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".