Catholic JAMA editor moves to center of fetal pain report storm

The flurry of controversy surrounding a report published in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which claims that unborn babies cannot feel pain before the third trimester, has shifted its focus onto Journal editor, Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, a Catholic, and Eucharistic minister who says she supports a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Claims of bias arose last week as reports came out that two of the reports authors had strong links to the abortion industry.

The report, which is actually an assessment of already-existing research, suggests that unborn babies younger than 29 weeks cannot feel pain and therefore do not require anesthesia during abortions. The study poses a direct challenge to certain proposed federal and state laws which would require abortion doctors to tell mothers that their babies can feel pain and offer anesthesia specifically for the fetus.

The bias claims point to the study’s lead author, Susan J. Lee, who is a medical student and former NARAL Pro-Choice America employee, and one of the physician authors, Eleanor Drey, who directs an abortion clinic in San Francisco.

Now that focus has moved onto JAMA editor in chief DeAngelis--a reportedly “staunch” Catholic who says she personally opposes abortion but openly supports the choice of other women to abort if they desire so.

DeAngelis, who is also a Eucharistic minister in her diocese and in her youth, wanted to be a Maryknoll missionary, defended the report against allegations of bias.

"There's nothing wrong with this article," DeAngelis said, as quoted by the Associated Press. "This is not original research. This is a review article," based on data in dozens of medical articles by other researchers.”

She admitted however, that had she known about Lee’s NARAL connections in advance, she would have printed a disclaimer with the article.

She added that, "If there weren't four other authors and this wasn't a peer-reviewed journal, I'd worry ... but I don't."

Some critics point to the fact however, that despite the additional authors, two of the four have strong abortion industry connections--a fact which should have sent off warning bells.

Fr. Frank Pavone, head of the group Priests for Life, noted that extensive studies which show just the opposite of this one, mean that the debate is “hardly settled scientifically.”

Douglas Johnson, Legislative Director for the National Right to Life pointed out that, “The authors' conclusion (which was predetermined by their political agenda) is disputed by experts with far more extensive credentials in pain research than any of the authors.  These independent authorities say that there is substantial evidence from multiple lines of research that unborn humans can perceive pain during the fifth and sixth months (i.e., by 20 weeks gestational age), and perhaps somewhat earlier.”

Fr. Pavone likewise added that the debate largely misses the bigger issue. He said that the mere possibility of pain should give us pause with regard to abortion. "There are many painless ways to kill both born and unborn,” he said. “That doesn't make it right."

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