Potter, other UT professors should peer-review abortion research before they politicize it

Travis Knoll

UT sociology professor Joseph Potter was in the hot seat Monday and Tuesday, testifying to stop the controversial abortion restrictions that were passed this summer. The restrictions, some of which would go into effect next week, would impose stiffer standards on abortion clinics by requiring admitting privileges at a nearby hospital for clinic doctors and restricting access to abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

In an injunction against the restrictions, Potter testified on behalf of those seeking to stop the measure’s implementation, prompting anti-abortion activists to question the study’s methodology. Pro-choice supporters, on the other hand, have lauded the study as one more piece of evidence for their cause.

Still others, such as myself, argue that designing studies for use in legal arguments can limit a study’s overall usefulness. In the rush to produce impactful, timely data by tight court deadlines, it seems difficult to both conduct research and allow the peer-review process to enhance the study’s credibility and make it durable in the long run.

Potter’s study claims that one in three Texas women could be affected by the state’s new abortion restrictions, which are expected to close 37 of 42 clinics statewide once it is fully enacted next year. Using data from the state and from pro-choice groups, Potter’s study calculated the maximum number of abortions remaining clinics would be able to offer and subtracted that from the projected number of abortions sought by Texas women in 2014. Using this method, Potter arrived at a shortfall of 22,286.

In response, the state of Texas has alleged that the study did not clearly explain how it got its numbers. But Renee Paradis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the study is “extremely helpful” in showing the unconstitutionality of the new restrictions.

Indeed, if accurate, the study highlights the socio-economic dilemma facing pro-life advocates: Will poor women denied legal abortion forgo it, or will they opt to abort in more dangerous circumstances? Even for abortion opponents such as myself, this study lays bare the impact of Texas’ law on the vulnerable in our society.

Even the review process can be limited by political debates. When review is possible, studies are sometimes rushed through peer review and published because of their provocative subject matter, not their scientific merit. While speed allows these studies to influence policy and prove professors’ relevance, this lack of substantive review weakens them by leaving them wide open to partisan criticism and eliminating a layer of healthy debate. Taken to an extreme, activist studies run the risk of “cheapening” research, and the reputation of the university associated with it, by prioritizing “timeliness” over quality.

UT government professor Benjamin Gregg, who looks at the use of sociological research in public policy, had the opposite concern: Destructive self-censorship. He pointed out that scholars “self-selecting for restraint” would merely lead to less informed actors dominating the discussion.

Gregg proposed that a plurality of expert opinions is best in the courtroom and that the high-profile debate that results informs the citizens about pressing issues.

Gregg has a point. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, conducted studies in 1939 analyzing children’s reactions to black and white dolls. Both black and white children preferred the white dolls even when all other factors were equal. The results were published in 1947, and Kenneth Clark testified in 1952’s Briggs v. Elliott, and later the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education which ended segregation in schools, using the study to make the case that “separate but equal” was not equal at all. This study was vetted by years in the public sphere and timely enough for when the case reached the Supreme Court.

It’s clear from cases like the Clarks’ that a sharp firewall between science and politics can stifle constructive debate and further public ignorance.

I understand that time is not on Potter’s side, but instrumental science runs the risk of putting political priorities before the goal of producing quality research — unwittingly reinforcing the university “factory model” bemoaned by progressive academics. Potter’s research may be efficacious. But given the limitations mentioned above, he should better inform the public about the steps he and internal reviewers have taken to balance timeliness and quality.

Regardless of the results, the public should show caution and evaluate Potter’s study on its scientific merits, not on its political usefulness to advancing or stopping an agenda.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.