An Influential Anti-Abortion Think Tank Says Science Is On Its Side

Meet the anti-abortion group using white coats and research to advance its cause

The Charlotte Lozier Institute wants to arm the anti-abortion movement with science, but critics say its research is flawed.

By: Bracey Harris, originally published June 7, 2024, NBC News

On a winter day less than two years after the fall of Roe v. Wade, Dr. Ingrid Skop beamed at a crowd of anti-abortion activists gathered at the Texas Capitol.

“The sun is shining on us. I think someone is happy with what we’re doing,” said Skop, a longtime OB-GYN, clad in a white doctor’s coat.

Her smile dropped as she launched into a speech attacking the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of mifepristone for medication abortions. “One out of 20 women ends up needing emergency surgery with these dangerous pills,” she said.

The statistic isn’t far off, but the procedure that Skop warned of is a vacuum aspiration to clear the uterus, considered routine in miscarriage care and low-risk.

Skop’s warnings about abortion extend far beyond this rally. She is the vice president and director of medical affairs of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, established in 2011 as the research arm of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a nonprofit group that works to elect anti-abortion candidates. 

In a movement where many adherents are guided by religious or ideological beliefs, the institute has tried to win on secular grounds by offering research and studies aimed at countering the well-established scientific consensus that abortion care is safe.

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, the institute has gained visibility and notoriety as it has worked to justify abortion bans the majority of Americans don’t support. Two studies led by its vice president, James Studnicki, were cited in a federal ruling challenging the approval of mifepristone. Skop is part of a group that brought the original suit. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on a narrower version of the case this month. 

But the institute has also taken heat. The two studies were later retracted — unfairly, the authors argued — by the journal that published them.

In May, Skop’s appointment to the Texas maternal mortality review committee drew the ire of maternal health advocates and abortion rights supporters who see her positions as ideological and in conflict with the committee’s mission to improve maternal health.

The institute is often described as the anti-abortion movement’s answer to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group that supports abortion rights. Skop and her peers have provided conservative officials with their own bench of experts.

“Abortion activists dominate the scientific community,” Skop told NBC News by email. “CLI research is one of the only voices to counter the biased, abortion-affirming research.”

Over the past decade, the institute’s studies, including ones assailing abortion medication and promoting crisis pregnancy centers that counsel women against abortion, have been cited by politicians and judges alike.

Mary Ziegler, a historian and expert on abortion law, said the group’s work may help give legislators “political cover.”

“The scientific arguments that CLI is making,” she said, “are just one more arrow in the quiver of legislators who already think abortion is contrary to God’s law.”

Named for one of the first female physicians in the U.S., the Charlotte Lozier Institute was launched in a different era for abortion rights. Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land, and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America was working to elect candidates who would make it harder to access abortions.

The institute’s job, under the guidance of its founder and first president, Chuck Donovan, a veteran of the anti-abortion movement, was to provide data to help them. In a 2018 promotional video, a series of state lawmakers praised the group as a source of “facts” and “credibility.”

Kristi Hamrick, a spokesperson for Students for Life of America, said the institute plays a “very important role” by providing “an alternative scientific voice that looks at data” that groups like hers can use in their campaigns.

The institute’s influence extends to state legislatures, where its team testified in favor of bills that would prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks, and require that patients be told about a process called “abortion reversal,” a disputed treatment that abortion opponents claim can undo a medication abortion. 

Skop and others on the institute’s roster of staff and representatives are open about their religious beliefs. On a recent episode of a podcast affiliated with the American Family Association, a right-wing Christian activist group, she launched into a fierce critique of other abortion research.

“The abortion industry drives the narrative. They publish poor-quality studies. The mainstream media, of course, promotes abortion and picks it up,” she said. “So the American people have been gaslighted.”

In an interview, Rachel Jones, a principal research scientist with the Guttmacher Institute, said its work holds up under scrutiny. “We’ve been doing research for over 50 years on abortion, and we haven’t had any studies retracted,” Jones said, noting that the group is transparent about its data and its shortcomings. “Our track record speaks for itself.”

As patients with pregnancy complications in restrictive states like Texas go public with experiences of being denied treatment, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, like many anti-abortion groups, has argued that these have resulted from a misreading of the laws, rather than the bans themselves.

“Rather than blame pro-life laws when confused physicians have withheld emergency medical care, a result of abortion advocates’ fear mongering, state medical boards must provide guidance to clarify confusion, but many have not done so,” Skop said in a statement to NBC News.

But doctors have said the bans — which call for stripping medical licenses, and imposing fines or criminal charges on violators — create a chilling effect, and the institute itself cites guidance that discourages abortions as an emergency intervention.

When it’s necessary to perform what Skop calls a “separation of the mother and her unborn child” in the second trimester, she has cited the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, of which she is a member, in arguing that doctors should perform cesarean sections or induce labor, rather than an abortion procedure commonly called dilation and evacuation (D&E). More OBGYNs have the skills to perform C-sections and induction, Skop has noted, and in some cases they could preserve a chance of saving the fetus’ life.

Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, an OB-GYN who practices in Texas, serves as the board chair for Physicians for Reproductive Health, which supports abortion rights. She sees recommendations like these as an attempt to limit doctors’ ability to provide necessary care. In many cases, she added, it’s clear that a fetus won’t survive, and to imply otherwise is misleading.

“They view it as more dignified in some way for the fetus,” she said of the institute’s stance that doctors should avoid D&E’s. “What’s left unsaid in that statement is that it’s at the expense of any dignity, humanity or care for pregnant people themselves.”

Skop pushed back on the assertion that some patients might prefer a D&E to induction in these cases, referring to it by a term commonly used by abortion opponents.

“When experiencing a tragic loss, I have never had a pregnant mother prefer a dismemberment abortion over induction because mothers want to hold and bury their babies, which assists in their grief,” she wrote.

In March, the institute named a new leader, Karen Czarnecki, who previously worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council and Heritage Foundation.

It continues to rely on private funding. In recent years, its donors have included the Alliance Defending Freedom, which brought the mifepristone case; The 85 Fund, a group tied to the conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo; and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order.

In a recent video appearance, Studnicki, highlighted the institute’s recent wins. “If you look at our record in the last three or four years, we’ve been very, very successful,” he said.

But it also suffered a major blow this February when the medical publisher Sage retracted three studies on which Studnicki was a lead author. In a blog post, Sage said it flagged problems including conflicts of interest, “misleading presentations of data,” and “fundamental problems with the study design and methodology.”

One of the studies, published in 2021, made an alarming claim: that hospital visits had skyrocketed between 2002 and 2015 among Medicaid patients who had medication abortions. 

Ushma Upadhyay, who researches medication abortion at the University of California, San Francisco, published a paper that reviewed the study. She said the institute conflated visits to the ER within 30 days of an abortion with “adverse events.” But patients may go to the ER just to get reassurance that the procedure has gone smoothly, Upadhyay said.

Her research has shown that more than half of these visits don’t result in treatment. Lozier’s study, she said, didn’t address whether patients were admitted or received treatments, which would present a fuller picture of what, if any, complications occurred.

In response to that critique, Skop said ER visits, even without treatment, showed that patients “don’t know what to expect because they are not receiving adequate informed consent.”

She called the retractions “meritless,” contending that the group’s anti-abortion stance has led to “unprovoked and partisan attacks.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on mifepristone. It opted not to hear arguments challenging the FDA’s initial approval of the drug, but will consider whether to restrict its availability. The changes proposed would require patients to visit a doctor in person to get the medication, as was the case before the Covid pandemic, and mandate that the pills only be used up to seven weeks in a pregnancy, rather than 10.

The retractions so far don’t seem to have damaged the institute’s standing in the anti-abortion movement. 

“These findings have been used in legal action in many of the states,” Studnicki recently said in a video response to the retractions. “We have become visible. People are quoting us. And for that reason, we are dangerous.”

Bracey Harris is a national reporter for NBC News, based in Jackson, Mississippi.