Abortion pill studies cited in ruling set for Supreme Court are retracted

Methodology and conflicts of interest were cited among reasons for retraction.

February 11, 2024, 4:03 PM

Two of the studies cited in a ruling that suspended federal approval of the abortion pill mifepristone were retracted by a medical journal earlier this week.

Sage Publishing said it issued the retractions from the journal Health Services Research and Managerial Epidemiology because of methodology issues and conflicts of interest. The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in March on the case -- about access to mifepristone, the drug used in medication abortions -- which cited the studies.

Medicated abortions account for about half of all abortions, according to according to Guttmacher Institute, an organization committed to advancing reproductive rights.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk cited these now-retracted studies in his decision to suspend the Food and Drug Administration's authorization of mifepristone. A federal appeals court overturned parts of the ruling, only keeping restrictions that prohibit patients from receiving the pill in the mail.

Kacsmaryk primarily cited one of the studies from 2021 to justify that anti-abortion rights medical groups and physicians had a right to bring their case to the court. In his order, he wrote that they have that right because "they allege" that the effects of "chemical abortion drugs" can put a lot of pressure on doctors during complications and emergencies. Along with some other key findings, the cited study alleged that "chemical abortion significantly increased the risk of an emergency room visit."

The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.
Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

A 2022 study that Kacsmaryk also used in his order is based on the same dataset as the 2021 study and has most of the same authors. It analyzes the increased risks of concealed medical abortion during an emergency room visit. The judge used the study to illustrate what he argued were the dangerous side effects of the approved drug.

Both studies analyzed Medicaid data that tracked patients' emergency room visits 30 days after having an abortion.

The FDA has said that "mifepristone is safe when used as indicated and directed."

Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative legal advocacy group working to outlaw abortion, filed the initial lawsuit that Kacsmaryk ruled on. Its legal counsel said the group isn't concerned about the retractions’ impact on the case.

"ADF has never relied on these studies for the issues that are currently before the Supreme Court," ADF Senior Counsel Erik Baptist said to ABC News in an email. "So this will not have any impact on the court's consideration."

Mary Ziegler, University of California, Davis law professor and expert on law, history and politics of reproduction, said the study retractions likely won't impact the case headed before the Supreme Court next month.

"I don't think the fact that it was retracted would necessarily even change the justices' reasoning," she said.

There's already been suspicion in some parts of the court about the academic data and reasoning, Ziegler said.

"This is likely to be sort of a non-story for the justices and for Judge Kacsmaryk, because it's sort of baked in for a lot of people that there's going to be differing perception of fact," she said.

PHOTO: In this photo illustration,  packages of Mifepristone tablets are displayed at a family planning clinic on April 13, 2023 in Rockville, Md.
In this photo illustration, packages of Mifepristone tablets are displayed at a family planning clinic on April 13, 2023 in Rockville, Md.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, FILE

Sage referred to "fundamental problems" with the methodology, errors in the analysis of the data and "misleading presentations of the data," that served as the basis for the retractions. The publisher noted in the retraction notice that those findings “invalidate the authors’ conclusions in whole or in part.”

In addition to those issues, Sage found that most of the authors, including principal author James Studnicki, were affiliated with Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion rights advocacy organization. The initial peer reviewer was also affiliated with the same institute. These conflicts of interest were not disclosed when the study was first released, according to Sage's notice.

In an email statement to ABC News, Studnicki, vice president and director of data analytics at Lozier Institute, said they "fully complied with Sage's conflict disclosure requirements" and didn't withhold any information they were required to share.

He added that Sage hasn't required authors from pro-abortion rights organizations, including the Guttmacher Institute, to report their employment affiliations as conflicts of interest.

Journal "editors rely on the authors to self-declare" their potential conflict of interest, a Sage spokesperson told ABC News in an email. "If a reader inquires about an author's potential conflict of interest in a published article," Sage conducts an investigation to look into those concerns, which is what happened in this case, according to the retraction notice.

Related Topics