Asserting scientific authority. Cognitive development and adolescent legal rights

Am Psychol. 1989 Jun;44(6):895-902. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.44.6.895.


The APA uses amicus briefs to communicate scientific knowledge to the legal system. There can be tension, however, between promoting the social good through law and the disinterested reporting of scientific data. This article examines this conflict by discussing two APA amicus briefs filed in the United States Supreme Court in cases involving adolescents' abortion rights. The Court has restricted adolescents' rights to make important life decisions in part because adolescents have been presumed to lack competence and maturity. The briefs argued that developmental theory and data confirm that adolescents and adults have equivalent decision-making capacities. The scientific arguments in the briefs, however, do not justify this assertion. Analysis of the briefs illuminates some dimensions describing the role of a scientific statement in a legal brief. These dimensions identify ways to limit scientific claims about the evidence at hand to avoid overstatement. The primary danger of overstatement is that it undermines psychology's claim to expert authority in assisting in the formation of law and the shaping of social institutions.

PIP: In response to US Supreme Court decisions that restricted the abortion rights of adolescents on the basis of their presumed lack of maturity and competence to make important life decisions, the American Psychological Association (APA) submitted amicus briefs in 1985 and 1987 claiming that adolescents have the same decision-making capabilities as adults. The APA briefs were in large part based on Piaget's cognitive developmental theory that formal operations, the final stage of cognitive development, begins at age 11-12 years and is completed by late adolescence. A review of these 2 briefs reveals a conflict between egalitarian political commitments and rigorous scientific standards. There are few data supporting the contention that adolescents and adults have equivalent decision-making skills; lacking are studies that actually compare adolescent and adult abilities. In the meager research the APA did cite in its brief, the difficulty of confirming a null hypothesis was underestimated, presumably due to a desire on the part of the APA to ensure that adolescents were not denied reproductive rights. The APA is now concerned, however, that such rejection of rigorous scientific method may undermine psychology's role as an expert authority in assisting in the formulation of law. To ensure the credibility of psychologists as scientists, the APA has developed a conceptual framework for social scientific claims in legal advocacy. Briefs must go beyond a mere digest of the available literature to provide a construal of the meaning of this research. The argument should contain a description of all events held to be relevant to a judicial decision, claims about the scientific status of that description, and a case built on theory and evidence from science to defend the claim regarding scientific status.

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced*
  • Child Development
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Patient Advocacy / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Psychology
  • Psychology, Adolescent*
  • Societies, Scientific
  • United States