boxes of mifepristone appear next to the Sage Publishing logo

Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Abortion adversaries claim political censorship after anti-abortion studies attacking mifepristone are retracted

After a major peer-reviewed scientific journal retracted studies used by anti-abortion activists to falsely discredit the abortion pill mifepristone, right-wing media are crying foul, giving a national platform for the studies’ authors claiming the redactions are a “politically motivated effort.”

  • Studies used by anti-abortion activists to attack the safety of abortion pills were recently retracted for concerns over poor methodologies and unsupported findings

    • On February 5, Sage Publishing issued a retraction of three studies undermining the safety of the abortion medication mifepristone after a recent investigation raised concerns about the studies' “lack of scientific rigor” and ultimate conclusions. The articles appeared in the Health Services Research and Managerial Epidemiology journal from 2019-2021. Additionally, “Sage confirmed that all but one of the article’s authors” failed to disclose conflicts of interest through their connections to anti-abortion groups, including Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s Charlotte Lozier Institute and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. [Sage Publishing, 2/5/24; Media Matters, 9/9/22, 1/17/19]
    • Right-wing media have increasingly questioned mifepristone’s safety and effectiveness as it is now used in more than half of abortions in the United States. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “An abundance of evidence clearly indicates that mifepristone is exceedingly safe and effective.” [Guttmacher Institute, 2/24/22; The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 4/16/23]
    • Last spring, anti-abortion activists challenged the Food and Drug Administration’s 2000 approval of mifepristone in a legal battle, in which federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled in favor of restricting mifepristone access. Kacsmaryk, who has previously worked as a conservative activist, cited two of the three now-redacted studies to justify his decision, in addition to an array of other anti-abortion pseudoscience. [Media Matters, 4/12/23; News From The States, 2/5/24]
    • The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on March 26 from the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine and the FDA, which appealed lower courts’ decisions to curtail access to mifepristone. How the court will respond to the studies’ retractions remains to be seen, but law professor David S. Cohen told Salon: “I don’t see these two studies being retracted being the tipping point that makes the difference with any justice moving from one camp to the other.” [SCOTUSblog, 1/29/24; Salon, 2/8/24]
  • Conservative media decry the “suspicious timing” of the retraction and accuse Sage of censorship

    • The Daily Wire suggested that the redacted studies were being held to a “double standard” compared to other studies published by Sage journals due to “pro-abortion bias in academia.” The Daily Wire wrote that “authors of the studies say the retractions are a politically-motivated effort to discredit research that was cited in U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s April 2023 decision to suspend approval of mifepristone,” and suggested that the Supreme Court’s upcoming hearing “will certainly be impacted by the retractions.” The Daily Wire also cited one of the study’s authors who “added that the retractions were emblematic of the politicization of science, pointing to stances on transgender and climate issues widely held by the academic establishment.” [The Daily Wire, 2/5/24]
    • The Charlotte Lozier Institute, whose staffers contributed to the redacted studies, claimed, “We are now subject to unprovoked and partisan assault.” In a post on X (formerly Twitter), the account claimed this was “because our research has been widely read and cited, including in prominent legal contexts.” [Twitter/X, 2/7/24]
    • The same day, the Charlotte Lozier Institute also created a 15-part thread repeating many of the same sentiments. One post read: “Rather than engaging on the science, Sage has decided to act as judge, jury, and executioner, ignoring CLI's affirmative, good-faith defense of its research.” [Twitter/X, 2/7/24]
    • Fox News published an article that quoted lawyers of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, who claimed, “The allegations raised in support of retraction are not only procedurally flawed but meritless, and Sage’s actions are unlawful.” The article which describes medication abortion using the stigmatizing term “chemical abortion,” relayed a quote from a study author claiming, “There’s a sense of desperation among those in the abortion industry. They’ve always had the literature to themselves.” [Fox News, 2/7/24]
    • The anti-abortion organization Live Action suggested that the announcement of the retractions is suspicious, writing, “Pro-life groups are questioning the timing of Sage Publishing’s decision to retract three studies.” The article, which noted that Sage “denied that the timing of the case played a role in the retractions,” criticized other media outlets for supposedly being “unwilling to entertain any possibility that abortion pill investor dollars potentially taint the claim that the abortion pill is safe.” [Live Action, 2/7/24]
    • In National Review, authors of the retracted studies claimed conservative research is being unfairly suppressed, telling the outlet, “We have seen a lot of pushback on pro-life researchers and other research that cuts across the preferred narrative, and science is supposed to be driven by the facts, not by ideology.” The piece also quoted a study author suggesting that the studies’ retraction could hinder overall understanding of reproductive health science, as “it removes these important studies from the record where they can be accessed by other researchers and by women who are looking for the facts.” [National Review, 2/8/24]
    • Anti-abortion group the Human Life Alliance wrote: “This is politically motivated and an assault on scientific integrity.” The post on X continued: “Not only that, but retracting this study downplays the dangers of the abortion pill and keeps important information away from women. Women deserve to know the truth about abortion!” [Twitter/X, 2/8/24]
    • An editorial in the National Catholic Register decried the retractions as “cancel-culture science.” Sage’s retraction notice was criticized by the editorial board as a “shocking display of intellectual cowardice,” accusing the publishing company of exhibiting “obvious bias in favor of the abortion lobby’s perspectives” and decrying the “highly suspicious timing of the announcement” ahead of the Supreme Court hearing. [National Catholic Register, 2/12/24]
  • The anti-abortion movement has a long history of leveraging shoddy research to defend restrictions on reproductive health care

    • Unscientific claims that the six-week point of gestation is when developing fetuses begin to show evidence of having a “heartbeat” have long inspired anti-abortion policies known as “heartbeat bills.” Consensus among reproductive health experts is that “heartbeat” is a misleading term as the fetuses at that stage have not yet developed heart chambers. One reproductive health provider explained to NPR that these pieces of legislation are misguided — ultrasounds occurring at six weeks are actually detecting a “grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity. In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart.” [Media Matters, 9/22/23, NPR, 5/3/22]
    • Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) failed 2022 proposal for a 15-week national abortion ban was largely influenced by false claims that developing fetuses are able to experience pain at 15 weeks of gestation. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states: “The science conclusively establishes that a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24–25 weeks.” [The New York Times, 9/13/22; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, accessed 2/13/24]
    • Anti-abortion media figures often tout the process of so-called “abortion pill reversal,” which misleadingly claims that a medication abortion can be reversed by consuming progesterone. Experts from ANSIRH, the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California, San Francisco, released a 2020 report debunking the “reversal” process, writing, “There is no evidence that progesterone treatment increases the chance of the pregnancy continuing, and a recent study raises concerns about its safety.” [Media Matters, 8/3/22; ANSIRH, accessed 2/13/24]
    • Conservative media have long diminished contraceptives such as Plan B and hormonal birth control, despite both treatments having well-documented histories of being safe and effective. In the immediate weeks following the 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, right-wing media doubled down on efforts to misinform the public, emphasizing the rare complications of certain contraceptives and spreading false claims that taking Plan B amounts to abortion. [Media Matters, 7/8/22; 19th News, 5/25/22]
    • While the legal status of mifepristone is argued in the courts, anti-abortion outlets have used the opportunity to spread misinformation about misoprostol, a drug typically used after mifepristone in a medication abortion that can also be used by itself to terminate a pregnancy with slightly higher failure rates. Misoprostol-only abortions have been inaccurately degraded by right-wing voices as “far more dangerous,” even though the World Health Organization has promoted misoprostol-only abortions as a form of “safe abortion care.” [Media Matters, 4/3/23; World Health Organization, accessed 2/13/24]