How and How Not to Use Psychological Research Regarding Abortion and Other Social Issues

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I was just looking at a Facebook battle over whether women tend to suffer emotional distress after an abortion. A secular psychiatrist said there’s no evidence; someone else insisted there was.

As Christians we are committed to truth. We need to know what we’re talking about, to make sure we’re speaking truth, before we engage in these kinds of arguments. I’m not sure the Christian in this discussion was succeeding in that. That doesn’t mean she’s wrong; in fact as a strong pro-life advocate I think she’s right in most ways, just not in the way she was standing for in this debate.

Even with a Master’s degree in psychology, I wouldn’t try to win the battle the way she’s trying to win it, for four reasons.

1. Research-Paper Wars Are Always Hard to Win

First, it’s difficult to win any war of this type, comparing research study with research study. That’s especially true for those who do not keep in close touch with the literature. It’s study vs. study, paper vs. paper, authority vs. authority; in fact, these arguments are technically arguments from authority. To make one’s case in any such argument, one must be establish that the authority he’s relying on really is authoritative. If the other side claims another study as authority, then it’s a battle to see who has more authority.

The debate I’m watching has one woman, not trained in psychology, pitted against the American Psychological Association. That’s like bringing a knife to an artillery battle. It doesn’t matter if your cause is right; you’re not winning that battle. Only those who really know the field stand any chance even of being listened to.

Remember, I say that as one who would like to say the pro-life view on women’s post-abortive emotional health is adversely affected. I’d like to be able to cite that kind research, too. I don’t, though, because research studies are like people: If you only look at one, you’re not getting the whole picture. Studies hardly ever all agree with one another; and when I look at a page linking to studies showing adverse effects, I don’t know whether these studies have been cherry-picked. If they have, then they don’t carry scientific authority. If I don’t know whether they have been, I can’t cite them with any authority.

2. Few of Us Have the Knowledge to Use it Authoritatively

For issues that have been studied multiple times, researchers have a tool called meta-analysis that’s designed to ferret out what they all agree on, if anything. Unfortunately in the debate I’m watching, I can’t take time to study the links offered. Two are freely accessible; they total 230-plus pages, which is too much for me to tackle right now. One of them relies heavily on meta-analyses. Both of them also use a different but also acceptable methodology: simple inspection of the studies, looking at the quality of the research and drawing conclusions only from the best. (Another one for which only an abstract is available appears to use the same method.)

Can you or I assess the quality of these analyses? Can we do it on the level that this secular psychiatrist has raised it? If not, then we really can’t answer. We can’t use the authority of psychological research unless we take that research seriously.

For pro-lifers who do have that knowledge, though, I say full speed ahead! But you didn’t need this article to tell you that, or to guide on the right way to do it. This is for those who don’t have that equipping.

3. Authorities Can Be Biased, and Research Flawed Regardless

Third, the APAs are both politically influenced. In the field I’m more familiar with, homosexuality and transgender, it’s very clear their research is politically biased (horribly biased, actually). I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if abortion-related research were likewise biased.

Meanwhile the social sciences have been suffering a serious crisis of replicability: Findings aren’t holding up when re-tested. Is that the case with post-abortion studies? It wouldn’t be surprising — although the research summaries linked above do cite an impressive number of studies, which reduces the likelihood of that flaw.

I cannot say more than that myself. I know neither the literature nor the history of abortion-related studies. I can say it wouldn’t surprise me if it were politically biased or otherwise flawed, but I cannot say that it actually is. In fact, if I were to say it without knowing, I’d be guilty of the same thing: Letting my bias determine my conclusions instead of the facts.

4. Guilt is Still Guilt, and God Still Has the Final Word

Fourth and finally, it’s also a mistake to suppose that psychological science knows all the answers. This secular psychiatrist says fundamentalists impose guilt. In fact guilt is an automatic effect following upon sin, and it can only be erased through God’s forgiveness.

Psychological science knows nothing of this. Women may or may not be able to ignore and suppress their feelings of guilt — and we do live in a world where many women can find strong support for suppressing those feelings — but guilt is what it is, regardless of whether one “feels it” or not.

In other words, most of us don’t have the resources to employ psychological authority in these discussions. But that doesn’t mean we have to bow to it. Psychological science is neither the only source of relevant knowledge, nor the most authoritative. Killing innocent young humans is wrong because it’s wrong, and God has the final word.