Why pro-choice must mean pro-science

Over the years, I written quite a few articles on abortion, more perhaps that most British-based male bloggers and as as result – and without ever intending to – I guess I’ve become something of a lay expert on the subject, particularly in regards to scientific evidence base that underpins much of the ongoing debate and the strategies adopted by anti-abortion activists in pursuit of their softly-softly efforts to restrict women’s abortion right in the UK, almost all of which have been imported from their American counterparts.

So, I was always going to be interested to see what kind of ideas would emerge from the joint LibCon/F-word attempt to develop an effective counter-strategy to the anti-abortion lobby’s latest efforts to sneak illiberal, restrictive and wholly unnecessary anti-abortion legislation into the delayed Health and Social Care Bill.

The first fruits of those labours have now been published at both the F-word and Liberal Conspiracy and, a little worryingly from my perspective,  they suggest that at least some  on the feminist wing of the debate continue to take a rather naive view of the political realities of this debate, particular in regards to the role that scientific needs to play in carrying the fight back to the anti-abortion lobby:

There was a strong current in the room advocating for taking a scientific, public health approach to abortion rights. They recommended making informed, fact-based interventions to the debates on abstinence education, for example. And some people highlighted how effective this can be, especially where anti-abortion lobbyists are making spurious ‘pseudo-scientific’ claims and considering how the mainstream majority already believes in the women’s right to choose.

However, some people also made a lot of the fact that anti-abortion lobbyists are operating from a position of ideology, rather than science. While this may be true, I don’t agree that ideology, per se, is a bad thing. Feminism is an ideology. I kind of like it. Moreover science can be marshalled in defence of all kinds of ideologies – including ones I don’t agree with.

Let’s tackle the politics first – what campaigners for abortion rights are up against here is a carefully contrived and crafted wedge strategy.

Although the term wedge strategy was coined by Phillip E Johnson and is most closely associated with the Discovery Institute and its efforts to bypass America’s 1st amendment provisions on the separation of church and state by dishonestly rebranding creationism as ‘intelligent design’, the strategies and techniques used in wedge strategies to manipulate public and political opinion were developed on Madison Avenue back in the 1950s and 60s in response to growing evidence of the harm caused by tobacco. Wedge strategies are, somewhat indirectly, a product of the ‘Tobacco Wars’ and have since found their way into mainstream politics under the guide of ‘triangulation’ and they continue to be used extensively to protect corporate interests as is certainly the case in the ongoing debate on Climate Change.

For as much as our own native anti-abortion lobby might appear to be little more than a rag-tag band of fundamentalist Christian wingnut, the tools they’re playing with to develop and advance the campaign to restrict abortion rights were developed by some of the top advertising companies in the least regulated and most naked competitive commercial and political environment in the world – the United States of America – and you underestimate the risk that poses at your own peril.

The defining characteristic of all wedge strategies is their reliance on the promulgation of a false dichotomy of polarised extremes as means of seeking to shift and capture public perceptions of the ‘middle ground’ in a particular public debate. What the public is sold, by those who make use of wedge strategies, is a caricature of the real debate in which they being asked to engage, a false picture in which the public discource on the issue at head in entirely polarised around two opposing and extreme viewpoints which permit no room whatsoever for reasonable compromise with the aim, of course, of pitching their own position as precisely the kind of reasonable compromise that neither of two extremes are willing to countenance.

As you might expect, this compromise position – the wedge itself – is anything but a genuine compromise position. Typically, its nothing more than a carefully sanitised and artfully concealed version of the only genuinely extreme position in the debate. ‘Intelligent Design’, the prime example of a modern ‘wedge’ is after all nothing more than creationism with any overt references to God tipp-exed out out and replaced with the much more neutral sounding ‘designer’.

In the context of the ongoing debate on abortion rights, the very thing that feminists need to understand and appreciate is that its their ideological position on abortion that the anti-abortion lobby are trying to sell to the public as the opposing extreme to their own carefully concealed position, which is opposed to abortion in [almost] all circumstances. Like it or not, ideological feminism – or rather a caricature of ideological feminism – has already been co-opted into this debate by the anti-abortion lobby as part of their strategy for manipulating public opinion and its therefore of critical importance to the debate as a whole that feminist realise, right from the outset, that whatever else they contribute to the campaign the one thing they absolutely need to avoid at all costs is falling into the trap that’s already been laid by anti-abortionists.

Believe, I’ve no wish to devalue the contribution that feminists can, and indeed must, make to any efforts to stave off this latest threat to women’s abortion rights but it need to be clearly understood that mounting an overly ideological campaign would be a grave mistake because, however fine the intent behind such a campaign, it would only serve to play the very game on which the anti-abortion lobby is pinning its hopes of success. What we need, from the feminist sector in particular, is very clear and straightforward argument based on a readily understood but vitally important philosophical premise; that women are independent, autonomous moral agents who fully deserve to be at liberty to make their own informed choices.

We need that message to be clear, unequivocal is – in public at least – free of any of the incomprehensible post-modernist ideological brain dumps that too often seem to pass for intellectual discourse is some feminist circles. We shouldn’t lose the ideology, of course, but for purely strategic reasons what’s needed from the feminist sector is a degree of self-restraint and circumspection, a clear focus on the moral and ethical arguments and a realisation that however enamoured anyone might be of feminist theory, it needs to keep it in the background so as not provide anti-abortion campaigners with easy access to the ‘Mille Tant’ style stereotypes they’re hoping to play on to their own advantage. Don’t leave the field, but don’t shoot yourselves in the feet either, no matter how rough and confrontation the debate becomes.

So where does science fit into this picture?

Well, perhaps the best way to answer this question is with a very simple example from a recent commentary on the most recent set of abortion statistics  (2010) by Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship, in which he states that:

However what is very clear is that the government’s teenage pregnancy strategy, built around values-free sex education, condoms and morning after pills is clearly not working in bringing rates of unplanned pregnancy down. Instead abortion is being used purely as another form of contraception. And yet it is not contraception. Whilst contraceptives work in the main by preventing fertilisation taking place, abortion stops a beating heart and ends a human life.

The figures quoted above are those that you will read in much of the media coverage and show a situation out of control.

Is that actually true? No, of course not as becomes obvious if only you take a look at the evidence:

The graph (above) shows exactly how teenage conception rates in England and Wales changed between 1990 and 2009 using index numbers (so 1990 = 100), which make it easier to see the actual trends. The trend lines on the graph, which indicate the trends in conceptions for young women aged 13-15, 16-17, 18-19 and a cumulative trend for women under 20 all show a decline in conception rates over the last 20 years give or take a couple of bumps along the way, both of which are easily explained. The sharpish increases in conception rates in 1996 and, again, in 2007, both follow periods of relatively intense media coverage of adverse claims relating to the safety of oral contraceptives. In simple terms, both spikes were preceded by media-driven scares regarding the safety of contraceptive pills, which put some young women off taking the pill and – inevitably – we end up with a bit of mini-baby boom.

What the graph doesn’t show is either a situation that is ‘out of control’ or proof that the government’s teenage pregnancy strategy is necessarily failing. If anything, that strategy seems to be working overall, albeit rather more slowly that the government might have hoped for.

Ah yes, but what about the fact that the UK has the highest teenage conception and abortion rates in Western Europe, that’s true isn’t it?

Well, yes, but some truths are nothing like as straightforward as some would like you to think.

For one thing, there’s more than one way of measuring abortion rates. One can look at the incidence rate, which is the number of abortions per 1,o00 population over a given period – i.e. a year – in which case the UK tops the table for Western European nations, primarily because it also tops the table in teenage conception rates. But one can also look at the ratio of abortions to conceptions, i.e. what percentage of conceptions actually result in an abortion, and here the UK lags well behind Sweden and other Nordic-bloc countries.

More importantly, making valid international comparisons is nothing like as straightforward as the media would have you believe and certainly nothing like as simple as drawing up a ‘league table’ based on a few public health statistics. I needn’t go into too much detail here as this issue is fairly well covered by a 1999 summary bulletin published by what was then the Health Education Authority – now part of NICE – which found that there was no single pattern to teenage conception and abortion trends in Europe but rather six distinct patterns indicating specific groupings of countries which showed marked similarities in both trends and public health responses to teenage conceptions, etc..

So far as the UK is concerned, we were found to ‘belong’ to a small group of larger industrialised countries which included Germany, France and, at the time, Poland, which had rather different historical, cultural and economic characteristics to the other five groups – although, in truth, grouping the UK with France and Germany is a little tenuous as our best and closest comparators, globally, are the USA and the ‘Old Commonweath’ (Australia, Canada and New Zealand).

We can, of course, learn much from those countries whose policy responses have proven to be more successful than our own in reducing the incidence of teenage pregnancy, although its also worth noting that teenage conception rates also fell considerably in the UK during the period covered by the briefing (1960 – late 1990’s), just not as quickly as in some other countries, but it doesn’t automatically follow that we can reasonably assess how well, or badly, we’re doing by making simplistic comparisons between the UK and other European countries.

So what does science bring to the table? Three things:-

1. It exposes the extent to which the anti-abortion lobby have resorted to lies, distortions and misinformation to promote their agenda and, in doing so, it expose the wedge strategy itself,

2. It helps to expose the anti-abortion lobby’s real agenda, which is, of course, entirely rooted in right-wing social conservative ideology and an a largely fundamentalist view of Christian morality, an agenda which over the last forty years has utterly failed to capture any significant public support. One of main reasons why anti-abortionist have resorted to peddling junk science is because they know perfectly well that public support for their moral views on abortion now runs at below 10% compared to over 60% support for legal access to abortion. That’s why the moral and ethical arguments have taken a back seat in this debate and that applies equally to the kind ideological feminist arguments which seek to extend unfettered abortion right beyond the current 24 week limit as well, a fact that necessarily need to borne in mind by pro-choice campaigners.

3. It not only provides a very clear link from the abortion debate to other key issues, such as teenage pregnancy, sex and relationships education, etc. but its does in a way which demonstrates that across all these intimately linked issues, the people and organisations behind these effort to restrict abortion rights not have no real solution to offer but they’re actually part of problem. The role of science in this debate is not just about countering the misinformation promulgated by anti-abortionists. There’s actually plenty of good science to work with as well; a solid body of empirical evidence which fully supports the view that the anti-abortion lobby’s brand of hardline religious morality is at best an obstancle to progress in, for example, reducing demand for abortion by reducing the prevalence of unwanted pregnancies, and at worst its a positive menace to public health which, in some cases, only serves to encourage teenagers to engage in risky sexual behaviours.

Science isn’t going to resolve any of the difficult ethical questions that arise with the abortion debate but it can certainly inform the ethical side of the debate, particular when it comes to some of the slipperier questions such as the argument from viability. What the scientific evidence does, however, clearly support is the view that by the best and, indeed, only effective starting point, when it comes tackling complex social issues such as teenage pregnancy, is to be found in supporting young women (and men, of course) to become independent, autonomous moral agents who are fully capable of making informed choices about their own lives.

Over the last week or so, I’ve been re-reading Alan Sokal’s wonderful ‘Beyond the Hoax‘, in which Sokal cites a 1969 lecture in which Noam Chomsky referenced an all too apt and perceptive comment by George Orwell:

George Orwell once described political thought, especially on the left, as a kind of masturbation fantasy where the world of facts hardly matters. Unfortunately, there is a good deal of truth to that characterization.

For as much as we need to bear Orwell’s warning in mind, we’ve got a chance here to prove both him and Chomksy wrong and that’s a chance we really nned to take because to win this particular battle, pro-choice must clearly mean pro-science.

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  • cim

    What we need, from the feminist sector in particular, is very clear and straightforward argument based on a readily understood but vitally important philosophical premise; that women are independent, autonomous moral agents who fully deserve to be at liberty to make their own informed choices.

    That seems to be an ideological argument to me; furthermore it seems to be the ideological argument that feminists in general use. So I’m really not sure what your point is here except that feminists should keep doing what they are doing.

    Do you have any examples of this hyper-theoretical feminist thought on abortion? Just about all of the feminist pro-choice work I’ve read has focused on one or both of two things – the moral right to bodily autonomy, and the harmful practical consequences of restricting abortion rights. Abstract theory has been rather sparse by comparison.

    particular when it comes to some of the slipperier questions such as the argument from viability

    The argument from viability is, to me, one of the more obviously anti-choice arguments. It gives a nice “objective” “scientific” “unideological” “pragmatic” basis for setting a time limit on abortion … which fits entirely into an extremely patient wedge strategy by hiding all the actual ethical points.

    Don’t get me wrong – when anti-choicers are claiming that science says X when it clearly doesn’t, and especially when it actually says the opposite, then obviously that has to be refuted, and this has been going on for a long time.

    I thought Zohra’s post was fairly clearly about the dangers of trying to fight the issue wholly on the science, not a recommendation that we ignore the science entirely to fight wholly on ideology. You don’t seem to have read it that way, though.

  • zohra

    what cim said!