Toni Braxton's strange diagnosis: Checking the science on her autism claims

Pop star theorized that her baby got autism due to prior abortion -- and weighed in on vaccines. Here are the facts

Published May 27, 2014 6:55PM (EDT)

Toni Braxton (Amy Sussman/ AP Images for Discovery Communications Inc)    (Amy Sussman And Mark Von Holden)
Toni Braxton (Amy Sussman/ AP Images for Discovery Communications Inc) (Amy Sussman And Mark Von Holden)

I don’t usually concern myself with questions of other people’s theology. Whether or not people believe in God and, if so, what they believe about that God aren’t really my business. In my capacity as a physician, sometimes I have to discuss a patient’s beliefs and spirituality, but for the most part those things don’t really inform my interactions with the people who come to see me for medical care.

Thus, when I first read of Toni Braxton’s revelation in a new book that she had had an abortion after becoming pregnant while taking the known teratogen Accutane and later came to believe God punished her with an autistic son as a result, the most pressing question that struck me was a theological one. However, as horrifying as I might personally find the belief in a God that would use one pregnancy to punish someone for the outcome of another, those issues are between Braxton, her pastor and the God she believes in herself.

But what of the claim itself? Did Braxton’s earlier abortion cause developmental problems with her later pregnancy? Given that there is a certain strain of right-wing politics that will embrace the most flagrant pseudoscience if it comports with their belief that sex should be fraught with risk, particularly for women, it seems like a connection worth severing from a scientific point of view.

The trouble is that, unlike religious belief, medical science doesn’t traffic in absolute certainties. Scientific data accumulate over time, steadily producing a body of evidence we use to take care of people the best way we can. But for any question, there is always the potential that new evidence will emerge that changes the way we answer it.

There are plenty of data that make a causal association between autism and abortion look pretty shaky. The U.S. abortion rate is at its lowest since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized it nationwide over 50 years ago, while the rate of new autism diagnoses continues to reach new records. While this isn’t a conclusive refutation of a link between the two, it certainly undermines the notion that prior abortions alone can cause autism.

Unfortunately, pinning down what factors do lead to autism is incredibly difficult. It is unlikely that any single obstetric complication is the cause of the disorder. One review found a relationship between both advancing paternal and maternal age, for example. But that same review does reference two smaller studies (one of which is also cited by an antiabortion website) that seemed to show increased risk of autism following induced abortions. The review did not include it in its list of factors that are likely to have a significant effect on autism risk, but if you want to find citations there are a few out there.

Do I find a couple of studies anywhere close to a sufficient body of evidence to support a link between autism and abortion? No. I think that if there were a significant relationship between the two it would have been demonstrated far more conclusively and shown up in far more studies. Unlike with other purported causes of autism, however, I could not find any studies that specifically examined the link between abortion and autism in a later pregnancy, which makes it hard to speak with as much certainty as I can about other subjects. Whatever you may think of Braxton’s theology, any scientific support for her belief is thin, at best.

For her part, it seems she has gone on to walk back the autism diagnosis and instead join the ranks of idiot celebrities who blame vaccines for children’s developmental problems. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence that after my son’s first MMR vaccine, I began to notice changes in him,” she said in a later interview. There is no “maybe” about this one, no matter Braxton’s post hoc suppositions. If medical science has built up a body of evidence about any one question, few are more solid than the one debunking any relationship between vaccines and autism. One recently released study included more than 1 million children and found no link between the two, which is far more sound than a couple of studies suggesting a link with abortion.

The role that God played in her son’s developmental problems is one that does not really admit to scientific analysis. I’m certainly skeptical. But as far as the roles her earlier abortion or decision to vaccinate him are concerned, I feel comfortable pinning them at “negligible” and “nil,” respectively. I don’t know what she’s hearing from her pastor, but I hope her son’s doctor is telling her the same thing I would.

By Russell Saunders M.D.

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Abortion Autism Doctor Editor's Picks Medical Science Music Science Toni Braxton Vaccinations