There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of a study published today in the journal Issues in Law and Medicine, which attempts to prove the efficacy of the controversial concept of “abortion reversal”—that is the scientifically disputed concept of halting a medical abortion partway through. The study claims to have found that just under half of patients who underwent the experimental “reversal” procedure—which involves a dosage of progesterone and is the brainchild of anti-abortion physician George Delgado—were able to continue with their pregnancies.
According to the Washington Post, the study was based on limited case studies, and the author of the study is Delgado himself, a California-based researcher who has become something of a celebrity in the anti-abortion movement, thanks to his work around this very issue. In 2012 he published a paper featuring the anecdotal stories of just seven women who had changed their minds after taking the first of a two-pill abortion regimen. He reported that these women were able to halt their abortion by using his “reversal” technique.
Those findings, though anecdotal, had serious consequences. As the Washington Post puts it, “The sensational claim was quickly embraced by conservative lawmakers pushing measures requiring clinics to inform women of this option.” In the past few years, several states have been successful in passing legislation that does just that—including Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah.
These notification laws are emotional manipulation masquerading as informed consent—just as you see with laws forcing patients to see an ultrasound before having an abortion. They are also, as The New York Times Magazine pointed out last year, “the latest attempt by abortion foes to create a narrative of regret.” In truth, though, very few people regret their abortions.
This latest study followed over 700 patients who called an abortion-reversal hotline over the course of four years. They all said they had taken mifepristone, the first of two pills, but had changed their minds before taking misoprostol. As the Washington Post reports:
Of the 547 patients who took progesterone within 72 hours of taking mifepristone and had outcomes that were known, there were 257 live births. Another four women remained pregnant with what seemed to be viable fetuses, but were lost to follow-up tracking after their 20th week of pregnancy. The overall rate of a pregnancy continuing, Delgado wrote, was 48 percent.
In other words, just under half of the patients were able to continue with their pregnancies.
Absent any other information about the effectiveness of medical abortions, that might sound like the procedure was somewhat effective—or at least had odds about as good as a coin flip. But, as Daniel Grossman, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and a critic of Delgado’s work, told the Washington Post, “mifepristone by itself is not a very effective abortion-causing agent. If you use it just by itself there’s a good chance the pregnancy will continue on its own.” Grossman has found that patients who only take mifepristone, and not misoprostol, have a 25 percent chance of an unsuccessful termination anyway.
Also, the study, as The Post puts it, “suffers from some of the same weaknesses as his previous work, such as the fact that it consists only of observational case studies rather than being part of a rigorous clinical trial.” But, clearly, that hasn’t stopped anti-abortion lawmakers from running with his data in the past. His 2012 findings—entirely inconclusive and anecdotal—were nonetheless used as the basis for forcing clinics to tell people seeking abortions about the “reversal” option. Now, they have another study—no matter how faulty—to add to their arsenal.