A recently released Canadian documentary on abortion purports "to find the truth for the sake of women's health." Regrettably, the slickly produced film quickly degenerates into hubris and hypocrisy. Having donated my time and expertise to appear in the film, I found the outcome disappointing -- if not unexpected.
The film is a prototype of pseudoscience. Physician-author Atul Gawande describes the characteristics of pseudoscience as the following:
Science's defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another.
First, the film alleges unique insights into gynecology and epidemiology, the study of the causes of disease. The director, Punam Gill, and producer, Joses Martin, claim to hold "the truth" about the health effects of abortion, despite their admission that, "We aren't scientists." The film discounts the world's medical and public health communities, which, after decades of careful study, agree that abortion is safe. Indeed, within three years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Institute of Medicine (now National Academy of Medicine) had established the safety and public health benefits of abortion. Over subsequent decades, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization have repeatedly confirmed this finding.
An International Conspiracy Against Women
Second, the film alleges that international medical and public health organizations have for decades misled the public about the putative dangers of induced abortion. The film makers claim that "the research involved in the making of this film was extensive." "Extensive" apparently means cherry-picking 21 citations, a depth of scholarship that would be inadequate for a college term paper. Among these alleged conspirators are the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, March of Dimes, and American Public Health Association.
Conspiracies typically are driven by power, money or some other gain. Missing from the film is any explanation as to why organizations with no involvement with abortion, such as the American Psychiatric Association, would conspire to mislead the public. Instead, these organizations have over the past four decades carefully examined the scientific evidence and have repeatedly concluded that abortion is safe and without long-term consequences, either medical or psychological. That the National Cancer Institute declined participation in the film does not indicate a sinister cover-up; rather, the Institute likely had more important business than working with independent film makers from another country.
The film's title advances the conspiracy theory, and its logo has the Statue of Liberty with her finger over her mouth. Of note, the film makers apparently borrowed the title "Hush" from several previous horror/thriller films of the same name, including releases in 1998, 2005, 2008. That a fourth psychological horror film with the name "Hush" was released in the same year as this documentary will further confuse the public.
Although the film makers purport to have provided a balanced presentation, its content belies the claim. I advised the director in writing in September of 2014 of the poor credentials and discredited science of several anti-abortion activists interviewed for the film. She was apparently undeterred in conjuring up a conspiracy. The film makers did not ask me to suggest other pro-choice experts who could appear in the film.
Fair and balanced?
In the film 22 identified "experts" describe an array of putative abortion dangers. Moreover, six women (identified only by first name) who had abortions describe problems they attribute to their abortions, including relationships with men. In contrast, Brenda Major, Ph.D. and I are the only two experts who speak to the safety of abortion. Out of the tens of millions of women who have benefited from safe legal abortion in the U.S., the film features none. A simple tally indicates about 28 speakers alleging harm vs. 2 citing safety. Given this overwhelming bias and slick production, naive viewers may easily reach the wrong conclusion.
The credentials of many abortion opponents in the film are suspect. Described as "the Moses of the anti-abortion movement," one holds a "Ph.D." from a now-defunct unaccredited school in Hawaii that required no coursework. The publications of another have been discredited by the research community. Another is a private practitioner with no research training; she speaks internationally in opposition to abortion and contraception. Some have no medical credentials at all but are religious activists against abortion. Another heads the Population Research Institute, which works internationally to undermine family planning and vaccination.
The film depicts the director visiting the "Seattle Abortion Clinic." There, she apparently secretly voice-records her conversation with an unidentified "Abortion Clinic Manager." This segment further misleads viewers: no "Seattle Abortion Clinic" exists. Moreover, if the clinic where the surreptitious recording took place is indeed located in Seattle, the film may have violated state law requiring consent of both persons in the recording. When I asked the producer to identify the clinic and confirm that consent had been obtained, he refused both requests. The director has not responded to my inquiries. This is how the film makers are conducting "a liberating conversation about abortion and women's health."
Hush: the Documentary fulfills all the criteria for pseudoscience. Because it misrepresents medical knowledge, it also violates the ethical principles of beneficence and autonomy. Pseudoscience, deception, and poor ethics translate into two thumbs down for this film.