Sunday, 18 October 2009

Pro-lifer 'victory'?

The pro-life and pro-choice lobbies are back in the ring as the Pro-Life Alliance have forced the Department of Health to hand over data on late terminations within 28 days.

Current media stories about termination range from the sensationalist Sun's headline about a 'career woman' who had 15 abortions in 17 years to the apparently more rational Telegraph article questioning the accuracy of worldwide abortion statistics which show that abortion rates do not decline when it is made illegal but more women die or are seriously affected.

The Telegraph's pro-life stance becomes apparent both in this article and in an article questioning whether late abortions are happening to create 'designer babies' - by terminating those with, for example, a club foot or cleft palate. It says that this is not happening for certain but repeats itself just to make sure the idea is firmly planted in the reader's mind that this could be the case and how terrible it would be if it were the case, even though it may not be - but it could be. The Telegraph also says:

But it is blatantly false that the release of the late abortion data need cause mental harm and distress to anyone. It should be fully anonymised, so as not to reveal the personal details of anyone involved, whether it be the doctors or the mothers. Up until 2002, when opponents of late abortion began to campaign against the practice, the statistics were published. No one was harmed. The DoH's use of the bogus* claim that the data could cause harm illustrates that the basis of their case is not protecting privacy or safety, but their desire to keep the issue out of public discussion.

The reason the Department of Health stopped publishing the data in 2003 was precisely because someone was harmed and perhaps because they feared, given the merciless nature of the campaigning, that others would be. The Reverend Joanna Jepson, who had a cleft palate, saw a report that a pregnancy had been terminated because the foetus also had one. Her action led to a campaign against the doctor involved by the UK Life League. His name, address and photo were published and he was forced to defend himself at a press conference.

The Telegraph's pro-life stance is reiterated when it concludes: The ProLife Alliance and its barrister Paul Diamond are to be congratulated on taking the matter to the Information Tribunal, and winning.

The Christian Insititute also claim a victory.

On the other side of the fence, the Guardian becomes a prophet of doom, citing what is happening in Oklahoma and questioning if it could happen here: Women seeking abortions in Oklahoma are to be forced to reveal an array of personal information, such as the state of their relationships, how many children they have and their race, which will be posted on an official website.

Two years ago, Oklahoma passed a law barring public funds from being used for abortions with the exception of rape or incest. The effect has been to prevent virtually all hospitals in the state from carrying out terminations because they are unable to prove that some part of the procedure has not been subsidised by public money.

More moderately, in a joint statement, Brook and the Family Planning Association said:

We are dismayed by this decision.

Whatever anti-choice groups aim is in seeking the data to be released, the potential for individual women and doctors carrying out the procedure to be identified is deeply worrying and unethical.

We strongly encourage Department of Health to challenge this decision in the High court for the sake of the few vulnerable women that will be affected.

Both sides are firmly entrenched but if, as the pro-lifers claim, this data will not be used to target people, what do they want it for?

The Pro-Life Alliance's press release says: We extend our thanks to everybody who helped in the case and we trust the outcome will be of benefit to all those working in prolife organisations. Shedding more light on the practice and reality of abortion in the United Kingdom is essential if we are ever going to impact significantly on the law and bring about change. One of the 'witnesses' they thank is Anne Widdicombe.

While not all pro-lifers are religious, the vast majority of them are. As I wrote in the summer, the Christian Medical Fellowship is already playing fast and loose with 'facts' about abortion, which will either give you cancer or make you insane, apparently. This is not predominantly a public health issue or even a legal issue, it is a religious one.

Even if individuals will not be targeted, the new information is not going to be used to promote open, rational discussion, it is going to be used, by the people who have demanded it, as propaganda. If it were going to be used in the public interest for unbiased debate or scientific enquiry into the practice and reality of abortion , then pro-lifers would already be having un-emotive, open-minded, fact-based discussions. They would not be hailing the latest development as a victory if they did not think they were going to find ammunition in the data.

The Telegraph goes down the conspiracy theory route, saying that the DoH is trying to keep late terminations out of public discussion. If it is, then it has signally failed as shown by debates and articles around the time of parliamentary discussion on changing the time limits on terminations.

The pro-lifers talk as if late terminations were widespread, trying to whip up support for their campaign, casting anyone who has such a termination as putting vanity before life with mentions of designer babies and doctors who carry them out as little better than cosmetic surgeons. Playing the disability card is manipulative as it provokes a strong reaction in many areas of society.

However, official statistics show that they are very rare. In England and Wales in 2008, the total number of abortions was 195,296 (a fall of 1.6% on the previous year). Of these, 90% were carried out before 13 weeks. A late abortion counts as anything over 24 weeks. In 2008, these made up 0.1% or 124 of all abortions. (For information, 91% of all abortions were NHS funded.) This is not to say that such small figures make late termination of no importance, but let us keep some perspective here.

The campaign to protect the foetus shows no humanity towards the parents. There is no consideration of how hard it must be for a woman who has carried a foetus for that long, or for her partner and family. Women needing terminations can be very vulnerable and any promotion of the idea that they are doing something terrible can harm them, creating a climate of fear, shame, judgement and isolation.

Doctors must be able to carry out their work, women and their partners must be able to make choices without fear of pressure, public exposure or action taken against them. Based on the evidence of the past, pro-choice groups, advisory clinics, and anyone capable of humane objectivity are right to be concerned.

*In the light of one current legal case, the Telegraph might want to be careful about using the word 'bogus'.

1 comment:

  1. Fifteen years ago I thought the anti-choice movement would inevitably decline, but it is still there and possibly growing. I think we all need to be very attentive as the rise in evangelism in this country will probably drag some pretty unpleasant political baggage in its wake.

    One thing to be particularly aware of is loudly-stated concern for the 'poor victims' of abortion - the women who undergo it. American anti-choice groups were famous for their invective against women who chose termination until they realised that it was alienating the people they wanted to get to, the people who were making the critical decision. In the seventies their propaganda started to focus on whatever illnesses and neurosis they could claim derived from abortion. One of their most famous victories was to get on-side Norma McCorvey - the woman upon whose test case American abortion freedom is based. (Roe vs. Wade: 1973).