Mad, Sad and an utter Hypocrite

Today sees the release of the latest set of abortion statistics by the Department of Health and, naturally enough, this has brought Nadine Dorries and other pro-lifers crawling out of the woodwork, once again, to tell us all that the sky is still falling.

The headline figure is that the overall number of abortions is up, from last year, by about 4,700 if we limited ourselves just to residents of England and Wales. This is neither surprising nor unexpected.

There are four major factors that will tend, to varying degrees, to be taken into account by women when deciding whether or not to have an abortion; the stability of any relationship they’re in, the extent to which having a baby will change their life and whether they feel ready for that change, whether or not, where they have children already, they’ve previously decided that their family is complete and the impact that having a baby will have on their economic situation and that of their family.

So, with the economy taking a downturn at the moment, it’s hardly surprising to find that the overall number of abortions has risen this year not just because people are having to tighten their belts but because an increase in financial pressures in the home will often have a significant destabilising effect on family life.

None of this is difficult to understand if only you can be bothered to look at the evidence with an open mind.

Of course, that’s not the explanation that Dorries and her supporters are pitching as the comment of Tory MP, Mark Pritchard, neatly illustrate:

“These figures are truly shocking and expose the Government’s failed strategy in trying to reduce abortions.

“Sex education needs to be improved as well as access to contraception. New alternatives to abortion also need to be explored more fully.

“Britain has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe which many see as a national tragedy.”

I must say that I’m more than a little puzzled by the reference to ‘New alternatives to abortion’, which rather leaves me wondering whether I’ve missed something along the way. As far as I can see, the alternatives to abortion are not getting pregnant in the first place, becoming a mother and delivering the foetus and putting it up for adoption, none of which seems particularly innovative or new to me.

Unless someone’s about to tell me that scientists have come up with a way of cryogenically freezing and storing foetuses in mid-gestation after the fashion of those part-baked bread roll you can get in most supermarkets then I’m going to take it as read that Pritchard’s just bullshitting for the sake a tad more attention and move on to something more pertinent,,, which actually turns out to be the latest bullshit to emanate from the publicly-funded keyboard of the MP for Mid-Narnia, who goes straight for what she thinks will make for the best scare story of the day:

Children Aborting Babies

The figures released this morning by the DoH show that there is a 23 per cent increase in abortions in girls under 14.

The figures today show that children are aborting babies, which is a stark indicator of how the government has presided over a continuous and steady increase in abortion rates in ever younger girls.

Except, of course, that the incidence data for abortion in under 14’s actually tell us nothing of the sort, which Nad would know if only she could ever be arsed to look these things up – and here’s the graph to show you exactly what I mean:

So, as we can see, if any government actually ‘presided over a continuous and steady increase in abortion rates in ever younger girls’ during the last 20 years or so it was that of John Major.

To put this in perspective…

1. The effective age range we’re talking about as ‘under 14’s’ runs, most years, from 11-13 with the vast majority of pregnancies occurring at the age of 13.

2. 11 year olds account for maybe one or two pregnancies a year and, very rarely from what I can see in the stats, you’ll find a pregnancy occurring in an even younger girl – in 1999, a nine-year old girl had an abortion, and if you’re wondering how a nine-year old girl can even pregnant then a likely explanation would be that the child may have had a genetic condition that resulted in the very early onset of puberty. Triple X syndrome, which affects 1 in 1,000 girls can, in some cases, trigger the onset of puberty as early as five or six years of age.

3. The Sexual Offences Act 2003, for the first time, created an offence of statutory rape which applies to anyone having sex with a child under the age of 13.

4. Confining ourselves just to the 11-13 age group, at any given time the female population in this age range will be somewhere between 890,000 and 1.1 million of which maybe 350-400 will fall pregnant in any given year, about half of whom will have an abortion and, as the graph for abortions shows, the long-term trend in this age group has been pretty stable for the last 15 years or so.

So we are dealing with a very exceptional set of circumstances here and not a major epidemic of pregnant teenagers, which is what Dorries is trying, desperately, to suggest.

As for what Nad thinks we should be doing about this, that’s just a matter of ‘same old, same old’.

The mantra in schools, with regard to sex education, is ‘non-directional teaching’.

It should be directional, heavily directional. It should direct children towards values, morals, and the factual information that they need to know.

I suppose we should be grateful that factual information even got a look-in, although coming from an MP whose acquaintance with fact is casual and sporadic at best it may be that gratitude is too strong an expression to be using here. Beyond that, Nad’s prescription is the usual nonsense about bombarding teenagers with moral homilies on the subjects of marriage and virginity, an approach that not only doesn’t work but, when taken to its logical conclusion, i.e. abstinence-only sex education, has actually been to have a distorting effect on sexual behaviour in teenagers.

The study most often cited as having demonstrated the efficacy of abstinence-only education is Promising the future: Virginity pledges and first intercourse [Bearman, P. S. & Brueckner, H. (2001) American Journal of Sociology, 106, 859-912.], which continues to be held up as proof of the value of such education despite its ‘headline’ findings having been challenged and soundly overturned by more recent research. However, what is most interesting about this study is not those findings that supporters of abstinence-only education chose to publicise but a number of findings that they chose to avoid mentioning at all cost, not the least of which being this observation:

“An abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex inadvertently encourages other forms of alternative sex that carry a higher risk of sexually transmitted disease”

What the study found is that girls who has received abstinence-only education, and particularly those who taken virginity pledges, were up to six times more likely to have engaged in oral or anal intercourse than girls who have received conventional sex education – only 2% of the non-pledge group indicated that they’d consented to oral or anal intercourse during the period covered by the study compared to 13% in the pledge group. These findings were broadly supported by 2002 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found that  55% of girls who had taken a virginity pledge admitted taking part in oral sex while 50% of those in the 15-17 age group considered that oral sex did not compromise their pledge of abstinence.

There is, if you look at the continent and at countries like the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, no real controversy about what actually works when it comes to the role of sex education in reducing in the incidence of pregnancy, wanted or otherwise in teenagers. Its no more than a matter of empowering teenagers, and young women in particular, with the knowledge and information they need to make informed choices about their lives. Discussions of marriage, relationships and the responsibilities that go with parenthood are all part of that process but on its own, or as the main focus of sex education, regaling teenagers with homilies is a complete waste of time and effort.

Sticking with Dorries but moving to another ‘venue’, comments in today’s Daily Mail put the final nail in the coffin of Nad’s pretence of being ‘neither pro-choice or pro-life’.

As some may recall, Dorries set out what she claims to be her position during the recent House of Commons debate on abortion:

I should like to make my personal position clear, because it has been misrepresented in the past few days. I am pro-choice. I support a woman’s right to abortion—to faster, safer and quicker abortion than is available at the moment, particularly in the first trimester. That is my position.

Today, she told the Daily Mail…

‘Abortion is wrongly seen as an easy and trouble-free way of ending a pregnancy.

At a time when abortion is rising, we should be looking for ways to bring it down  –  not just sending out entirely the wrong message by seeking to liberalise the law still further.’

The liberalising measures that may be brought forward at the report stage of the bill, next month, are those removing the requirement that women obtain the agreement of two doctors when seeking an abortion during the first trimester and a requirement that doctors who my personally oppose abortion do not seek to impede women by refusing to refer them on colleagues who harbour no such objections, measures than seek to liberalise the law in order to expedite access to abortion services during the first trimester.

Yet again, Dorries proves herself to be a liar and hypocrite – but then what’s new about that.

  • Good post, Unity. It is remarkable that Dorries keeps getting away with misusing statistics.

    I have to point out, though, that I beat you to it! http://davecole.org/blog/2008/06/19/abortion-statistic/

    xD.

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  • Oli

    Top stuff as usual, Unity.

    Just a thought – which someone better at stats than me might be able to give an answer to: does it even make sense to talk about trends in a group of 150ish people a year? Surely random differences could have a large enough impact year on year to dwarf any underlying trend?

    Opinion polls already have large margins of error, and that’s for samples an order of magnitude greater.

  • More on the Mad Nad front: the number of government ministers who have called Nadine Dorries a liar on the floor of the House of Commons doubled today. Nadine accused Caroline Flint of not going her notice of a ministerial visit to Mid Narnia, claiming “We did not know about the Minister

  • Oli,

    I did some of the statistics over at my place. You can talk about a meaningful trend for any set of data that can be represented on a Cartesian plane. What’s more relevant is the low number of data (rather than the low figure of any individual datum). Also, National Statistics are unable to give a rate (say, n per thousand) and so it becomes pretty much impossible to do any probability-based statistics on them, even though they are discrete variables.

    Unity – am I right on this?

    xD.

  • Dave:

    You can talk about a meaningful trend for any set of data that can be represented on a Cartesian plane.

    Yes, that’s pretty much it.

    Although the raw number are relatively small and somewhat variable year on year, which makes it difficult to identify precise trends, e.g. something like ‘abortions in under 14s are rising, on average, by 0.5% a year’, the fat that we have longitudinal data over a 20 year period or some means that a general trend can be identified simply by plotting the graph on a Cartesian plane and looking for a line of best fit, which in this case is near as damn it horizontal.

    Scope for probability estimates is a tad limited, although one could define a mean or median over time with a plus/minus score for range and set criteria for identifying if and when the trend has shifted significantly out of that range, if the trend shifts outside the predicted range for X number of years, say five, then then you have a trend shift and not just random ‘noise’ but what the low numbers do hamper is the ability to meaningfully relate the figures to general demographics, i.e. separating a real shift in trends from one an apparent shift that is only, in reality, based on broad demographic changes.

    For example, in this case, the inability to calculate a meaningful rate per 1,000 makes it difficult to identify both whether a change in the number of abortions is a result a change in attitudes (more girls choose to have/not have an abortions) or merely a rise the in overall number of pregnancies and whether a rise in the number of pregnancies is because more girls are getting pregnant or whether there are just more girls.

    Trend data of this type is always most interesting when you can show that the trend either significantly outstrips any possible demographic effects or goes the opposite direction to the broad demographic trends because that’s when you know something interesting is happening.

  • ngp

    I’ve been lurking on this site for quite some time… Just wanted to say I think your clear, cogent analysis is practically without peer in the UK blogosphere.

    Top stuff – really, top stuff.

  • Every time she opens her trap, Dorries’ credibility (if she had any in the first place) takes a nose dive. Won’t any of her Tory chums take her aside for a quiet word? If I was in the Conservative party I’d be cringing.

  • I can’t comprehend why Cameron hasn’t taken her to task ! she must have some influence.
    Reading articles from 2005 boy has she told some Porkies !
    I just hope more people have seen her as she really is: six thousand pound earrings included, which she won’t compromise on ! I wonder what her constituents feel who are struggling, on whatever wages they have, and pensioners !

  • Minor factual points (neither of which impacts on the truth of the article):

    1) sex with a child aged 12 or under was treated as rape in the UK well before the Sexual Offences Act 2003. AIUI the main change with the SOA2003 was that it became a strict liability offence (which has led to such perfectly sensible outcomes as a 15-year-old boy being convicted of rape for having sex with a 12-year-old girl who both sides accepted he reasonably believed was 15. Yay genius Labour lawmaking…)

    2) oral sex is significantly less likely to spread STDs than vaginal sex, as well as having a 0% chance of pregnancy, so a sex education programme that encouraged teens to opt for oral sex would actually be Quite A Good Idea.

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