Researchers Asked to Hide Scientific Debate over Maternal Deaths

Co-authored by Catherine Foster

At a meeting on maternal and child health research in Washington last week, United Nations (UN) staff and abortion advocates told scientists they should “harmonize” their findings or discuss them “in a locked room” so that the press could not report maternal death numbers that conflicted with the ones they use to lobby policy makers and major international donors.

Ann Starrs, co-founder and president of the abortion advocacy organization Family Care International (FCI), told a roomful of scientists to “lock all the academics in a black box and have them come out with a consensus set of numbers” or “at least hide that there is disagreement” and “infighting.” FCI is the founder of Women Deliver, which is hosting a massive UN-backed reproductive rights fundraising conference in Washington next week.

The comments were made at a symposium hosted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and the British medical journal, The Lancet. The journal recently published an IHME study, which refuted the UN-sanctioned but highly controversial figure of 500,000 annual maternal deaths, finding the number to have declined to 342,900 including 60,000 deaths from HIV/AIDS. Abortion advocates and some UN staff have been using the higher figure for two decades to promote a version of maternal and child health policy that includes abortion.

Tessa Wardlow, Chief of Statistics and Monitoring at UNICEF, shared Starrs’ concerns, saying that there is a “system in place for harmonizing estimates for child mortality and I would invite the IHME to participate in that process and contribute to the methodological dialogue.”

Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, pushed back saying researchers should not come to a “consensus” or “harmonize” but rather have a “scientific summary view of what the totality of available evidence should be.” He argued that this should not be centered at the UN, but housed “independently within the scientific community.” Horton responded to Starr’s objection by saying, “Unless we subject numbers to that peer-review process, I think we are accepting second-class data, and that applies wherever the numbers come from.”

When he published the IHME study, Horton told the press that he withstood significant pressure from activists not to release it until after major global funding conferences concluded this year, such as the G8 summit, UN General Assembly, and next week’s Women Deliver conference.

Highlighting the tension in the room between the researchers’ desire for openness and activists call for secrecy, Horton said, “For God’s sake, your country, the United States, was founded on the press! One of the best documents in the history of humankind is the Federalist Papers; if it wasn’t for the press, we wouldn’t have a United States! So learn to love the press.”

The confrontation between the maternal health advocates and researchers may be behind the decision by Women Deliver conference organizers to re-write their schedule to include Dr. Horton in the agenda for next week’s conference.

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