Kagan and the Politics of Science

There’s been a lot of talk in the last week about Elena Kagan’s role in influencing partial-birth abortion legislation during the Clinton administration by rewriting a crucial passage of a statement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) on the necessity of such a procedure. (Shannen Coffin has an excellent summary of the case at National Review.) The evidence is damning, but William Saletan of Slate says there’s a larger problem not being discussed here:

But if conservatives are being naive about the relationship between science and politics, Kagan is being cynical about it. “There was no way in which I would have or could have intervened with ACOG, which is a respected body of physicians, to get it to change its medical views,” she told senators on Wednesday. With this clever phrasing, she obscured the truth: By reframing ACOG’s judgments, she altered their political effect as surely as if she had changed them.

She also altered their legal effect. And this is the scandal’s real lesson: Judges should stop treating the statements of scientific organizations as apolitical. Such statements, like the statements of any other group, can be loaded with spin. This one is a telling example.

National Review, CNSNews, and Power Line make a damning case that courts mistook the ACOG statement for pure fact. In 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortions, it cited ACOG: “The District Court also noted that a select panel of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded that D&X ‘may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman.'” That sentence, we now know, was written by Kagan.

“Judges should stop treating the statements of scientific organizations as apolitical.” It’s a depressing thought, as we still like to believe that the hard sciences are by their very nature above the political fray; if you open a statement with “scientists say,” what comes next is assumed to be unassailable — but clearly that’s not always the case. These organizations can come with biases the same as any other — or their statements may pass through any number of political filters first, as in the Kagan/ACOG case — and not questioning their pronouncements on issues from abortion to global warming (and everything in between) can be a dangerous business. 

 

By

Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.

MENU