Monday, 19 May 2008

Reproductive rights & the conservative misappropriation of science

Today sees the beginning of a series of votes in the House of Commons over various aspects of the Human Fertilisation & Embroyology Bill that have caused much consternation amongst those of a conservative or religious leaning. Of course, in a truly democratic society, it is right that such objections are heard and that all issues are debated openly. However, the objectors have managed to muscle certain "proposed amendments" into the Bill that will have dramatic and far reaching consequences on liberty, specifically women's and reproductive rights.

Let us look at the issue surrounding the abortion time limit. An amendment has been proposed which, "on the basis of new scientific evidence" asserting that babies "can survive at as young as 21 weeks' gestation" because of "advances in medical care," seeks to reduce the upper limit on abortion to 20 weeks. The holders of these views, for example the columnist Melanie Phillips, will admit freely that "those cases are exceedingly rare," but contend that this is irrelevant because "the fact that some babies younger than the upper time limit have managed to live changes the whole picture," and those who would base such dramatic changes to law on empirical evidence rather than skewed anecdotal evidence are "disingenuous" and devoid of "the elementary sympathy for all human life which divides civilised society from barbarism."

The demand for this is further fuelled by the "monstrous" revelation that "nearly 4,000 women have had four or more terminations - and dozens have had eight or more," according to the Daily Mail. Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP and former nurse leading the campaign for the reduced limit, sums up what she sees as the consequence of this quite succinctly: "abortion has moved from a resource that women turn to in an emergency and a point of crisis to becoming a form of contraception." And a great many others support her view that abortion has led to "a steady process of brutalisation" with the "frightening" consequence that we are "unravelling the very idea of what it is to be a human being." The rhetoric of some campaigners goes further, calling abortion a "stomach-churning" evil which "involves the dismemberment of recognisable human beings" who can, it is claimed, "feel pain."

But, as ever, the rhetoric of the "pro-Life" lobby is tempered by fact. Today in the Guardian it has emerged that several leading scientists have accused the tories of "distorting evidence to try to restrict abortion and limit key research" on hybrid embryos. They say that these distorted facts have been used to table "destructive amendments" to the Embryo Bill, that threaten life-saving research and reproductive rights.

And, in the science, we can see that facts do not conform to conservative ideology. The research of David Field, professor of neonatology at Leicester University, was used by the Tories to justify proposing a cut in the upper limit because of the improved survival rates below 24 weeks. However, in the words of Professor Field himself: "At 22 and 23 weeks we found no evidence [of increased survival] whatsoever. Survival at 23 weeks in the first six years (of my report 1994 to 1999) was 18.46% of those who admitted to a neonatal unit. In the second period (2000 to 2005) it is 18.52% ... It was almost as identical as you can get it. There is no change." It should also be noted that the oft-cited belief that "unborn babies feel pain" at such an early period is a myth, unverified by scientific research, and spread about to conform to the view that "life begins at conception."

Even without this evidence, however, the conservative idealogue fails to take in many other realities associated with abortion. So many of these late abortions are sneered at as "social" abortions, with no consideration whatsoever for the effects on the mother of keeping the baby. For example, the claim that the 20-week limit would still "allow unaware woment ime to discover they are pregnant" is disingenuous, unless you work on the absurd notion that women regularly take pregnancy tests, just to be sure. Then there is the question of whether the baby is unwanted, whether by accident or by rape, and whether the mother can afford to support it, as well as cases of disability and threats to the mothers life.

Of course, abortion is not a nice thing, and even those who are pro-choice are not - as in the view of the most hysterical pro-lifers - "promoting" it. The answer, though, to reducing the amount of abortions is not about lowering time limits or tightening rules. It is about better and more informative sex education, wider awareness of the varying methods of contraception, and women being more empowered to know their options in full, as well as how to go about them.

A table in the Daily Mail on Saturday, alongside the revelation that doctors are refusing to carry out late abortions on moral grounds, purported to show a causal link - through comparison with the rest of Europe - between a higher time limit on abortion and a higher termination rate. Unnoticed at third from bottom of the table, with a far lower rate than Britain and many other nations, was the Netherlands, which has the progressive sex education advocated above - whose abortion limit was listed as "no time limit".

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Debunking the myths about immigration & asylum

Recently, I have found myself involved in a lot of arguments and discussions about immigrants and asylum seekers. During these exchanges, I have noted a lot of instances where those against immigration keep regurgitating the same baseless myths and I have to repeat myself a lot to disprove the same points over and over. It would seem that the media has been very successful in "manufacturing consent," to use Chomsky's phrase, and presenting reactionary hyperbole as fact.

This concerted media campaign has led to the British government making ever more concessions to the anti-immigration lobby and constantly promising to get "tough" and "crack down." However, the more concessions the government makes, the more are demanded, and this works only to the detriment of our whole society.

Thus, I have decided to lay out all of the most popular fallacies and misconceptions about immigration and asylum and debunk them one by one. Despite the propaganda that would lump all people who come to this country into one category, immigration and asylum are two entirely separate issues and, for further clarity and realism, I will deal with them as such.


"If we don't put a cap on immigration soon and allow it to go unchecked, this country will soon be overcrowded."

This is one of the favourite arguments of the "moderate" anti-immigration lobby, and MigrationWatch's figures estimate that within the next decade we will reach the "breaking point" of a population of 67.2 million. There are two things wrong with this idea.

One, this estimate, though possibly accurate based on current levels of population growth, is nothing more than a scare-mongering tactic, which fails to take into account levels of emigration or the fact that as the Eastern European countries from which the latest influxes come stabilise within the structure of the EU, their economy will grow and strengthen. This has already seen the Polish influx pass its peak and many workers return home, and will over time lesen the disproportionate number moving away from Eastern Europe as opposed to those coming in. As well as this, the estimate of 60 million is far short of the 150 million-strong population we would need to match the population density of the Isle of Man, which is neither overcrowded nor facing social breakdown.

Two, immigration is not the sole or even the largest factor in the population growth of the UK. Rising birth rates, especially an increase in teenage pregnancy through lack of decent sex education, and an ageing population due to improved longevity are far more important factors. The former being more serious and more important to address than the latter. If the UK, and indeed the world, population is going beyond sustainable limits - a whole other issue entirely - then it is emphatically not due to immigration.

"We are facing an unprecedented crime wave due to the number of foreign criminals migrating to this country."

This is an out-and-out lie. Contrary to stories in the Daily Express and Daily Mail, there is no "immigrant crimewave." Studies have shown that immigrant groups have no higher percentage of criminals in their number than do native groups. In fact, immigrants (and asylum seekers, for that matter) are actually disproportionately more likely to be victims of crime than anybody else.

"Immigrants who come to this country are stealing jobs from British workers."

Again, this is not true. Most of the time, the unskilled labourers who come to this country do the jobs that British people will not do. One prominent example is fruit picking, where the recent ban on unskilled workers coming here from Bulgaria and Romania has led to a grave shortage of strawberry pickers, and Scottish farmers face the possibility of up to 50,000 tonnes of fruit being left to rot and a loss of over £5.2m.

As for skilled workers, they come over here in order to fill a demand for, for example, doctors when we are facing a shortage in that area, just as many British workers do when they move abroad.

Neither of these factors are detrimental to the job prospects of British workers, and in fact employment levels of British people have risen dramatically over the last eleven years, in contrast to the vast swathes of unemployed during mass privatisation of the Thatcher years.

"Immigrants willing to work for less money, because it is still more than they are used to, are undercutting British wages and devaluing the minimum wage."

Although this is strictly true, the blame and causality have been spun in the wrong direction. In actual fact, migrant workers do not choose to work for less, but are actually exploited by unscrupulous bosses. Illegal immigrants are most often sucked into the black economy where they essentially become "non-persons" working as practical slaves for a sub-liveable wage. Legal immigrants are hired, ignorant of the minimum wage, by bosses who do not wish to pay their workers decent wages, and it is the actions of the bosses and corporations involved that undercut wages.

As for the minimum wage, the reason growth has stalled is because the CBI and business interests have been working constantly since before its inception to subvert working-class pay and ensure it never becomes a living wage, which TUC estimated at at least £6 p/h, or £6.80-£7 p/h on current inflation levels. British workers turning their dissatisfaction towards migrant workers only serves to distract from the possibility of both groups uniting to oppose the CBI and fight for a decent, living wage for all.

"Immigrants who come to this country do not respect its laws and values, and are degrading its culture."

In fact, most migrants in Britain are, overall, more patriotic and proud of their adopted nation than native-born Brits. Most of those who speak out against certain laws and traditions do so because they are unjust, discriminative, or archaic, and that criticism is shared by many native Britons. However, many conservative and nationalist factions would only grant freedom of speech to native-born Britons and expect all migrants to be subservient and agreeable, even towards acknowledged injustice. If restrictions are to apply to all, then so must freedoms.

Of course, it would be naive to deny that there are those who speak out with ill intentions. However, they are a very small minority, and their views need to be opposed vocally and openly so that those disenfranchised by inherent prejudices and injustices can hear all sides of the argument and direct their frustration constructively rather than be lured into the grasp of extremists. Prejudice and oppression, real or percieved, lead otherwise moderate people to unjust causes, and this will not stop until the prejudice and disenfranchisement does. At the same time, those who deliberately incite violence and terror, and attempt to incite others to do the same, should be dealt with accordingly, whether alien or native born.

As for our culture, it is going nowhere and it is not being eroded. Our culture is a fluid, organic thing that is both preserved in museums and monuments, and advanced through art and expression. History teaches us that this island's long history of immigration has enriched this culture, not degraded it.

"Immigrants who come here are responsible for the degradation and ruin of the NHS."

Again, this is a lie. Immigration has contributed greatly to the NHS, and indeed our other public services, and without immigrants it would collapse. The NHS depends on the excellent quality of doctors, many of them migrants, who work within it. The problems that the institution faces, from long waiting lists to lack of beds, come from an overblown bureaucracy running it, investments not being spent properly, and a government obsession with targets that makes it harder for the staff to do their job properly.

"We are facing a crisis in social housing due to the large influx of migrants, many of whom are given priority over British people who have been waiting for years to get housing."

There is no denying that there is a crisis as far as social housing is concerned, however to blame this on immigration is the most absurd conjecture. Most migrant workers live not in social housing but in rented accomodation, many in appalingly squalid conditions.

There are actually a wide range of factors contributing to the social housing crisis. This inclides Thatcherite policy of giving council tenants the "right to buy" that, though beneficial in terms of increasing home ownership, was not followed through properly. The money supported tax breaks for the rich and for corporate entities whilst investment in council housing fell dramatically. The New Labour government was complacent to let the lack of investment go unaddressed and to let the waiting lists grow over the last decade, which has led to the crisis that people face today.

It is merely the opportunism of the anti-immigration lobby that connected this with the influxes of immigrants that coincided with it to build up the myth that they were responsible. And it should also be noted that contrary to this line, social housing has recently been shown to be allocated entirely based upon need and nothing else.


"Asylum seekers come here because they can claim generous benefits and fleece the taxpayers of this country."

This is one of the most widely believed myths about asylum in Britain, and yet again it turns out to be false. Asylum seekers cannot work or claim benefits until their claims are fully processed, and those that do claim benefits hardly live on "generous handouts." They do not get mobile phones, televisions, or cars, and the welfare for a single asylum seeker actually keeps them 30% below the official poverty line, and are denied other benefits such as disability living allowance. And that is if they claim benefits at all, as most know very little about the UK asylum or benefits systems before they arrive.

As with immigrants, asylum seekers do not live in council housing, and they certainly do not ''jump the queue." Most live in rented accomodation, and the most squalid and undesirable properties at that. The idea of the asylum seeker living in the lap of luxury would be hysterically funny, if only the reality wasn't so tragic.

"Asylum seekers should seek refuge in the nearest safe country to their country of origin, but instead choose to come here because we are a 'soft touch'."

After the propaganda about the benefits that asylum seekers allegedly receive, this is the right's favourite asylum lie. There are two separate points here that must be addressed.

Firstly, the idea that the UK is a "soft touch" on asylum is absurd. Our asylum system is, in reality, very strictly controlled and harsh. Those who come here are detained as though they were criminals, including around 2,000 children annually. In detention centres, these desperate people face cramped conditions and racial abuse and violence from staff. And the recent laws passed on children's rights ignore refugee children so that their needs aren't tended to and the people who deal with them don't have to undergo the training that prevents child abuse and makes certain that their emotional and psychological issues are addressed. And most of the people detained have their applications rejected, or are allowed to start rebuilding their lives before being subjected to brutal and inhumane intimidation during forced deportation. This "soft" nation thinks nothing of deporting gay men facing execution for their "crime," children with sickle-cell anaemia, elderly people with cancer, and activists facing violent retribution in their homeland, and only back down in the face of public outcry.

Secondly, on the issue on the "first safe country," this implies that refugees browse countries as we might peruse racks of shirts before deciding on a purchase. This is simply not true. Most asylum seekers do not choose their destination country. Many of those with some choice come to the UK because they have friends or family already here. And although certain countries may be geographically "closer" this does not take into account travel by boat, makeshift raft, people trafficking, or any other form of transport that is not overland or negates all choice over where you end up.

"Whilst the plight of these people is appaling, the UK simply cannot afford to take in all of the world's oppressed."

Indeed, the UK couldn't afford to do such a thing, but we don't do that. Far from it. Over two-thirds of the world's refugees end up living in squalid camps in third-world countries in Africa and Asia. Europe looks after just 18% of the world's displaced people, and there are many other countries in Europe than just the UK who share this percentage. The UK actually houses just 3% of the refugees the world produces, which equates to 290,000 out of an estimated worldwide total of 8.4 million.

As a further illustration, I should point out that the UK was 16th in the league table of industrialised countries for the amount of asylum seekers taken in per head of population. On top of this, asylum applications actually fell by three quarters over the last five years, and - to quote from the official Refugee Council website - "in 2005, around 102 million people entered the UK, including some 284,000 students. Asylum seekers represented just 0.025% of the total."

"There is nothing wrong with genuine asylum seekers, but there are too many bogus ones who equate to nothing more than economic migrants."

Asylum seekers are not economic migrants, and to suggest otherwise only serves to mix up separate issues in order to make broad discrimination easier. The top ten countries that produced refugees in 2006 all had appalling human rights records or were sources of ongoing war and conflict.

The idea of the "bogus" asylum seeker is thrown about a lot by those looking to justify prejudice against those fleeing unspeakable horrors, but in truth there is no such thing. No country has ever withdrawn from the 1951 Refugee Convention, which guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum in any country, and which has over the last sixty years saved countless lives.

"If the UK has given these people a safe haven, then they should contribute something to our society in return."

Whilst this, on the surface, doesn't seem like an unreasonable statement, it is posed in such a way as to imply that asylum seekers contribute nothing to the economy. This simply isn't true. It has been estimated that immigrants and refugees contribute between two and six billion pounds more, per year, in taxes than they cost in welfare payments and public services. Even a House of Lords' Economic Affairs Select Commitee report, which took a very negative attitude towards migration, backed up this figure.

The British Medical Association has over 1,100 medically qualified refugees on its database, who cost just £10,000 to prepare for work in the UK, as opposed to the £250,000 it costs to train a doctor from scratch, for example. If we also include the contributions made by those who are trained teachers, or have academic qualifications, or even who enter the unskilled workforce, as well as the children whom Ofsted have noted making a valuable contribution to schools, thus helping to integrate their families into the local community, then the contribution to society by asylum seekers can hardly be called negligible.

None of these facts, of course, will dissuade the commited xenophobe or racist from continuing to spew vitriol about the supposed "harm" that "foreigners" are doing to our country and advocating the forced deportation of every last one. However, I hope that for those who have merely been taken in by this scapegoating propaganda through concern over genuine issues, the above will at the very least provide some illumination.