APA appoints task force on abortion and mental health

First mentioned in passing in a January 21 New York Times article, the APA has appointed a task force to conduct an updated review of research on abortion and mental health outcomes. In contrast to the more public process used by the APA to appoint the task force on sexual orientation responses, the APA did not consult the membership for nominations. The APA reached back to partially reconfigure the 1989 task force that found minimal mental health risk in abortion. The members of the Task Force are:

Mark Appelbaum, PhD, University of California, San Diego

Linda Beckman, PhD, California School of Professional Psychology

Mary Ann Dutton, PhD, Georgetown University School of Medicine

Brenda Major, PhD, University of California-Santa Barbara

Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD, Arizona State University

Carolyn West, PhD, University of Washington, Tacoma

According to Rhea Farberman, PR Officer at APA,

A slate of potential members for this task force was determined based on a database search of research on abortion and related issues. That initial list was reviewed by the APA Committee on Women in Psychology which sent recommendations to the APA Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest which in turn sent recommendations to the APA Board of Directors. The Board of Directors made the final appointments to the task force.

The task force was constituted with the following goals:

Include leading researchers who were members of the group that did the review 15 years ago, while not completely reconstituting the original group;

Include research and practice expertise in the following areas: social attitudes, sexual behaviors, violence/trauma/sexual assault, women’s mental health, and minority populations; and,

Include a methodologist, because so many of the most visible/critical questions are methodological in nature.

Concerning the final composition of the task force, three of the task force members have prior expertise directly related to issue of abortion and mental health; the other three have expertise in the related issues noted above.

Rhea added that any information germane to the charge of the Task Force is welcome – it doesn’t necessarily have to be from members — and can be sent to: Women’s Program Office, American Psychological Association, 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.

The manner and members of the task force have raised some questions. One psychologist I interviewed, Dr. Rachel MacNair, wonders about the objectivity of this committee. Dr. MacNair is the author of Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The psychological consequences of killing. Dr. MacNair says she is a “pro-life feminist” who “sees all violence as connected and wrong, with abortion being one kind of violence.” She observed that half of the task force have been openly critical of pro-life views and have public positions negating any relationship between abortion and negative mental health consequences. Dr. MacNair also believes qualified people were overlooked by the APA’s selection process.

Would the committee’s credibility have been strengthened by including members with opposing perspectives? Dr. MacNair thinks so and told me, “Only if the report comes out with conclusions opposite to what one would expect with the ideological commitment of half of its members will it have credibility. If it comes out as predicted, the absence of balance on the task force will be a problem for its scientific credibility.”

You can read more of Dr. MacNair’s thoughts in a column I just posted on my website call Abortion and American Psychology.

UPDATE: 5/18/07 – The Washington Times carried the Abortion and American Psychology column today.

10 thoughts on “APA appoints task force on abortion and mental health”

  1. I don’t think the criteria should be whether someone is pro-choice or pro-life, but whether they are more likely to use the findings to advance medical knowledge and help the women in question or use the findings to attempt to push their own personal, political agendas.

  2. Whether pro-life or pro-choice, if you have already made up your mind about an issue, it seems there would be a need for a balancing perspective on a task force designed to review a controversial issue. If no truly neutral people can be found then a task force should be constructed in such a way that evidence for all points of view can be offered.

    The issue is not exclusively pro-life v. pro-choice. It is possible to be pro-choice politically (David Fergusson) but believe there are negative mental health consequences to abortion for some number of women.

  3. Since the panel will be inquiring into abortion and associated mental health outcomes, that is to say into those conditions which follow on from abortion, why, logically should pro-lifers be included? Their position, surely, would preclude any possibility that there would be consequences for abortion, since they would not countenance it happening anyway.

  4. “If you wish to have a say in APA issues, join. . .”

    Yes, this is a difficult issue. I hear you, and I respect the idea that change comes from within. But, if I join, my fees will go toward funding issues that I do not agree with. . .

    Dr. Justina Powers

  5. Let’s hope the final report has been subjected to adequate review and comment by all concerned and that it reflects scientific observation that is not swayed in either direction by political or religious ideologies. I’m sure that Dr. Throckmorton will update us and I hope you have comments at that time.

  6. To Timothy Kincaid —

    I have looked into the positions of the other members. Appelbaum, as far as I can tell, is a neutral methodology person. West and Dutton have extensive work on domestic abuse of women, with no comment on abortion at all. They are all three excellent choices. I am delighted that they are on the Task Force.

    It may well be that the reviewers on the report will be able to make up for what’s missing in the membership of the Task Force. However, the fact that a perspective is so deliberately missing would naturally be a cause for concern.

  7. None of the members have expressed any public concerns about the current APA position. The members who were selected due to their research into abortion and mental health issues have all been on record about their position. The other members were not selected due to their research expertise in abortion and mental health, rather for other issues as noted by Rhea Farberman.

  8. Warren,

    Have you or Dr. MacNair looked into the positions of the other members on the panel? I would think that if there are at least one or two who are disinclined to support the positions of the other three that there could be a credible report – provided that they also agree with the conclusions.

    In other words, a report need not be in opposition to the presumptions of the majority as long as it addresses any concerns of those who do not have those presumptions. Otherwise the standard for credibility would be an impossible one: that all reports disagree with the majority of the members of a panel – an unlikely conclusion.

    Ms. Powers,

    If you wish to have a say in the positions of the APA, join it.

  9. I see a problem with only allowing APA members to be on the committee. I am a developmental psychologist, and I refuse to join APA because of their pro-abortion stand. I know of other psychologists who feel the same way.

    Also, I would like to see a task force designed to study the effects of abortion on the developing baby. . .

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