Thanks to one of readers for bringing an article from the September 10 edition of the British Medical Journal to our attention.
Criticism of US fetal pain study escalates, by Norra MacReady out of Los Angeles.
A study on fetal pain has raised questions about the way journals investigate potential conflicts of interest after it was exposed that one of the authors had worked for a pro-choice organisation and a second had ties to a clinic that offers abortions.
In the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2005;24: 947-54)[CrossRef], five authors at the University of California, San Francisco, concluded that a fetus lacks the thalamocortical mechanisms for perceiving pain before the third term.
This finding undercuts legislation introduced in the US Congress and passed by several states that requires doctors to inform women considering an abortion as early as 20 weeks that the fetus may feel pain and to offer them fetal pain relief.
Antiabortion groups began criticising the findings as soon as they were published. The criticism escalated when it came to light that the paper's first author, Susan Lee, is a medical student and an attorney who once worked for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice America. Another author, Eleanor Drey, is medical director of the Women's Options Center at San Francisco General Hospital, where abortions are done.
Catherine DeAngelis, editor in chief of JAMA, said she was unaware of these affiliations at the time but would have published the study anyway because the methods behind it are sound.
The furore has prompted some journal editors and reviewers to question whether controversial subjects should be subject to additional scrutiny. "It's very hard to craft a [conflict of interest] form that ensures you're going to get everything," said Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science. On the other hand, "It's up to the editors to have discussions with the authors if there are concerns, especially if it's going to get a lot of press," she continued. "If you err on the side of disclosure, then it's up to the [reader] to decide about the science."