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Research at the heart of a federal case against the abortion pill has been retracted

The Supreme Court will hear the case against the abortion pill mifepristone on March 26. It's part of a two-drug regimen with misoprostol for abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Anna Moneymaker
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The Supreme Court will hear the case against the abortion pill mifepristone on March 26. It's part of a two-drug regimen with misoprostol for abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

A scientific paper that raised concerns about the safety of the abortion pill mifepristone was retracted by its publisher this week. The study was cited three times by a federal judge who ruled against mifepristone last spring. That case, which could limit access to mifepristone throughout the country, will soon be heard in the Supreme Court.

The now retracted study used Medicaid claims data to track E.R. visits by patients in the month after having an abortion. The study found a much higher rate of complications than similar studies that have examined abortion safety.

Sage, the publisher of the journal, retracted the study on Monday along with two other papers, explaining in a statement that "expert reviewers found that the studies demonstrate a lack of scientific rigor that invalidates or renders unreliable the authors' conclusions."

It also noted that most of the authors on the paper worked for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of anti-abortion lobbying group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and that one of the original peer reviewers had also worked for the Lozier Institute.

The Sage journal, Health Services Research and Managerial Epidemiology, published all three research articles, which are still available online along with the retraction notice. In an email to NPR, a spokesperson for Sage wrote that the process leading to the retractions "was thorough, fair, and careful."

The lead author on the paper, James Studnicki, fiercely defends his work. "Sage is targeting us because we have been successful for a long period of time," he says on a video posted online this week. He asserts that the retraction has "nothing to do with real science and has everything to do with a political assassination of science."

He says that because the study's findings have been cited in legal cases like the one challenging the abortion pill, "we have become visible – people are quoting us. And for that reason, we are dangerous, and for that reason, they want to cancel our work," Studnicki says in the video.

In an email to NPR, a spokesperson for the Charlotte Lozier Institute said that they "will be taking appropriate legal action."

Role in abortion pill legal case

Anti-abortion rights groups, including a group of doctors, sued the federal Food and Drug Administration in 2022 over the approval of mifepristone, which is part of a two-drug regimen used in most medication abortions. The pill has been on the market for over 20 years, and is used in more than half abortions nationally. The FDA stands by its research that finds adverse events from mifepristone are extremely rare.

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the district court judge who initially ruled on the case, pointed to the now-retracted study to support the idea that the anti-abortion rights physicians suing the FDA had the right to do so. "The associations' members have standing because they allege adverse events from chemical abortion drugs can overwhelm the medical system and place 'enormous pressure and stress' on doctors during emergencies and complications," he wrote in his decision, citing Studnicki. He ruled that mifepristone should be pulled from the market nationwide, although his decision never took effect.

Matthew Kacsmaryk at his confirmation hearing for the federal bench in 2017.
/ AP
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AP
Matthew Kacsmaryk at his confirmation hearing for the federal bench in 2017.

Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee who was a vocal abortion opponent before becoming a federal judge.

"I don't think he would view the retraction as delegitimizing the research," says Mary Ziegler, a law professor and expert on the legal history of abortion at U.C. Davis. "There's been so much polarization about what the reality of abortion is on the right that I'm not sure how much a retraction would affect his reasoning."

Ziegler also doubts the retractions will alter much in the Supreme Court case, given its conservative majority. "We've already seen, when it comes to abortion, that the court has a propensity to look at the views of experts that support the results it wants," she says. The decision that overturned Roe v. Wade is an example, she says. "The majority [opinion] relied pretty much exclusively on scholars with some ties to pro-life activism and didn't really cite anybody else even or really even acknowledge that there was a majority scholarly position or even that there was meaningful disagreement on the subject."

In the mifepristone case, "there's a lot of supposition and speculation" in the argument about who has standing to sue, she explains. "There's a probability that people will take mifepristone and then there's a probability that they'll get complications and then there's a probability that they'll get treatment in the E.R. and then there's a probability that they'll encounter physicians with certain objections to mifepristone. So the question is, if this [retraction] knocks out one leg of the stool, does that somehow affect how the court is going to view standing? I imagine not."

It's impossible to know who will win the Supreme Court case, but Ziegler thinks that this retraction probably won't sway the outcome either way. "If the court is skeptical of standing because of all these aforementioned weaknesses, this is just more fuel to that fire," she says. "It's not as if this were an airtight case for standing and this was a potentially game-changing development."

Oral arguments for the case, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, are scheduled for March 26 at the Supreme Court. A decision is expected by summer. Mifepristone remains available while the legal process continues.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Selena Simmons-Duffin
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.