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Just Facts calls for retraction of dubious report on fetal pain

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James D. Agresti, president of the fact-checking website Just Facts Daily, is calling on the Journal of the American Medical Association to retract a 2005 paper on fetal pain, and responding to JAMA’s defense of the paper.

Last month, Agresti originally wrote to argue that the paper “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence,” which argued fetal pain was “unlikely before the third trimester,” warranted retraction because its contention was refuted by subsequent papers establishing that pain perception actually begins in the second trimester, and that the development of a cortex is unnecessary for pain perception.

He further noted that three of the paper’s authors—Eleanor Drey, Susan Lee, and Mark Rosen—had ties to the abortion industry they did not disclose to JAMA.

JAMA editor in chief Howard Bauchner responded, defending the article on the grounds that none of the articles were conclusive, and that the authors “complied with the journal conflict of interest requirements in 2005.”

Last week, Agresti responded, noting that Bauchner failed to address the substance of his concerns:

Your reply defends the JAMA paper on the grounds that the authors “included modifiers that reflect their review of the evidence available at that time, including uncertainty.” However, the authors included no such modifiers about this falsehood that forms the central argument of their paper. Instead, they plainly stated it as if it were a fact, when in reality, it is a proven untruth.

According to the “Retraction Guidelines” of the Committee on Publication Ethics, “Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error).” The 2005 JAMA paper appears to meet this standard.

Your response states that “the article by Merker noted in your May 27 letter never mentions the term fetal pain.” This statement has nothing to do with the points I made, and it appears to be a strawman. I cited the paper by Merker to show that the JAMA paper’s central argument (awareness of pain requires functional connections between the thalamus and cortex) is erroneous.

He further notes that he specifically requested a copy of JAMA’s conflict of interest requirements, which Bauchner did not provide. Agresti closed by reiterating his call for a retraction, which he argues is necessary under JAMA’s own guidelines that retractions should be “published promptly to minimize harmful effects from misleading publications”—in this case, the harmful effects being the suffering of aborted second-trimester babies and lawmakers crafting policy based on bad information.

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Fetal pain is one of the central issues animating the debate over both bans on abortion past 20 weeks of pregnancy (the point by which children are believed to feel pain) and so-called dilation and evacuation procedures, a common second-trimester technique better known as dismemberment abortion.

In the past, James Agresti has written in detail for Live Action on what the medical research says about fetal pain, as well as other scientific questions in the abortion debate.

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