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We Must Stand Up Against Junk Science

By Dr. Julia Frank
. 1 Comment(s)

The tornado of controversy and condemnation that justly swirls around Representative Todd Akin’s promulgation of junk science draws energy from many  smaller storms  generated by the use of medical arguments to justify political views.  Just a few weeks, ago the Federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit  upheld a South Dakota law which requir[es] doctors to misinform women seeking abortion that they face an increased risk of “depression and related psychological distress” as well as an “increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide” should they elect that procedure.  As a physician, I am as outraged by this ruling as by Akin’s claim that the emotions surrounding a rape prevent pregnancy. 

Politicians of every sort use medical data to support their positions when they can. A medical imprimatur conveys concern for others’ well-being, along with a sober commitment to science and, thus, to reality. Many policies legitimately require a general discussion of medical information, to guide the apportionment of resources and the setting of priorities in programs and policies. We cannot, and should not, expunge medically supported argument from political discourse. However, irresponsible use of such arguments endangers both society and the medical profession. We have learned the hard way that many facts, even those on which we as physicians  act, are really hypotheses or myths. Remember when we knew that stress was the main cause of ulcers, or that thalidomide was a safe sedative for pregnant women?

Psychiatric facts are particularly open to such misuse. Psychiatrists cannot substantiate diagnoses by objective tests. Psychiatric models of  causality are so weak that we purposely separate diagnosis from etiology. Both Akin’s claim and South Dakota’s law capitalize on this weakness. Akin’s suggestion that fear prevents pregnancy represents an outdated understanding of the mind body relationship. As Paul Blumenthal from Stanford said in Maureen Dowd’s recent New York Times’ column, “If wishing ‘I won’t get pregnant now’ made it so, we wouldn’t need contraceptives.” The South Dakota law relies on discredited claims that abortion  causes (or prevents) psychiatric  disorder.

Clinicians know know how hard it is to communicate either risk or reassurance to patients. Obvious distortions , like telling a rape victim that her chance of becoming pregnant are vanishingly small, are fairly easy to refute, as they contradict known facts. On the other hand, to tell a patient seeking abortion that she “faces an increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts” is to imply that abortion causes suicide, even if the phrase itself slithers away  from making such a claim. To require physicians to mislead—speaking plainly, to lie—to patients is an abuse of political authority, now backed by judicial authority.

This situation is not new. The corruption of medicine for political ends was an essential component of Hitler’s propaganda machine, which justified  genocide with medical metaphors and concepts from eugenics. The corruption of psychiatry to suppress dissidents in Russia and China  is a tactic that the American Psychiatric Association, along with other professional organizations, has openly sought to oppose.

Our obligation to help leaders and the public distinguish between valid and corrupt uses of science is central to the integrity of our profession. Beyond harming individual women, political platforms, laws and judicial decisions that twist medical knowledge for political purposes undermine the trust that patients put in all doctors and the profession of medicine itself.  The potential damage extends beyond the boundaries of medicine, since trust in legitimate authority  is what makes democratic government possible.  Akin’s unspeakable assertion , like  the Federal District Court’s dreadful opinion,  are ominous signs of things to come, if we allow such misuse of medical argument to stand unchallenged.

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  1. Debbie Thompson

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    Speaking of junk science, the IDSA insists on keeping with their "guidelines" for diagnosing and treating Lyme Disease (there are also many nasty co infections that accompany Borrelia). Attorney General Bloomenthal's investigation already showed the conflicts of interest, and whistleblower, Kathleen Dickson (former analytical chemist for Pfizer),shows how Dr. Allen Steere cooked the books on the testing during his trip to Europe, in the 90's. We now have a worldwide pandemic, with this illness, because of the cover up. So, we the patients, who are very ill and dying, had to become facebook activists, so people can become aware of this, and hopefully, be able to be diagnosed and treated earlier. Borrelia infection is also congenital - many children are being born with it, and suffering, as well, and are diagnosed with all kinds of other things, as are the adults. I heard not much more than, "in your head" for well over 20 years, after going to probably 70-80 doctors, over all those years. I finally got diagnosed, near death (i also have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), in 2007. Because of the bully tactics of medical boards, doctors who do diagnose Lyme and treat it longer term (which is very helpful to those of us in the late stage of this disease), have to worry about harassment and possible loss of their medical licenses. Strange, right? The doctors who are living by their oath, are being harassed. Please look into the Lyme Disease epidemic. Also, don't let anyone tell you that Florida Medically Needy Share of Cost is a good program - it is the death squad, in reality. Thank you for your time. Debbie Thompson, Dunedin, Florida

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