Impartiality of abortion enquiry witnesses called into question

// 15 October 2007

There’s an important committee sitting today. The Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology is beginning an enquiry into developments in science and evidence related to abortion since the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act (the act which is 40 years old this month).

Specifically, the committee is considering:

  • evidence relating to the 24 week limit on abortions;

  • evidence relating to the impact of a reform to first trimester abortion law; and
  • evidence of long term physical and mental health impacts related to the availability or restriction of abortion.

This is obviously an important committee, and we’ll be keeping an eye on its progress. Just to start proceedings with a bang, here’s an early cause for alarm.

The enquiry has solicited evidence from doctors and medical associations in the lead up to the enquiry, which is standard procedure. This morning, however, it emerged that the committee clerk has had to take the “unusual step” of writing to all individuals who have submitted evidence to the enquiry and asking them to disclose all of their affiliations. The reason this step has been taken is that it has emerged that at least eight of the private submissions have come from medical professionals who have not disclosed their affiliation with Christian groups opposed to abortion. Six of those are members or activists of Christian Medical Fellowship.

For reference, the CMF have made an organisational submission to the enquiry which suggests that:

  • the 24-week limit should be reviewed;

  • the limit for abortion for foetal abnormality should be no higher than the general limit;
  • “any change in the law which increases abortion totals should be resisted”;
  • the requirement for permission to abort from two doctors should remain; and
  • there is “overwhelming evidence that abortion causes significant rates of serious mental health problems”.

They further note that they regret that the committee will not consider ethical or moral issues associated with time limits and that they are “reluctantly restricting ourselves to the science in this submission”. So it’s pretty clear where their opinions lie. The CWF is an anti-abortion group.

Now we’re told that at least 6 of the (about 20) individual submissions are members of this group, and that a further two are members of groups likely to hold similar opinions. Evan Harris, the Lib Dem science spokesman, and member of the committee is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“This inquiry is specifically about the scientific evidence not moral or religious arguments and our witnesses need to be evidence-led not ideologically or theologically driven. The CMF risk undermining the inquiry by getting people called as expert scientific witnesses when they are not […] Everyone is entitled to an opinion but when non-experts are submitting their views about findings they really ought to declare where they are coming from so their expertise and standpoint is not misunderstood”

Two of the individual expert witnesses due to be called to testify before the committee today are CWF members who did not declare their affiliation on their personal submissions. One of those, Professor John Wyatt, says that his personal opinion is still valid:

“I’m basically giving this submission as a private individual not a representative of any organisation. It doesn’t seem to me helpful in a way to wish to diminish the impact of evidence according to the personal beliefs of the people who present them, unless one is going to do that across the board … what we are asking is for scientific evidence to be considered on its merits and avoid a sort of polarisation which so easily comes into this field”.

We’ll keep you posted.

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