Thursday, 28 October 2010

Choose Life

A look at the latest round of anti-abortion campaigns

For some reason, Christian anti-abortion groups have chosen the 43rd anniversary of the Abortion Act to launch their latest campaign.

Christian Concern's Choose Life campaign includes adverts on London buses that feature a foetus, a vigil outside Parliament, a national Service of Lament led by former Bishop of Rochester Nazir-Ali and screening an American documentary about what they call the 'abortion industry', showing 'the devestating effects abortion has on women'. Presumably, the people who chose the slogan have never seen Trainspotting.

Christian Concern (CC) said that 'For too long abortion has been a taboo subject, a situation that only compounds the problems that abortion brings. It is time for society to face up to the hidden scale and consequences of abortion'.

It's ironic then, that Christian groups objected to a recent TV advert by Marie Stopes attempting to make the subject less taboo.

Catholic groups are supporting CC even though polls have shown that the majority of UK Catholics support a woman's right to abortion and contraception.

Not given to subtle tactics, CC likes big numbers: 'MPs and Lords who voted in the 1967 Act never imagined that within four decades seven million babies would have been aborted, or that the reasons for abortion would have been so relaxed over the years'. They like emotive language too. A tiny ball of cells is a long way off being a baby.

They have also commissioned a poll by ComRes.

The poll asks:
1. How many abortions do you estimate take place in Britain each year?

Only 3% of the 1000 respondents were roughly in the right area. It's not clear whether they were told how their responses would be used.

2. In fact, according to Government figures just over 200,000 abortions took place in Britain last year. Which if these statements best sums up your view on this statistic?
It is too high and ways should be found to reduce it
It is a reasonable number and no action needs to be taken to reduce it
Don't know

Two thirds (66%) of respondents thought it was too high.

They're right, it is too high. There is no supplementary question to find out whether people thought this for moral, religious or other reasons, which allows CC to interpret the results any way they like. Pro-choice supporters would say that the solution lies in education, contraception and unbiased open discussion. The Government is currently reviewing SRE (sex education); a government poll has found that 90% of parents are in favour of children being taught about contraception although 80% of teachers don't feel equipped to teach SRE well. So one way to reduce the abortion rate would seem to be to train teachers better to equip young women to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

Religious group Family and Youth Concern are objecting to the poll because it was backed by Durex, claiming that Durex has a vested interest. It's entirely possible that they do but FYC have interests of their own: 'young people do not need to be presented with a menu of sexual options from which they can make ‘informed choices’. Rather, the whole issue needs to be approached with honesty, modesty and within a clear moral framework that shows a proper respect for parents and for marriage.' Their interest is to promote sex only within marriage and only for 'childbearing'. Condoms reduce unwanted pregnancies, not abstinence and preaching.

Back to the poll. Education is not one of the options it offers. It continues (Warning - the dice are loaded):

3.Would you support or oppose each of these possible changes to the law on abortion?
A compulsory cooling off period between diagnosis of pregnancy and abortion, to ensure a mother is sure of her decision
78% of respondents supported this proposal.

A cooling off period would mean prolonging the suffering of many women and their partners, increasing health risks (if it's compulsory) and it also assumes that women have abortions on a whim. A cooling off period would also give pro-life advocates longer to work on the women. The use of the word 'mothers' is emotive and makes their intentions clear - a woman is a 'mother' from the moment of conception. However, around one in four pregnancies miscarry naturally, many in the first few weeks when the woman doesn't even know she is pregnant.

A woman's right, enshrined in law, to be informed of all the physical, psychological and emotional risks associated with abortion
89% of respondents supported this.

A legal duty on doctors to provide access to advice and information about alternatives to abortion, such as adoption.
82% supported this.

Of course women should be given all the options, presented in an even-handed, unbiased way, as well as being told about any consequences but only the real consequences, not the made-up, morally loaded, manipulative ones (I'll get to those in a moment).

4. Would you support or oppose each of these possible changes to the law on abortion?
A reduction in the number of weeks' pregnancy at which an abortion can be conducted, which currently is 24 weeks or just under six months, to a limit of 20 weeks or less.
61% agreed with the reduction.

This is what the questionnaire has been leading up to. CC want to reduce the number of abortions not by helping women (and their partners) to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place but by making it much harder for them to have an abortion when they do. The questionnaire does not inform the respondents how many abortions currently happen after 20 weeks so that they could make an informed choice about their response. In 2007, 89% of terminations happened before 13 weeks. In 2005, only 1.3% happened between 20 and 24 weeks. So CC's campaign to reduce the limit would have very little effect on the figures, which makes their poll little more than emotive propaganda.

Foetal viability was examined by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2007. Foetal viability means survival of foetuses who are alive at variable times during the pregnancy or the capability of surviving the neonatal period and growing up into an adult. The Committee concluded that:

'While survival rates at 24 weeks and over have improved they have not done so below that gestational point. Put another way, we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not.'

This conclusion is shared by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

A spokesperson from Marie Stopes International told me: "Having an unplanned pregnancy is often a very difficult experience for a woman and her partner. At Marie Stopes International we provide couples with non-judgemental information about all their options to ensure women can make the right decision for them."

It's not like Marie Stopes and similar clinics are forcing abortions on women or that doctors are pushing them as the easy option. They are pro-choice, which means that any choice a woman makes is supported, not just the forced so-called choice that CC are promoting.

The spokesperson added: “Fortunately, in Britain, women have access to safe abortion care unlike in many developing countries where abortion remains illegal and complications from backyard abortions claim the lives of tens of thousands of women each year and leave more than two million women with lasting health problems.

“Encouragingly public support remains exceptionally high for the right to access safe abortion care with a recent YouGov survey finding that less than 9 per cent of people opposed the right to an abortion.

“We are working hard to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies by educating women about more reliable contraception methods such as the implant and IUD and provide them with access to contraception.”

With less than 9% opposing abortion, Christian Concern are not representing the moral majority or protecting millions of morally feeble women from themselves. They are yet another vocal religious minority group.

It's not just Christian Concern who are ramping up their campaigning. American-style protests are also becoming more common in the UK. A Texas-based group called 40 Days For Life has been holding protests outside Marie Stopes clinics in London. The campaigners are planning to hold 40 days of protest in the US, Australia, Denmark, Canada and Northern Ireland as well as the UK.

Some of the leaflets they are handing out to women outside the clinics warn about an increased risk of breast cancer following abortion. This is an old favourite of pro-lifers. As I wrote in July last year for example, the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) have long spread this lie.

There has also been increased activity in Europe by pro-life lobbyists, for example in scuppering the McCafferty report recommending that doctors' conscientious objection to abortion (among other things) should not be upheld at the price of women's health and well-being.

Tory MP Therese Coffey has tabled an early day motion that would force women who want an abortion on mental health grounds to get counselling and be warned of risks to their mental health. The psychological toll of abortion is another favourite of the pro-life campaigners. The CMF are also keen on the fact that abortion makes you mentally ill - even though the 'evidence' they cite says the complete opposite of what they claim.

CC and others like this two-pronged attack: abortion kills babies and threatens women's sanity and health. They're not much bothered about the effect of unwanted children on women's health.

In Northern Ireland, pro-choice campaigners at the first all-Ireland conference on abortion and clinical practice have called for the laws to be modernised. NI is the only part of the UK where abortion is still illegal. Protesters were of course out in force, led by a group called Precious Life.

One consequence of abortion being illegal in the Republic is that abortifacients are increasingly being illegally imported, despite the health risks of self-administering.

UPDATE: A Vatican official has said that voting for a pro-choice political candidate can never be morally justified.

Religious pressure is not going to stop women having abortions. Yes, there are too many at the moment. Abortion should be safe, legal and rare. The solution will be found in education, not indoctrination.

One bit of good news is that Education For Choice has launched the A Word Campaign to help educate young people so they can make an informed choice about abortion and contraception. They say: 'EFC believes that young people should not be lied to. School should be a place where they can learn to recognise the difference between values and evidence and to avoid conflating opinion and fact, sermons and science.'

Finally, in America, one couple going to an abortion clinic fought back against protesters and filmed the encounter.

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