1 down. Nine letters, begins with H. Clue: Nadine Dorries.

I’ve taken on and roundly picked apart the banal, uneducated and irrational maunderings of Nadine ‘Mad Nad’ Dorries on the subject of abortion on a couple of previous occasions, so I expect it will come as no great surprise to find that with the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee hearing evidence on medical developments relating to foetal development since the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967 and Dorries – for some inexplicable reason – safely ensconced on said committee and flapping her gums for all she’s worth, Dorries is about to get both barrels yet again.

In fact, reading her ‘commentaries’ on the proceedings of the Committee I think I can safely say that rarely, if ever, have encountered such a continuous stream of crude, vapid, abject, disingenuous, ill-conceived and intellectually dishonest bullshit as that emanating from the keyboard of Mad Nad over the last week. In fact I might even be inclined to accuse of her lying were it not quite so obvious that she is completely and utterly deluded in her opinions and arguments and deserving, therefore, of being permitted the small shreds of largesse (and, perhaps, pity) that come with encountering an individual so completely in the grip of self-deception as to be completely incapable of recognising a cogent and rational argument, even if one were to engrave such an argument into a baseball bat and use the bat to emboss it onto her forehead.

Dorries’ official ‘brief’ as a member of the Science and Technology Committee is to consider the scientific evidence accumulated in the field of foetal development and make recommendations as to whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a reassessment of current regulations on the availability of legal abortions in UK law. As her commentaries on the proceedings of the committee, its construction, membership and several of those giving evidence to the committee show, her self-appointed ‘brief’ appears to be that of smearing anyone and everyone whose views on abortion she disagrees with in an effort to discredit both the work of the committee and the evidence given by those who advance any argument for retention of the current legal position, let alone any modest degree of liberalisation of the current law.

It must be recognised, right from the very outset, that the limited brief given to the Science and Technology Committee is far from being comprehensive. Its brief specifically excludes consideration of ethical issues, the debate around which has been reserved – as is customary on this issue – to Parliament. This can be seen as a weakness in the process – it certainly is by Dorries and members of the ‘pro-life’ lobby who are taking every opportunity (and no small amount of liberties) to try to shoehorn ethical questions into the Committee’s deliberations in an effort to unnecessarily and counterproductively cloud the issue. This clearly misinterprets and misrepresents the role and function of the committee. This investigation has not been convened for the purpose of ‘settling’ the question of abortion and abortion laws once and for all but rather to the review the current state of scientific knowledge and evidence in the field of foetal development and abortion and offer an opinion as to whether any of that evidence provides sound justification for a review of current abortion laws. Its final report will be important in shaping one element of the debate that follows but will not, and is not intended to be, a definitive view on the matter. Parliament remains, as it always has been, free to override such considerations as the committee may raise and modify the current law based on its weighing of other matters, including the moral and ethical dimensions of the debate.

Abortion is complex and difficult issue, morally, ethically, philosophically and scientifically – that is one of the few things that one can say with any great certainly.

From the perspective of our philosophical notion of rights – specifically human rights – it brings into direct and irreconcilable conflict two rights that might, ordinarily, be considered to be near, if not entirely, absolute: the right [of the foetus] to life and the right of a thinking, rational, individual [a woman] to exercise sovereignty over her own body – notions of mere choice or even personal liberty, it should be said, do not capture fully the import of this latter right. There is complex scientific evidence on foetal development and the scope of medical technology and medical interventions to take into account. There are deeply held, and felt, moral and ethical positions to be addressed and considered and – and this is all too often disregarded of late – there are social, psychological, cultural and, yes, economic consequences arising from the choice of whether or not to proceed with an abortion – and the availability of such choices – that must be accounted for and considered in full, consequences that stretch far beyond the mere carrying out of the abortion procedure.

To arrive at a valid position on abortion – whatever that might be – requires consideration of all these factors if one is to arrive at a human decision as to where one stands on the issue. Anything less, any overt reliance on any single factor to the exclusion of giving due weight and consideration to any other, is to take a position that amounts to a denial of humanity, whether that position is derived from too great a reliance on scientific evidence, or place too great a weight (or no weight at all) on the consequences of such decisions or even if one adopts an absolutist moral or ethical position derived from an abstract belief that the notion rights of one party override any consideration of the rights of the other. And that latter point is true whether one takes the absolute ‘pro-choice’ position or the absolute ‘pro-life’ position and regardless of the basis from which one derives such a position.

This is where I most strongly dispute the notion, promulgated by the ‘pro-life’ lobby to occupation of the moral and ethical ‘high ground’ – there is nothing either moral or ethical in a position that treats the humanity of one of two contending parties as being subsidiary to alleged opinions of an unverifiable abstraction and the hubristic belief that a collection of folk tales, allegories (and the occasional bit of solid moral philosophy) that was codified a matter of 1700 years ago is a reliable guide to modern life and modern society, let alone the product of ‘divine inspiration’. And, in any case, the scriptural basis for religious injunctions against abortion is, to say the least, rather curious in places, as this example demonstrates:

The Old Testament provides most of the information on God’s view of life before birth, since it gives us the law. The law specifically addresses the issue of taking the life of a fetus in the book of Exodus:

“And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life.” (Exodus 21:22-23)

Therefore, the law tells us that a man who induces an abortion or miscarriage is to be punished, indicating that God values life before birth. A verse from Hosea says that abortion is a punishment for sin, indicating God views it as bad. Likewise, God expressed His disgust for the Ammonites, who “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead”. When does this life begin?

So, according to Exodus, the legal penalty for causing a miscarriage, but no further injury is a fine paid to the husband, but if the woman is injured the penalty is a death sentence? Clearly, it would seem that the view in Old Testament law – notwithstanding the obvious misogyny on display, is that the value of a foetus is less than that of a spouse, hence the differential penalty applied.

A verse from Hosea apparently states that abortion is a punishment for sin, but then the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden states that menstruation – and therefore, logically, pregnancy itself – is a also a punishment for the ‘original sin’ of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

And if god was disgusted with the Ammonites for ripping open the pregnant women of Gilead, who is to say that the source of that disgust was not the treatment meted out to the women rather than to their unborn offspring?

One can debate the precise meaning and relevance of scriptural references, religion and personal beliefs all day if one wishes, but to do so misses one critical and fundamentally important point – such issues are only relevant if one subscribes to and shares in those beliefs.

Legal access to abortion does not prevent Christians and other followers of other religions from taking a moral view on abortion and putting that view into practice – if you harbour such views, then don’t have an abortion. It’s legal, not compulsory. What doesn’t automatically follow from such a position – and this is the bit that the ‘pro-life’ lobby refuses to accept – is that this confers the right to try to enforce your moral position and views on those of us who do not share in those views or in the beliefs on which they’re founded, and this, loathe that they are to admit it, is where the ‘pro-life’ lobby runs into a major problem.

Survey after survey and poll after poll, including those commissioned by self-styled ‘pro-life’ groups have shown that a clear majority (over 60%) of the British public support, in general terms, the provision of legal access to abortion.

In poll commissioned by the ‘pro-life’ group, ‘Choose Life’ – another seeming offshoot of Christian Concern for Our Nation – 65% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to the proposition that ‘A woman’s right to choose always outweighs the rights of the unborn’. Unsurprisingly, in publicising this otherwise heavily loaded and biased survey, this piece of information was omitted from the group’s press statements, which focussed instead on the response to other questions which asked whether those surveyed (women) though that abortion at six months gestation was ‘cruel’ – 76% agreed – and whether abortion laws should be kept under regular review – 95% agreed, which is unsurprising as it only makes sense to subject laws to periodic review anyway.

These results were spun as indicating majority support for a reduction in the upper time limit for legal abortions – a question that the survey studiously avoided asking explicitly, even though the view that abortion is ‘cruel’ at six months gestation in no way implies support for such a reduction – one can quite correctly take the view that even if one sees abortion as ‘cruel’ at that stage it may still be necessary or indeed that this still does not override a woman’s right to choose – nor does support for periodic reviews of abortion law imply specific support for a reduction in the current upper time, Such a review might, quite easily, serve merely as reassurance that the existing position remains a valid one.

The disconcerting reality facing the ‘pro-life’ lobby is that their default position, that which opposes any access to legal abortion or which, at best, accepts the necessity of heavily restrictive regime under which a legal abortion is possible only where there is evidence of serious foetal abnormality, life-threatening perinatal complications or where pregnancy arises as a consequence of rape and/or incest, simply does not have popular support. Society has moved on and there is broad recognition amongst the public that a return to a position in which all, or almost all, abortions would be outlawed is not an acceptable option, that, at the very least, the consequences of such a legal move; i.e. the inevitable return of the backstreet abortionist are too terrible to contemplate.

The ‘pro-life’ lobby may see itself as occupying the moral high ground, a claim that, as I’ve previously noted, I would strongly dispute in any case, but it has already lost the public argument on abortion. The majority of the British public view the issue in essentially pragmatic terms. They do weigh the moral cost of abortion against the consequences of prohibition and have concluded that within certain limits – which is what is being debated here – legal access to abortion may be something less than the ideal but that it represents the option that gives rise to the least harm in a situation where some measure of harm is inevitable. And having lost that core argument, the attention of the ‘pro-life’ lobby has shifted to that of seeking to argue for the most stringent and restrictive regime it can procure on the basis of, variously, the blatant misinterpretation of scientific, medical and statistical evidence, naked and patently transparent emotional blackmail and, when all that fails to produce the desired result, by use of smear tactics.

This, for example, is quoted verbatim from the ‘evidence’ submitted to the Science and Technology Committee by the Guild of Catholic Doctors.

We in the Guild of Catholic Doctors believe that, apart from an ethical argument, which is proscribed by your committee on this occasion, the 40 years of abortion, largely “on demand”, have had a number of serious ill-effects on our Society:-

1. The effect of the loss of 6 million, largely healthy, young citizens from our society as a result of abortion is impossible to calculate, but it has seriously diminished our capability of looking after ourselves, without outside help, and has led, to some extent, to the large requirement for immigration which our economy now has. Amongst this huge number will have been the average incidence of geniuses and prospective leaders, and we may well have killed the very people who could have led our Society forward more successfully.

The remark about geniuses and leaders is merely a reworking of the ‘You’ve just killed Beethoven’ fallacy, which is a popular, if highly misleading, trope in prohibitionist circles and, of course, a complete and utter nonsense. One of the obvious counterarguments here, of course, is to ask about the average incidence of other ‘characteristics’ that are far less appealing. How many rapists? Or paedophiles? Or murderers? Or serial killers? One cannot measure the lost benefits of geniuses and leaders who never lived, just as one cannot measure the savings in social and other costs of having aborted foetuses who might have grown up to become the most serious criminals, let alone balance out the two and arrive at a conclusion as to whether, overall, society has gained or lost out from the ‘transaction’.

Such arguments pale into insignificance against the despicable prurience of the Guild’s other ‘line’:

…it has seriously diminished our capability of looking after ourselves, without outside help, and has led, to some extent, to the large requirement for immigration which our economy now has.

Statistically, the argument is a complete nonsense. Abortion has been legal for only forty years and, as such, at least half, if not rather more, of the UK’s allegedly ‘lost’ offspring would still, at this point, be either dependent children or economically inactive for other reasons and, therefore, contribute nothing to our current capacity for ‘looking after ourselves’ – and that’s before one starts to factor for things such as where, in the accepted statistic strata of social classes, abortions are more prevalent, the decline in social mobility over the last 30-40 years and a range of other social and economic factors impacting on the hypothetical social and economic value of these citizens who never existed.

And even if one did ‘do the numbers’ that still would not disguise the fact that the Guild’s argument is no more than a transparent and despicable appeal to prejudice and xenophobia and should be treated with all the disdain such statements merit.

Dorries, herself, is no stranger to the deployment of misrepresentation and intellectual dishonesty. In one of her most recent blog posts she claims that:

The RCOG also failed to quote any papers linking abortion to pre-term delivery which had been published after 2003 and completely ignored the recent peer reviewed acclaimed study into foetal pain produced by Dr Anand.

The RCOG also went foolishly further than this and have in a very childish way claimed they are not aware of Dr Anand on their web page.

Dr Anand is the world’s authority on foetal pain – it was his work at Oxford in the 1980’s which resulted in all neonates being given anaesthesia for general surgery today. Until he produced his work it was thought that neonates could not feel pain, by measuring stress hormones he proved otherwise. Dr Anand has been published world wide.

The RCOG web site stating that they are unaware of Dr Anand is the equivalent of a group of mathematicians asking ‘who is Einstein?’

I’ll disregard the blundering ignorance of Dorries’ last remark – Einstein was, of course, a theoretical physicist and not a mathematician, and trust me, in the scientific pecking order such things do matter. This is, however, a minor faux pas compared to her deliberate and wilful misrepresentation of the RCOG’s position, which is that they are not currently aware of Anand’s specific work and would welcome the chance to review it, should Dr Anand provide copies for review.

And the reason why this is the RCOG’s position becomes perfectly evident from a search for the paper, or rather papers in question (of which there appear to be three) on PubMed, from which one discovers that they haven’t actually been published as yet. PubMed gives a scheduled publication date of 31 October 2007.

Dorries clearly does not understand how the peer-review process, which goes in two stages, works.

The first, which has only just been completed in Anand’s case, is a pre-publication review in which papers are checked for quality in terms of the standards of presentation and the manner in which the research has been carried out and reported. What Anand’s ‘peers’ do at this stage is check his work for indications of any methodological errors, statistical errors, obviously incorrect assumptions and/or false or inadequate presented results prior to publication. What isn’t assessed, at this stage, is the validity of his results and/or conclusions; that comes after publication, at which point the scientific community is able to test his findings by replicating his work/methodology and put his research to the test to see if it really does stand up to scrutiny.

So it actually far too early to talk of Anand’s work as being ‘acclaimed’ as yet, because it hasn’t been published and, therefore, has not been tested.

That said, from what I have seen in last week’s Dispatches programme on abortion and read in abstracts, it would appear that what Anand may have identified is the early development of what, in layman’s terms, might well be called the ‘pain reflex’. This is, if correct, the capacity of the foetus to respond at an unconscious and physiological level to pain stimuli from around the 17th week of gestation but it NOT evidence that a foetus develops the capacity to experience pain at a conscious level for which the timing (around 25-26 weeks gestation) remains the same as was previously understood to be the case. Whatever else Anand may have shown with his research, he has not pushed back the development boundaries for the capacity for higher cerebral functions necessary for consciousness/sentience, which remain firmly in the third trimester (24 weeks +) gestation.

This does certainly appear to be valuable and important work as it would appear Anand may be able to show that early unconscious physiological responses to pain in foetuses at 17 weeks gestation and above may give rise to adverse development affects/outcomes in later stages of development. This would clearly have some bearing, therefore, on the use of invasive medical procedures on such foetuses where the intention is that foetus will continue to term and result in a live birth. However, such considerations are, of course, moot where the foetus is subject to an abortion and foetal development is terminated before further development takes place.

And, in any case, the foetal pain argument does nothing to either illuminate questions such as when life begins, when a foetus becomes notionally human, when it develops the capacity for consciousness, sentience and self-awareness or when a foetus can be considered to have acquired rights that function independently of its host. Anand’s work, if validated by post-publication review, it not an argument for reducing the upper time limit on elective abortions merely an argument in favour of using anaesthesia/foeticide in second trimester abortions taking place at or beyond 16 weeks gestation as a reassurance measure for the patient, who may take comfort from the knowledge that the abortion has been conducted in as humane a manner as possible, even though the neurological evidence is still very clearly and firmly against the development of the capacity to consciously experience pain occurring earlier than 26-28 weeks gestation.

Dorries also goes on to ‘castigate’ the RCOG because:

It failed to mention the Hoekstra study which demonstrates how with good neonatal intervention, 66% of all babies (that is babies born naturally because there may have been medical complications not healthy babies aborted) at 23 weeks live.

It failed to mention how in the UK at good neonatal units such as UCH London and Hope hospital in Salford, 43% of 23 weekers live.

Instead it chose to quote a study which averages out births at all hospitals across the UK, which puts the figure at 10 -15%.

As apparent justification for her assertion that:

I believe that the RCOG may have deliberately attempted to mislead the Science & Technology Committee in its submission.

Dorries, in addition to blatantly smearing the RCOG, is the one guilty of misrepresentation here.

Studies such as that of Hoekstra, and data from the very best (and best resourced) neonatal units in the UK, while valuable as indicators of what is possible given sufficient investment in resources, technology and the best quality staff, are not indicative of the position across the NHS as a whole. The tell us what could be achieved given access to the best case scenario, not what the real position is in terms of what the public, and especially those women unfortunate enough to go into labour at such an early stage, can expect from current medical provision.

This is not only a misrepresentation of the facts, but a particularly cruel deception on those women who do find themselves delivering a much wanted foetus at such a premature stage and who then find that they are unlucky enough not to find themselves in one of the very best neonatal units that the NHS has to offer.

If Dorries wishes the current state of neonatal services to be judged by the standards of the very best, and best resourced, that the NHS (or other countries) have to offer, then she should at least have the decency to secure a clear commitment from her own party that, if elected, it will provide the funding and resources necessary to bring all such units up to those high standards.

As things stand, I doubt she even has the first idea of what such a programme might cost, let alone how this or a future government would pay for it or what that might mean in terms of the impact of such a programme on other clinical services or on the taxpayer.

That said, the argument she is trying to deploy here – that of notional foetal ‘viability’ – is no more illuminating or valuable than that relating to foetal pain and not, of itself, a basis for reducing the upper time limit for abortions, not to mention that it also opens the door to a series of moral and ethical minefields that Dorries is studiously ignoring, if she has the capacity and understanding to think of them in the first place.

Let’s be clear about one thing – without extensive and often invasive medical intervention no foetus born at 24 or 23 weeks gestation is ‘viable’. Left to its own devices and provided with only the natural care and attention that a mother can afford, a foetus born this stage in pregnancy – and even for a number of weeks afterwards – will inevitably die because, at this stage in development, numerous critical physiological systems that are essential for sustaining life independently of the womb – without the assistance of technology – have not developed sufficiently to sustain the life of the, by then, neonate.

Neither the notion of ‘viability’ or the capacity of medical technology to intervene to sustain the life processes of a severely premature neonate tell us anything about its notional ‘humanity’, its potential, its rights or the consequences, short and long term, of its survival.

Viability, as an argument for restricting access to second trimester abortions, can best be described as an argument from clinical hubris, one that rests on the question of whether medical personnel and medical technology can sustain the life and developmental processes of a foetus born at a premature stage in gestation, but not on the equally critical question of whether they should.

To illustrate the complexity of this position consider the following scenario, which is hypothetically possible, although I am unaware of whether it may have ever actually taken place.

A woman goes into premature labour at 24 weeks gestation and delivers a very premature and underdeveloped, but otherwise alive, baby, one whose survival for more than a matter of minutes or hours as the very best depends entirely immediate and extensive clinical intervention.

The woman, being conscious, lucid and full possession of her faculties, asserts her parental rights over the baby and refuses to give consent for any clinical intervention by the medical personnel present. (This could hypothetically arise if the woman is a member of a religious group that eschews the use of invasive medical procedures)

How do you resolve such a situation?

A court can, of course, override such a refusal of consent – but time is pressing and the baby may not survive until even an interim court order can be obtained.

A doctor could decide to take the matter on him/herself and authorise the clinical intervention irrespective of the mother’s wishes in the hope/expectation that a court will back up his/her decision? But what would the consequences of such a decision be? What if the court doesn’t back the doctor up? What if its later found that the baby has a serious disability – where would liability lie and who could, or would be held responsible?

Or the doctor could respect the mother’s expressed wishes and allow nature to take its course and could do so without compromising his/her professional ethics, which do permit doctors to do nothing, even where there are viable clinical options, if that is the wish of the patient (or patient’s legal guardian). This is the basis, of course, of ‘living wills’ and elective ‘do not resuscitate’ orders.

This scenario is, of course, very different to that which arises in the case of second trimester abortions, because in the case of abortion, the doctor is carrying out a specific procedure to terminate the further development of the foetus, not simply standing by while nature runs its course. However, my reason for including this scenario is not to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of such situations but rather to illustrate the limitations of the ‘viability’ argument – in both this scenario and in abortions, the choice made by the woman negates the issue of whether clinical intervention enhances the viability of the foetus or neonate – the end result is the same, even thought the ethical position of the doctor may be seen to be very different.

The viability argument poses other complex moral and ethical questions, questions that Dorries and those like her routinely ignore.

Where, for example, do the moral and ethical boundaries of the viability argument lie? At what point would advances in medical technology begin to cloud the moral picture that ‘pro-life’ lobbyists profess to espouse and how much intervention is too much?

It is possible to conceive of, for example, the possibility of medical technology advancing to the point at which gestation would be possible entirely outside the womb – in fact this has been conceived of by science fiction authors, not least amongst them Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’.

What if this concept were to become a reality? Where would such technology leave the moral position of the ‘pro-life’ lobby? Would this be seen as vindication of that position and justification for the complete prohibition of abortion? Or would this be a step too far? Inhuman, ’Frankenstein’ technology that enabled doctors to ‘play god’?

What, indeed about other hypothetical alternatives? What of the possibility of foetal transplantation? If the natural mother doesn’t want to take the foetus to term, then simply relocate it to one that does? Is it that easy?

Oh, and lets also not rule out, as a valid hypothesis, the possibilities provided by advances in genetic engineering. Who is to say, for example, that the gestational host need necessarily be a human one when there are other species that, with a little genetic manipulation here and there, could serve the same basic purpose.

Absurd? Horrific? Inhuman and contrary to nature?

Perhaps, but all, conceptually, within the realms of possibility and all solutions in which medical technology could be used to extend the notion of ‘viability’ right back to the point of conception – and beyond if one allows for in-vitro fertilisation – and which would remove the need for legal (or even illegal) abortion.

The argument from ‘viability’ is conceptually unreliable, morally and ethically extremely questionable, especially if one extends the concept to the question of how far the technical capabilities of the medical technology might hypothetically develop in future, and far too limited in scope to be relied upon. Even in its current state, its takes no account of the potential consequences of having – or being prevented from having – an abortion, or the reasons why a woman is seeking an abortion and complexity and difficult of decision she has arrived at.

Clinical studies of foetal development and foetal pain, together will advances in medical technology and the impact this has on the survival prospects of severely premature neonates can help to inform the current debate. Used wisely they are an aide to understanding a limited range of issues amongst a sea of complexity and can help one to arrive at a human decision on one’s position on the matter, but they are still neither arguments for or against abortion.

In the hands of the ‘pro-life’ lobby, which includes both Dorries and the other Conservative member of the Science and Technology Committee, such information is, sadly, not being used to inform the debate but, as with Patrick Campbell’s ‘4D’ ultrasound scans, they are being used as a form of emotional blackmail.

What is being propagated here is anything but a scientific argument. Instead the public is being encouraged and exhorted to disregard the scientific evidence and its context and limitations in favour of developing a visceral connection to concepts, ideas and – especially in the case of Campbell’s work – images that convey an apparent appearance or semblance of ‘humanity’, one that massively belies, misrepresents and distorts both the value of the information and the true nature, state and developmental position of the foetus at various points in its development.

Images of second, and even first, trimester foetuses seemingly ‘walking’, ‘smiling’ and engaging in other visible and humanlike ‘behaviours’ actually tell us little or nothing of value about the critical aspects of foetal development on which the real viability and potential of the foetus rests. They are an illusion. Mere autonomic responses in an organism that has not yet developed even a rudimentary capacity for sentience and conscious thought. But they are, nevertheless a convenient illusion for a lobby that has long since lost the moral/cultural argument and has now be enreduced to scratching around the fringes of science, and misrepresenting the work of scientists and researchers in, often, the most egregious and intellectually dishonest manner, in order to make a case for its position.

And if that fails, then why not resort to ill-informed and scurrilous smears and innuendos.

Dorries, for example, makes the statement that:

Almost every person on the committee has a vested financial interest in ensuring that the number of abortions which take place in the UK remains amongst the highest in Europe.

And routinely refers to ‘the abortion industry’ – yet another slur that implies impropriety and vested financial interests without any shred of evidence to back up such an assertion.

If that’s how Dorries wishes to ‘play the game’ then is it not long past time that we started to take a good close look at the ‘faith industry’ and at the huge sums of public money that pour each year into the coffers of religious organisation and religious interests. Around a third of all state primary schools are ‘faith’ schools, the majority of which come under the aegis of the Church of England, a church which, but for being propped up by an influx of Anglican immigrants from Africa, has seen its congregations and attendances in decline for years. So, if we are, in part, funding CofE schools in order that the Church can propagate its beliefs and values as being nominally beneficial to society, just exactly what kind of return are, as taxpayers, getting on our investment?

If things like attendance, not to mention statistics on ‘church’ weddings, are anything to go by, then the answer is not very much at all.

In a letter to the Guardian, this week, Dorries accuses another committee member, Dr Evan Harris, of conducting an:

irrational and personal attack upon the integrity and professionalism of Dr Trevor Stammers – merely because he has the audacity to be chair of the Christian Medical Fellowship

Which she suggests:

is a sign of the growing intolerance and prejudice towards those who share Christian or indeed any religious beliefs in our society.

Harris’s letter, reproduced in full below, raises what many would see as a legitimate point and matter of concern

Witnesses must declare interests

Friday October 19, 2007

Your article (Abortion inquiry asks scientists to disclose links to faith groups, October 15) reported fears of infiltration into the evidence and witness list by the Christian Medical Fellowship in the science and technology select committee inquiry into the scientific issues impacting on abortion law. The response (Letters, October 16) from the CMF chair, Dr Trevor Stammers, singularly failed to deal with the main charge.

Dr Stammers asserts the fact that one contributor’s (Professor John Wyatt’s) membership of the CMF does not preclude him from being an expert neonatologist. But that misses the point. The fact is that his CMF activity is a factor that readers ought to be aware of when the professor writes on morally sensitive medical matters outside his area of expertise or clinical experience. The lack of transparency is actually even greater than the Guardian originally reported. No less than five other CMF activists – with far less expertise than Professor Wyatt (ie none) – all submitted evidence as “consultants” or “general practitioners” without declaring their interest.

Dr Stammers, in his letter, claims to agree that scientific expert witnesses need to be evidence-led, not ideologically or theologically driven, but claims that my “shameful” exposure of CMF tactics means that I am more ideologically biased than the CMF. The difference between MPs and select committee witnesses is that MPs are not claiming to be detached experts speaking only to the science and research base like our witnesses ought to be.

Dr Evan Harris MP

Lib Dem member of the science and technology select committee

Harris’s complaint is that members of a specific lobbying group have sought to inveigle themselves into the committee’s deliberations while concealing their interests, a concern that is made all the more serious by Harris’s assertion that some of these people may be manifestly unqualified in the relevant field and therefore incapable of giving expert testimony, this being what the committee has called for.

Dorries suggests that Harris’s comment show intolerance of Christianity and religious belief, which would be a valid assertion only if – if Harris’s remarks are correct – intellectual dishonesty and deception is a defining characteristic of both.

(And no, I’m not going to address that point, tempting as it is.)

Dorries then goes on to state, hilariously:

As a parliamentarian, I would not treat those witnesses and others who have submitted evidence to our inquiry – even if they may hold a different worldview to my own – as the overwhelming majority do, in the manner that Dr Harris appears to attack those who are Christians.

This was published in the Guardian on the same day that Dorries accused the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of submitting deliberately misleading evidence to the committee – an allegation I’ve already disposed of.

She also alleged that the BMA has rigged its conference to exclude consideration of anti-abortion motions in favour of a string of pro-choice motions – democracy is clearly not Dorries’s strong suit either, as opponents of the motions within the BMA can, of course, register their opinions by voting against such motions.

And to cap it all, of course, she routinely implies that pro-choice organisations that provide abortion services, such as the highly respected Marie Stopes clinics, have a vested financial interest in maintaining the currently high number of abortions, ignoring the fact that the Stopes Clinics, like many other agencies in the field, also do their level best to reduce the number of abortions by providing contraception advice and related services that aim to prevent women getting pregnant with unplanned and unwanted foetuses in the first place – this being by far the most sensible and humane method of cutting the abortion rate.

And the answer to today’s nine letter Countdown Conundrum is, of course…

HYPOCRITE

I could go on, I suppose, to further pick apart the mendacity of Dorries’ position as in this remark:

An article in today’s Daily Mail mentioned that the Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo MP will tell MPs – in the science and technology committee of which I am a member – that she has seen no scientific evidence to reduce the upper limit at which abortion is available down from 24 weeks.

The article goes on to read “both the BMA and the RCOG are not convinced there is currently a need to change the limit.”

It’s nice of her to inform the Select Committee of her position, before we have even had a chance to put the questions to her…

Obviously another important point that’s escaped her attention is that Primorolo is expressing a personal view – which she’s entitled to put forward publicly – as by tradition all votes on abortion are free votes and not under the party whip, so there is no official government position on this matter and in no sense can Primorolo be considered to be speaking as anything other than an MP.

But what’s the point? She isn’t going to listen to any argument other than those that support her own anti-abortion view, unless it can be twisted and misrepresented to serve her purposes.

  • I’ve been following Dorries’ twisting all week myself: a particularly egregious lie came yesterday when (in the letter to the Guardian you mention) she declared she had no interest in the background or beliefs of the witnesses to the committee, only their science.

    This came only seven days after posting on her blog that she had persuaded the chairman to include more “pro-life” experts because, in her opinion, too many were pro-choice.

  • You have forgotten a third right: the rights of the father of the child. At the moment, he has no rights at all.

  • Well said Unity. Mad Nad manages to combine unbelievable inanity with complete vileness.

  • Ah, pure poetry, my friend: this post wins you Bloody Devil #17

    DK

  • May I use the engrave baseball bat quote for something on http://www.biologicalfeatures.blogspot.com please…

    I have my reasons and you may email me for them……. and also the last post on the above blog would tell you why in some measure I guess

  • Knock yourself out, Henry… 😉

  • Thank you sweetheart.. I’ll have to think the post up now….

    Maybe by the end of the day..

  • true outsider

    I’m not a huge fan of Dorries either but i have to say I’m even less of a fan of Harries…

    It’s all right for harries to attack witness for being Christians (not even for their pro-life activity) then the motives of other witnesses must be investigated anyway/. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Expertise (include he funny idea a neoologist professor has no expertise on abortion) is not the point here -the point is when motives become relevant should add that abortion is a debate where the better informed people are the more likely they are to have strong views one way or another. This can be seen in the cast of witnesses to this absurd hearing which I doubt very much lack anyone who was not strongly pro life or pro choice.

    Yes the CMF is anti-abortion but you don’t have to be anti-abortion to join -it’s not in their membership terms. Similarly the Royal College of Obstetrics is pro abortion -and it’s difficult to join if you’re anti since it’s harder to get a job in hospitals as an Obstruction as such if you won’t do it.

    In any case who cares what dialogical groups people belong to (personal financial infest is slightly different though I think people often exaggerate its effects)?

    The Labour party is nominally pro-choice but plenty of members are pro-life ditto the other way with the Catholic Church. The key point is what people

  • true outsider

    Re-posting for legibility/ clarity feel free to delete the previous post!
    I

  • jdc

    I’ll be brief – I think Dorries has been shocking on this issue. I tried to comment on her blog, but she was “moderating” comments (i.e. allowing any comments that agreed with her viewpoint and blocking any that dissented) and is now refusing comments altogether. I think she’s made herself look very foolish on this issue (and not just by avoiding debate).