Wednesday 17 July 2013

The ‘Parliamentary Inquiry’ on Abortion and Disability

Today, anti-choice MP Fiona Bruce launched a report entitled ‘Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability’. This is an unofficial inquiry, not sanctioned by Parliament, but rather the outcome of a special interest group of anti-choice MPs getting together to discuss abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality. Although evidence was accepted from a range of individuals and organisations (including Brook and fpa) that which is presented in the report, and the final recommendations, are heavily weighted towards those who would like to see the legal right to terminate a pregnancy due to serious fetal abnormality removed completely.

A quick glance at the list of written submissions tells you a great deal about the inherent bias in this inquiry. The majority are from ‘pro-life’ organisations which believe that abortion should be illegal in every circumstance - SPUC, Life, ProLife Alliance, No Less Human (which is actually SPUC, but hey, have two submissions guys!), Image and Pregnancy Helpline, Christian Medical Fellowship, and the list goes on. Throughout the report, submissions from individuals with no professional background, and from anti-abortion lobby groups are given greater emphasis than medical experts and respected bodies such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The report uses this biased presentation of evidence to argue that “allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability is discriminatory” and recommends that Parliament considers reducing the time limit for abortion on the grounds of disability or repealing this ground completely.

There is a suggestion that the current law, which allows for abortion after 24 weeks where there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would have serious physical or mental abnormalities, is "contrary to the Equality Act 2010". This is nonsense. The law does not consider a fetus to be a legal person until birth, so the Equality Act does not apply. The further ‘evidence’ is mostly a mixture of:

•    Dodgy statistics - anti-abortion campaigner Patricia Casey is quoted as saying that "at the time of abortion 40% of women will be experiencing mental health symptoms" and links abortion for fetal abnormality to depression and post traumatic stress disorder with no reference given for this claim.

•    Emotive, inappropriate language – phrases like “not allowing doctors to deliberately kill any baby after viability” pepper the report and are a sign that the focus is not on professional medical analysis of the complex facets of abortion law and practice.

•    Anti-abortion bias – this is not surprising in a report formed by groups and individuals opposed to abortion in every circumstance. Life’s written evidence that abortion for fetal abnormality "overlooks the fact that the unborn child is as much the doctor’s patient as is the mother" is included alongside personal testimonies from parents who claim they were pressurised into having an abortion, and received little support from medical professionals with their decision to continue the pregnancy.  The fact that one of these parents, Lynn Murray, has been a member of SPUC for over 18 years, is not declared. Many of the members of the Commission have a history of anti-abortion campaigning – one example is Lord McColl, a patron of the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy which runs Abort67 in the UK, who you might know as the group which holds up gory posters of supposed aborted fetuses outside abortion clinics. Hmm.

So we’ve established that this is essentially the position of a minority group of anti-choice MPs and campaigning bodies, which does very little to present the views of the experts who work in this field with the necessary authority that they deserve. However, it’s already being reported as if it were a neutral cross-party inquiry with the backing of the BMA. It’s important that:

•    This is not regarded as an official parliamentary inquiry, which accurately reflects the views of a range of bodies involved in reproductive care, disability campaigning and fetal medicine.

•    It is not used as evidence that the right to abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality is ‘discriminatory’ or causes discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities. There are some excellent blogs on this subject which you might want to have a look at for more discussion of this (Frances Ryan in The Guardian, and Nicky Clark’s blog are good places to start).

•    The real people making decisions about often much wanted pregnancies are not forgotten in this. Abortions performed after 24 weeks are extremely rare (they made up less than 0.1% of all abortions last year) and are a result of considered choices regarding health, quality of life, existing children and many other factors. One parent in the report says: “Please understand that finding out that your unborn baby has a serious disability is one of the hardest things that a parent can hear. Please don’t make it any harder by taking away our right to choose”.

•    Those who do choose abortion, and the doctors who support them are not demonised. Underlying this report is an implication that doctors are pressurising women into choosing abortion where there is a diagnosis of abnormality. We believe it is important to trust women making these tough decisions, and to trust doctors to give the information and support they require to make an informed choice. The wonderful Antenatal Results and Choices exists to provide further support to those individuals and couples faced with making such decisions.

For further information on this inquiry and the backgrounds of those involved, have a look at this blog from the Ministry of Truth.

Thursday 11 July 2013

2012 Abortion Statistics

The latest statistics on abortions carried out in England and Wales were released today. The main findings are summarised below but you can view full information (including data tables) here. This year, the Department of Health also carried out a consultation on changes to the publication of abortion statistics, the results of which can be found here.

•    The 2012 abortion rate for all ages is 16.5 per 1,000 women – the lowest rate since 1997 and 6% lower than in 2011. The abortion rate was highest for women aged 21 (31 per 1000 women).

•    The under 16 and under 18 abortion rates were slightly lower than in 2011 (3 per 1000 and 12.8 per 1000 respectively).

•    The number of abortions taking place under 13 weeks gestation remains at 91%, and 97% of abortions were funded by the NHS. The percentage of medical abortions also remains consistent, at 48% (47% in 2011).

•    In 2012, 52% of women undergoing abortions had one or more previous pregnancies that resulted in a live or stillbirth.

A significant difference from 2011’s data is the number of non-resident women accessing abortion in England and Wales:

•    In 2012, there were 5,850 abortions for non-residents versus 6151 in 2011. The 2012 total is the lowest in any year since 1969.

The majority of non-residents accessing abortion in England and Wales are from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (making up 83.6% of the total number of non-residents in 2012). It’s unclear as to why this figure is lower than it has ever been but it’s possible that more women in Ireland are accessing medical abortion online; rising awareness of services like Women on Web through public campaigns may mean that more Irish women are using illegal methods to end their pregnancies rather than face the cost and difficulty of travelling abroad to do so.

Another interesting statistic which deserves to be unpicked is the over-representation of certain ethnic groups in the abortion statistics, particularly with regards to those women who have more than one abortion.

As you can see from the table, women who are of Black or Mixed ethnicity are more likely to have had one or more previous abortions than women of other ethnic backgrounds. The statistics do not tell us why this is, but we might question if the information provided to particular communities on contraception and abortion is relevant and accessible. We know that there are links between ethnicity and deprivation, and between deprivation and unintended pregnancy so this too might be a factor. More research is clearly needed  into the intersections between ethnicity, unintended pregnancy and abortion, but in the meantime, it is crucial to note that women from all backgrounds can and do experience unintended pregnancy and abortion and we should not shy away from providing culturally appropriate, evidence-based information in every setting.

As a result of the consultation on the publication of abortion statistics a few changes have been made, the most significant of which being local level statistics being presented by CCG (clinical commissioning groups) rather than PCT (primary care trust) data due to the changes to the health system.

One interesting aspect of the consultation was to see the number of anti-abortion groups which had responded, a number of whom requested information on fetal sex to be represented in the abortion data. This is presumably a response to recent scaremongering suggesting that 'sex selective abortions’ were taking place in the UK (despite the Department of Health’s own 2013 report finding that the UK’s ‘gender ratio’ is "well within the normal boundaries for populations").

The response to the consultation gives a firm response to this request:
"Information about the sex of the foetus and NHS number are not currently collected on  the HSA4 form. To collect such information would require changes to the  legislation, in  particular the Abortion Regulations 1991, as well as to clinical practice. This is not in the scope of this consultation. The majority of abortions take place before 10 weeks gestation and it is not currently possible to identify a foetus’s gender at that stage. Identifying the gender of aborted foetuses over 10 weeks’ gestation raises ethical and clinical issues. The Government has no plans to introduce such a practice."

Friday 5 July 2013

What the SPUC?

We regularly get requests from teachers across the country who are looking for a ‘pro-choice’ speaker to come in and balance out a talk on abortion from a ‘pro-life’ group. We’ve written before about EFC’s general concerns with this approach. Namely that a ‘debate’ around abortion can be confusing and stigmatising for young people, and rarely provides them with the factual information they need for living their lives (especially when we know that a third of women have an abortion).  This blog gives specific examples of the issues involved when inviting the most well-known anti-abortion group, SPUC, to a school. The teachers I speak to are rarely aware that SPUC runs an outspoken campaign against same-sex marriage and that the information they use regarding contraception and abortion is very often at odds with the medical establishment. So here is the lowdown:

•    Misinformation about abortion
SPUC’s educational materials make claims about abortion which are not supported by medical experts. For example, they link termination of pregnancy to ‘post-abortion trauma’, which is an invented medical condition, and claim in their student pack that 'the risk of ectopic pregnancy may increase up to 30% after a first abortion and 160% after two or more'. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (who tend to know about such things) state that there is no evidence for a link between abortion and subsequent ectopic pregnancy. A SPUC speaker also made misleading links between abortion and breast cancer at a Cambridgeshire school last year.

•    Misinformation about contraception
SPUC’s booklet ‘Birth control methods which can cause abortion’ suggests that all forms of hormonal contraception can act as abortifacients. This is based on the belief that pregnancy begins at fertilisation, rather than implantation, which is unsupported by the law and established medical practice.

•    Stigmatisation of abortion and use of distressing images
The SPUC speaker in Cambridge told students that 'rape is the ultimate unplanned pregnancy...for some people who’ve been raped and had the baby, even if they don’t keep it, something positive comes out of that whole rape experience'. SPUC's student pack claims that 'pregnancy as a result of rape is extremely rare...the extreme physical and psychological trauma of being raped makes it difficult for fertilisation or implantation to occur.' This is untrue and may be upsetting for those who have experienced rape. SPUC has a history of presenting information to young people in a way which can be distressing. As far as we know, SPUC continues to use graphic images in its school workshops, and images of aborted fetuses remain on the ‘education’ section of the website, likely to be used by young people for school projects.

•    Stigmatisation of same-sex relationships and family units

SPUC currently runs a campaign against the legalisation of same-sex marriage, which it claims would increase numbers of abortions. John Smeaton, the director of SPUC, states the following on his blog:
“The fundamental argument against gay marriage is that homosexuality is disordered, as it is radically at variance with the truth and meaning of human sexuality ... Catholics must proclaim loud and clear that it is impossible for any homosexual relationship to be a marriage because genuine personal, sexual and spiritual union between persons of the same-sex is impossible.” SPUC has also made statements against same-sex couples adopting, claiming that ‘lesbian parentage is not in the best interests of children’.

•    Opposition to sex education
SPUC fronts the ‘Safe at School’ campaign which lobbies against so called ‘explicit’ sex education in schools. A recent blog claims that sex education lessons tackling pornography are ‘about dangling porn in front of young school pupils and encouraging them to embrace it in their lives.’ The group has expressed concern about sex education materials which ‘include explicit images of male and female sex organs, lessons on menstruation in mixed classes (boys and girls)’ and has labelled masturbation‘intrinsically unethical’.

SPUC are extremely well funded and do not charge for their schools work. They regularly contact schools with the offer of a free speaker on this tricky subject and it’s understandable that many teachers decide to run this lesson using an external organisation. However, we would advise all teachers to think carefully about how such an organisation might fit with their school’s SRE and equality and diversity policies, as well as their commitment to the well-being of their students, some of whom may already have experience of abortion, and many of whom will definitely go on to.

If SPUC has visited your school, we’d be interested in hearing what you thought about the lesson.
SPUC leaflet opposing same-sex marriage

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Being an EFC Youth Advisor

Holly, one of EFC's new Youth Advisors, reports back on the training she attended and what she hopes to get out of her time volunteering with us...

EFC Youth Advisors at the recent training day
A great evening of sweets, chocolate, fruit and lively conversation. For many this was the first time everyone had met the group of people they were going to be spending quality time with once a month.

It was great hearing such a range of opinions and seeing lively debate spark off in regards to some topics that many people find controversial. Knowing that everyone could speak openly about their opinions without fear of being told they were wrong and the general supportive atmosphere meant there was ample opportunity to get your voice heard.

New facts I learned from the training: Canada has no time limit on abortion. In America the nearest clinic can be up to 50 miles away which means it is not easily accessible for many women with unplanned pregnancies. The criteria for a doctor to carry out an abortion in the UK can seem incredibly severe but there is liberal room for interpretation. I feel incredibly lucky to live in a country where the clinics and doctors are easily accessible, though I’m aware that there’s a lot of work to be done about misinformation and the myths that surround abortion.

I look forward to the next meeting for more interesting conversation and to get to know what makes everyone else tick in the group when it comes to abortion.