The great debate rolls on

// 28 October 2007

Yesterday in The Guardian there was an article by Ben Goldacre which questions the legitimacy of the statistical information used to bolster pro-life arguments. This is one of the most interesting pieces of reporting I have read to date, since it strips the emotional meat from the debate to question the scientific information chomped at and spat out by pro-life activists.

As a student journalist I have discovered that mathematical information cannot be trusted, and that figures can be easily manipulated to consolidate a specific point-of-view. This may seem obvious to many already, but for the most part I have always trusted empirical data, believing that cold, hard, numerical information cannot be argued with. Traditionally figures invest a story with legitimacy and validity, although in retrospect maybe “story” is the operative word, especially when the sentences attached to some of these numbers are often completely devoid of reason. I’m sure many people understandably harbour the same misconceptions, but this is an assumption that has been exploited, as Goldacre discusses:

“In the media, you get one expert saying one thing, and another saying something else. Who do you believe? The devil is in the detail. One option is to examine the messenger.”

Goldacre examines the evidence brought forward by Professor John Wyatt who, contradicting a “huge study” by Epicure [containing all the data for every premature birth in 1995 and 2006], claims that there has been a significant increase in the survival of babies born at 22 and 23 weeks. This information has fuelled the hyperbole of pro-life campaigners, who will have us believe that from the moment the sperm and ovum collide the yet unformed ball of cells can quite confidently start calling you “mummy” and recite his or her ABCs. He states that as many as 42 per cent of babies born before 24 weeks at “some top specialist centres” live. However, the majority of scientific and expert medical bodies disagree with him, stating that there has been little change in the figure since the 90s, staying at around 10 to 20 per cent. These discrepancies were highlighted at the Commons committee on science and technology as they attempted to determine the “scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967.”

One interesting aspect of the report concerns Wyatt himself:

“John Wyatt is a member of the Christian Medical Fellowship. He didn’t declare that when he went to give evidence. You don’t have to. He did declare it when asked.”

Considering abortion is a subject that both pro-life and pro-choice activists hold passionate opinions about, it is surprising that “experts” offering the fundamental scientific evidence relating to the procedure are not obliged to disclose the group with which their sympathies lie, is it not? The main problem here, however, arose from Wyatt’s failure to state definitely what number he used for the denominator when determining survival rate, which explains his inconsistency with Epicure:

“In the sum 3/20, 3 is the numerator and 20 is the denominator: 15% survive; 3 out of 20. For Epicure, the numerator is survival to discharge from hospital, and the denominator is all births where there is a sign of life, carefully defined: 3 out of 20.”

Goldacre continues to explain that there are two reasons that could be accountable for an increase in percentage. Firstly, there could be an actual increase in the number of babies surviving, and secondly, and most importantly here, an increase could be reached by changing the denominator. If then, for example, your denominator is “neonatal ICU admissions” the survival rate will be higher, although as Goldacre states, then “you are not comparing like with like.” What ensued was much confusion, with Wyatt claiming that the denominator he used was “all babies born alive in the labour ward in the hospital at UCL,” then that it was the number of babies who survived to one year, before finally admitting that it was “all babies admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit.” This was not the end of the uncertainty, and it’s not surprising that there is a question mark looming heavily over the legitimacy of Wyatt’s information. Maybe this was a genuine mistake, but is that an acceptable excuse considering the information has been so widely reported as unquestionable? And are there any numbers that we can trust? What this highlights is the need to carefully examine our sources of information, regardless of his or her academic credentials and reputation, instead of being spoon fed a modified truth.

Everyday recently there have been articles about abortion splashed across the national press. Whereas this, (the 40th year since the 1967 Abortion Act stopped women maiming themselves with coat hangers and dying from lethal infections contracted during cheap, dirty back-street procedures), should be a time for positive reflection, it seems our ‘right to choose’ is subject to increasingly more judgement and scrutiny. I, like many of my peers, grew up thinking that the option of a termination was a right, not a privilege. Maybe this is the problem? Maybe our foremothers did such a good job in fighting for us to have autonomy over our bodies that we just accepted it as part of the status quo? Not continuing to fight the good fight as vociferously as we should have been. But why shouldn’t we assume that we can avail ourselves of medical developments to exercise control over our bodies if we so wish?

As I understand it, abortion enabled generations of women to reclaim control over their destinies and allowed unwanted children to be free from the misery and upset that may result from being born into an environment where he or she was not wanted and could not be given the opportunities accorded many owing to monetary considerations. A woman or girl who has been raped and forcibly made pregnant may not want to carry to full-term, and so surely she should have access to this procedure? Similarly a woman who discovers through pre-natal screening that the foetus has physical disabilities or genetic conditions that would not only significantly reduce his or her life-span, but would make life very difficult and painful, may also decide to have a termination. What is forgotten is that sometimes want is not a part of the decision process. Sometimes women may be concerned about the ways a new addition may affect what she can provide for her other children, emotionally as well as materialistically. A woman may also feel that her career may not benefit greatly from continuing with a pregnancy, but is this selfish? Pro-life activists would say yes, and the fact that I was reluctant to write that sentence probably shows the extent to which that idea has permeated the national consciousness, but why is it so wrong for some women to prioritise their careers over having children? And why is this never considered a legitimate excuse? That’s not to say a woman cannot do both, but it seems that whether we give birth or not we are going to be subject to some form of judgement, so why not choose the path that is right for us at that specific time of our lives, rather than being assertively directed by our physiology? It’s an obvious statement, but a sentiment that isn’t fully digested by those who would have us feel guilty for indulging in any sexual union that does not result in procreation. Whereas once women would have been forced to proceed with an unplanned pregnancy, whether or not this exacerbated health problems (for the woman or the foetus), or the woman did not feel psychologically or financially prepared for motherhood, this is no longer the case, so how can this EVER be considered negative? I will stop providing the multi-faceted reasons why a woman may opt for an abortion, since this in itself perpetuates the idea that this is something that has to be justified. The decision should be accepted as one that is made at the discretion of the individual woman. We should not have to provide detailed justifications: our body our choice. This of course, would remain the same for many should, in an extreme case scenario, abortion be made illegal. Some women would still not relinquish control, and abortion would not stop. But it would not be safe. It would not be pleasant. And women would probably die. Needless don’t you think? Considering that we now have access to mainly safe, high-quality medical care.

I am beginning to feel anxious. Why is it that the functions of the female body are always judged and regulated by an external force? Why is it that we are consistently considered unable to have sovereignty over our own biological functions? The current situation highlights the extent to which a woman’s rights lies in the hands of the policy and decision-makers, a bureaucratic process over which we do not have control. It is wrong that one of our most intimate biological processes, that of creation and gestation, that which would have the most significant influence on our lives, is discussed and debated and judged by people who know nothing about us as individuals, our circumstances, our lives. Sweeping generalisations are made by self-appointed moral compasses, people who will argue that a woman makes a decision to have a termination as flippantly as deciding to stay in on a Saturday night; by those who will argue that women are using abortion as contraception. I am yet to see any evidence to prove the latter. Abortion is not an enjoyable process. From what I understand it is painful, it is intrusive, and no woman would make a conscious decision to use such an invasive procedure as a method of birth control. The very suggestion is offensive. We just wouldn’t. Contrary to popular believe we don’t like spreading our legs to allow doctors to peer as deep inside us as they can; to have to discuss intimate aspects of our personal lives; to explain how we have “found ourselves in this position” as old fat nurses with faint grey beards and moustaches look at us as if we are syphilitic whores.

The creation of uncertainty is, I suspect, the aim of pro-life activists. There is already a stigma attached to abortion, with many women reluctant to speak about their experiences for fear of being labelled “baby-murderers” and cheap whores. Friends who have opted for terminations owing to the fact that they are not equipped to raise a child at present have told me through hushed whispers and sad eyes, concerned that the moment they use the ‘a’ word I may transform into a self-righteous bitch, cursing the day that they were ever born with ovaries, and professing that if they don’t want a baby they should rightly have their fannies sewn up. A woman is then placed in a precarious position – she wants an abortion owing to x, y and z, but whether or not she finds the decision to go ahead with it psychologically distressing, she has to also contend with the fact that for the rest of her days (at least until she decides to pop out a few babes to compensate) she will be considered morally repugnant. It’s OK for a man to jerk and squirt all over the place regardless of the fact that he is denying millions of sperm the opportunity to reach their full-potential. They’re just considered virile, not expected to take responsibility. Maybe we’ll reach a stage where we will be expected to give a good home to these collected masturbatory emissions, just in case it could result in us getting knocked-up? I can’t say it would be completely surprising.

The biggest argument put forward by the pro-life supporters I have met is that each embryo has the right to reach maturity; that every baby has the right to live his or her life, and that no-one has the authority to ‘murder’ (that is the word that has been used) a baby even if it is living inside her (and is not actually a ‘baby’ but rather a collection of cells that has not developed neurologically, and cannot actually feel pain). I have a lot of issues with this concept. Firstly, if this is the case, and life should be given the opportunity to prosper whatever the circumstances, does this mean that contraception of any kind should be abandoned? No condoms, no contraceptive pill, no coil, no morning-after pill?

Secondly, no-one chooses to be created. Fact. An embryo is formed when a man and woman have sex and bodily fluids are exchanged, not because said embryo decides that it wants to become a baby and be born. Life is hard, (not meaning to sound like an old cynic), harder still if you are not wanted and have no support. We do not choose to be born, and yet when we are here we reach a stage where we are expected to go off into the world, fend for ourselves, make a crust and compete with everyone else who needs to do the same thing. If we are born with a debilitating and painful condition this can be more difficult. It may also mean that we have a reduced life span, and are entirely dependent on care 24/7. It’s unlikely that we will have the quality of life comparable to other people our age. If we have to undergo several invasive and painful surgical procedures, just to prolong our agony and stifled existence, then would it be wrong for us to wish we had never been born into this life of suffering and heartache? And is it wrong for a woman to decide to prevent the foetus inside her maturing into a person who’s life would be plagued by medical problems if she so wishes? Surely pain is an aspect of the human condition that is better not experienced?

I’m pro-choice. I believe that a woman should be entitled to make her own decision, and that this should be free of judgement. The arguments I have put forward here were intended to highlight the enormous holes in that constructed by pro-life activists, who, in claiming to be our moral superiors, neglect to realise the importance of one major life in all these cases: that of the woman.

If you want to read more on abortion, and have access to Facebook, the wonderful Laura has written a fantastic article about it, which can be accessed through the comments section.

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