Vincent Rue wasn’t officially a witness at either of two recent abortion-related trials in Alabama and Wisconsin. But his fingerprints were everywhere.
Rue, who is not a physician but holds a Ph.D., originated the concept of “post-abortion syndrome,” which claims that the procedure triggers symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. His research has repeatedly been discredited by major medical research institutions and his testimony was thrown out in two landmark abortion cases as being “not credible.”
Rue did not return a call from msnbc seeking comment for this story.
Despite his well-established history, both Alabama and Wisconsin invited Rue to consult and recruit expert witnesses to defend their laws requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. Clinics in each state have sued, saying the laws are an unconstitutional burden on a woman’s right to an abortion. Both laws are on hold pending litigation. Alabama’s law could shut down three of its five abortion clinics if it goes into effect; in Wisconsin, at least one clinic may close.
While states are not allowed to ban abortion outright under current Supreme Court precedent, they can impose regulations on abortion clinics if they show such laws further a legitimate interest, such as protecting women’s health. While that isn’t the only criterion – the burden the law put on women is also taken into account – much rests on whether the state can justify the medical basis of the law. That’s where expert witnesses come in.
Rue was involved in recruiting many of the witnesses for the trials in Wisconsin and Alabama, according to the witnesses’ testimony. Many of the same experts had been called upon to justify admitting privileges laws in other states, including in Texas, where the law has shut down over one third of the state’s abortion clinics.
One such witness was Dr. James Anderson. On the stand in Alabama, Anderson admitted that he had not actually read one of the reports cited in his own supplemental report to the court, just the one sentence he quoted. Anderson also said he had worked with Rue on several other abortion cases and that Rue had, in fact, written that supplemental report.
“I started doing that just because of time issues,” Anderson explained, referring to his collaboration with Rue. “The typing is very laborious.”
Alabama District Court Judge Myron Thompson pressed Anderson more on his connection to Rue: “You say you don’t know his employment or any organizations that he belongs to… Why do you trust him?”
An attorney for the clinics persisted. “Are you aware of where Vincent Rue got his degree?”
“No,” Anderson replied.
“So you are not aware of whether he in fact has a degree from a school of home economics?” asked the attorney.
Anderson responded that he didn’t. But, he said, “I’ve been working with Vince and his wordsmithing the document and finding articles. And he’s been good in that arena.”
Before he was “wordsmithing” for these trials, Rue made his name testifying before Congress in 1981 about post-abortion syndrome.
Rue claims no public health research training. An online biography notes that he “received his Ph.D. in Family Relations from the University of North Carolina in 1975,” but not that it was from the School of Home Economics. It also describes him as the co-director, with his wife, of the Institute for Pregnancy Loss in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan dispatched his surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, to issue a report on the health risks to women who had abortions. (The idea came from then-Reagan advisor Dinesh D’Souza.) Rue’s official biography describes him as a “special consultant” to that effort.
Koop was staunchly against abortion, but Rue nonetheless failed to persuade him. In January 1989, Koop outraged his ideological allies when he wrote to Reagan saying there would be no report because “the scientific studies do not provide conclusive data about the health effects of abortion on women.” Koop later clarified in testimony before Congress that he was referring to mental health effects. (The data on abortion’s relative physical safety to the woman is well-documented, Koop noted).
Since then, every single rigorous analysis of data has concluded that “post-abortion syndrome” doesn’t exist. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges announced in December 2011 that its review found that “rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth.” The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion found the same in 2008.
In 2012, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the Guttmacher Institute debunked a study on which Rue was a co-author. It purported to show that abortion caused mental health problems.
“Most egregiously, the study… did not distinguish between mental health outcomes that occurred before abortions and those that occurred afterward, but still claimed to show a causal link between abortion and mental disorders,” the researchers said. In other words, Rue and his co-authors blamed abortion for problems that happened before the procedure.
The editor of the Journal of Psychiatric Research, where the study originally appeared, acknowledged that it had a “flawed methodology” and that the “analysis does not support [the authors’] assertions.”
Julia Steinberg, an assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry at University of California-San Diego said at the time, “This is not a scholarly difference of opinion; their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data.”
Such faulty studies have major policy implications: They have become the basis for laws requiring that doctors give inaccurate information to women who have abortions, and they influence the decision-making of judges considering restrictions on abortion. In South Dakota, for example, where Rue testified before a state task force, a woman who seeks an abortion is told it carries an “increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide,” despite that claim having been debunked by reputable researchers.
Some judges have raised alarm bells about Rue’s testimony over the years, which may explain why he largely works behind the scenes now.
Rue testified in a 1989 Minnesota case challenging a parental notification law that wound up before the Supreme Court. On the stand, he affirmed that he also supported the state forcing women to notify their partners that they are having an abortion. Asked, “Would you also support such partner notification in the case of rape or incest?” Rue replied, “Yes, I would.”
In that Minnesota case, the district judge, Donald Alsop, concluded, “Dr. Vincent Rue possesses neither the academic qualifications nor the professional experience of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. More importantly, his testimony lacked the analytical force of contrary testimony offered by plaintiffs’ witnesses.”
Rue also testified in support of the spousal notification provision in the landmark Planned Parenthood v. Casey case in 1992 – the only part of the law that the Supreme Court found went too far. His testimony had also been thrown out by a lower court in that case.
“Because Dr. Rue lacks the academic qualifications and scientific credentials possessed by plaintiffs’ witnesses, I conclude that his testimony, which is based primarily, if not solely, upon his limited clinical experience, is not credible,” wrote the district judge in Casey. “His testimony is devoid of the analytical force and scientific rigor which typified the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert psychologist.”
Judge Daniel Huyett also noted that “after submission for peer review by scientists with the Center for Disease Control, the National Center for Health Statistics and other scientific institutions, his study was found to have ‘no value’ and to be ‘based upon a priori beliefs rather than an objective review of the evidence.’”
None of that has stopped the state of Wisconsin from paying for Rue’s expert services to support the state’s admitting privileges law. The state’s estimated payment for Rue’s services to the state is $35,000, according to a state website, and Wisconsin publication Isthmus reported last week it had obtained documents putting the total amount Wisconsin paid Rue at $47,362.50.
One Wisconsin lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor, complained in a statement that the state’s Department of Justice was “spending nearly as much as the average Wisconsin household earns in one year to hire a long-discredited quack.”
Another expert witness for the state was called into question at the Wisconsin trial.
Dr. John Thorp, a North Carolina obstetrician, was tapped by the state as an expert witness in a three-doctor colloquy on whether hospital admitting privileges were medically justified. During cross examination, he admitted that the report he had submitted to the court contained several major errors. For example, the report stated that the complication rates for first trimester abortion “range from 2-10%.” Under questioning, he said, “I think that ought to say .2 to 10%.”
Thorp later said, “That thing misses a decimal.” Planned Parenthood’s attorney, Carrie Flaxman, pointed out several other reports he had submitted with that inflated 2% figure. “They all miss a decimal, don’t they, sir?” Flaxman said.
Thorp also admitted he had misstated a study on uterine perforation, claiming the rate of that complication was 10 to 15 cases per one thousand, when it was actually 2.6 per one thousand. In another statistic he cited on infection, Thorp claimed that a range began at 1 percent when it was actually 0.1 percent.
Flaxman also noted that Thorp had cited an article for a data point about cervical trauma that never mentioned cervical trauma. “That’s another error in this publication and I’ve submitted an erratum to the publisher,” Thorp said. He acknowledged that he only submitted corrections after Flaxman had pointed out the errors during his deposition.
Whether any of these facts will make a difference, either legally or politically, remains to be seen. As Emily Bazelon reported in The New York Times Magazine in 2007, the end goal is not to describe what women are actually experiencing, or scientific accuracy in general.
As another anti-abortion activist and “researcher,” David Reardon, wrote in his book, ”Even if pro-abortionists got five paragraphs explaining that abortion is safe and we got only one line saying it’s dangerous, the seed of doubt is planted.”