies come from? Alas, Akin, despite his higher education and election to national office is not immune to the ignorant ramblings of a decidedly (and dangerous) anti-science element of our society. It’s no surprise that Erika Christakis, an administrator at Harvard, writes on Time’s Ideas blog that harmful myths about rape and pregnancy  have a long, dark history:

“We heard from periodontist turned lawmaker Henry Aldridge that women who are ‘truly raped’ can’t become pregnant because the ‘juices don’t flow.’ Others, including a federal judge, have called pregnancy from rape as likely as ‘snow in Miami’ and ‘1 in millions in millions,’ while some have embraced specious claims about the effect of emotional trauma on conception from (so-called) ‘assaultive rape’ and other science-bending notions.”

Beyond the rape issue, abortion has been a regular target for anti-science conjectures. There are still prominent people out there who insist abortion causes breast cancer. It leads to infertility. It causes irreversible psychological damage to all women who undergo the procedure. The latest round of anti-choice legislation is founded on the concept that fetuses feel pain.

Earlier this year, Georgia became the seventh state in the nation to enact a “fetal pain” law that restricts abortions after 20 weeks and subjects doctors who perform them to possible arrest and 10 years of jail time. The medical reasoning behind the Georgia bill, according to State Rep. Doug McKillip, a Republican from Athens, is that there is “substantial evidence that, by 20 weeks after fertilization, unborn children seek to evade certain stimuli in a manner which in an infant or adult would be interpreted as a response to pain.”

I guess it comes down to how you define “substantial.” Despite the abundance of legislation that requires doctors to inform pregnant women seeking abortions that their fetuses will experience pain and suffering, a definitive review of the research published back in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found otherwise.  Instead researchers concluded that “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” and in fact, “the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.” The fetal pain issue is still not settled as abortion opponents continue to cite contradictory evidence that has so far remained largely unpublished in a peer-reviewed journal.

Using junk science to promote a political agenda is not confined to the abortion issue. Mitt Romney and many prominent conservative legislators continue to doubt that humans have much to do with global warming, or that global warming is even a real threat. Anti-vaccine activists continue to insist on the link between childhood immunizations and autism and push for the right to send their kids to school (and thus endangering others) without proper protection against once-rare ills like measles and whooping cough.

It isn’t even confined to opponents of legislative action. This country seems to have a particular penchant for ignoring science that flies against entrenched views promulgated by hardly disinterested players.

Despite extensive evidence that yearly mammograms for women under 50 who don’t fall into the high risk category for breast cancer is not only unnecessary but can also cause over-treatment and harm, the government continues to recommend it. The government clearly bowed to overwhelming pressure from radiologists and women’s breast cancer groups (underwritten by pharmaceutical companies), as well as Republican legislators who used the recommendations from a report by the independent and non-partisan U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to back their charges of healthcare rationing in the 2009 health reform law. It doesn’t change the fact that studies continue to point to the troubling role mammography plays in the diagnosis and over-treatment of very small tumors or “pseudocancers” that will never progress to breast cancer; or the fact that all this extra screening does little to lower mortality.

The point is that Rep. Todd Akin’s claim that victims of rape can somehow create a hostile environment in their bodies for conception is bizarre but not unprecedented. As a nation, U.S. students are ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science , and 78% of Americans still doubt the scientific view of evolution.  And according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, although 66 percent of Americans now believe global warming is actually happening, the proportion who said global warming is caused by human activities decreased from 50 to 46 percent.

Clearly, Americans need to refocus efforts on improving science literacy through education. But I fear that much of the junk science we are seeing is perpetrated by well-financed, conservative think-tanks like the Heartland Institute which was recently exposed as hatching up a plan to provide funding for curriculum developers and scientists who promote global warming denial. Many advocates for misinformation about fetal pain, the dangers of abortion and contraceptives are listed in the Heritage Alliance PAC and include the Foundation for Life and the Republican National Coalition for Life. Meanwhile, on environmental issues, one study found that 90% of conservative think-tanks like Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute support “environmental scepticism ” (which includes resistance to scientific findings on global warming, pesticide and other toxic substances dangers, genetically-modified foods and air pollution.)

The battle against politicizing science is an important one and extends beyond hot-button issues like abortion and global warming. The nascent Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, set up by Congress as part of the Affordable Care Act to conduct research and provide information about the best evidence-based treatments and medical care, is a target for conservatives and entrenched interests like pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association and medical device makers who charge the organization will be intent on rationing care. Legislation has already been introduced to eliminate the agency and block implementation of its recommendations.

Scientific inquiry is, by design, always evolving and leading to new findings. Credible evidence emerges when a large body of research points to common, repeatable evidence. Unfortunately, politicians and ideologues persist in ignoring this inconvenient bulk of evidence and picking and choosing questionable reports that support their particular view and financial backers. In the case of Todd Akin, his junk science musings were so outrageous that most mainstream politicians distanced themselves from this view. But that is not the case for other women’s health issues, global warming and in the important movement toward evidence-based medicine that offers the best chance of reducing wasteful, expensive and harmful care in this country.

(Note to Readers: Sorry for the lapse in blogging; juggling the demands of a new freelance career with summer obligations took a toll on my on-line presence.)

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