Anti-abortion groups will gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life protest on January 18 under this year’s theme, “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” which claims that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause.” This framing is an attempt by the anti-abortion movement to allege that scientific consensus supports anti-choice policies -- an effort shepherded in large part by the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List). Although CLI and SBA List attempt to portray the organization’s members as impartial scientific experts, media outlets should be wary when citing them given the explicit mission of both organizations to oppose abortion.
For years, the anti-abortion movement and its allies in right-wing media have erroneously and frequently claimed that anti-choice arguments are supported by science. In fact, CLI was created as part of one such effort to frame anti-abortion research as impartial. Though other anti-choice groups often portray CLI as an independent nonprofit similar to the Guttmacher Institute (which was founded as an official arm of Planned Parenthood before becoming entirely independent), CLI is actually still operated as part of SBA List. CLI filed its federal 990 tax forms as the “Susan B Anthony List Education Fund” and even ran Facebook ads for SBA List during the 2018 midterm elections. CLI reported that its anti-abortion work involves putting “expert testimony before legislatures across the U.S.” by dispatching its associate scholars, as well as helping anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers with research to maximize the “outreach and effectiveness” of these fake health clinics.
Most recently, SBA List and CLI attempted to push their anti-science agenda during a congressional oversight committee hearing on fetal tissue research. Although both of the witnesses called by Republicans were CLI representatives, only one of these affiliations was disclosed during the hearing. As the communications director for the committee’s ranking Democrat told ThinkProgress, “While not untoward, it is unusual and telling for one hearing to have two expert witnesses affiliated with the same research tank,” and Politico called the move “irregular … as lawmakers usually try to demonstrate broad support for a policy.”
Despite being branded as the “research arm” of the anti-abortion movement, CLI “has so far produced little in the way of original research and data-gathering and has instead published more commentaries and analyses of others’ research that support its agenda on abortion and end-of-life issues," Rewire.News wrote in 2014. Little has changed since then. In 2018, CLI’s vice president published a study challenging the methodology of previous research showing recent increases in Texas’ maternal mortality rate. Another 2018 study by CLI’s vice president claimed that “Planned Parenthood has had a long-term and accelerating inflationary effect on the incidence and prevalence of abortion in the US.” SBA List summarized the research in a press release claiming that Planned Parenthood was “responsible for 3 Million+ ‘extra’ abortions” because Planned Parenthood’s rate of abortions hasn’t followed the same trend as other abortion providers. The rate CLI and SBA List identified likely has more to do with the rapid closure of independent abortion clinics than with Planned Parenthood performing “extra” abortions. Additionally, right-wing media outlets often publish pieces in which CLI associate scholars who lack backgrounds in scientific research claim to offer scientific analyses of reproductive rights issues.
Despite CLI's obvious bias, mainstream media coverage in the past has presented the organization as a legitimate research institution. Before the 2018 March for Life, The Atlantic published a piece downplaying the group’s involvement with SBA List, describing CLI as “a relatively new D.C. think tank ... which employs a number of doctors and scholars on its staff” and merely “shares an office with Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life advocacy organization.” As a result of this whitewashing of CLI, Rewire.News listed the Atlantic article in its 2018 “Hall of Shame” for reporting on reproductive rights because it was “aiding in the deception” of the anti-abortion movement’s attempts to gain legitimacy. Other outlets have cited CLI without disclosing its role as an anti-abortion group -- a CNN story about the recent committee hearing offered no description of the organization, while The Birmingham News merely described it as “a Washington DC health think-tank.”
Other recent media coverage has also given CLI a platform to present scientifically unsupported views on various abortion-related issues. For example, as part of the debate over the Trump administration’s push to end fetal tissue research, outlets such as ABC News, The Hill, and NPR each quoted CLI officials who claimed that fetal tissue research is obsolete or unnecessary when, in fact, such a view is unsupported by the larger scientific community. In another example, The Washington Post allowed CLI President Chuck Donovan to claim that the rate of abortions performed in the United States is declining in part because “pro-life views are more prevalent.” Donovan’s claim is unsupported by the actual research cited in the story.
Groups like CLI and SBA List often point to media coverage like this as a way of validating their anti-choice viewpoints, further perpetuating the ruse that CLI members are impartial scientific experts worthy of citation. With the anti-abortion movement using this year’s March for Life to allege that “science” supports various anti-choice policies, media outlets have a responsibility to interrogate the qualifications and associations of their sources.