Thoughts on the This Morning Abortion Debate

It feels a little odd to be writing about a segment on ITV’s This Morning – not a programme I’d usually look in on – but as the segment pitted Kate Smurthwaite against Nadine Dorries in a ‘debate’ on the upper limit for elective abortion I felt that, for once, duty called.

As you might well expect the format of this debate, an eleven minute segment pitting two opposing viewpoints against each other plus a telephone poll on a yes/no question, is wholly inadequate for dealing with a complex issue like abortion. But this attention deficit daytime TV so that’s the format Kate had to work with despite it being best suited to prolific bullshitters who can quickly Gish Gallop through their usual raft of misinformation and crass platitudes without their opponent having either the time or opportunity to pull them up short on their use of falsehoods and obvious straw men.

In short, it’s a format ideally suited to Dorries’ debating style, ie proof by anecdote, naked appeals to emotion and, of course, lying through her back teeth, putting Kate at an immediate disadvantage that wasn’t at all helped by the Willoughby and Schofield ‘good cop, dumb cop’ act – for this one Schofield got to play dumb cop, a role for which he displayed a natural aptitude.

Nevertheless, Kate did pretty well from the outset and easily had the best of most exchanges, coming over particularly well when she focussed on some of the reasons why a small minority of women inquire about a late term abortion, although this did allow Dorries to get away too easily with her well rehearsed line in easily debunked porkies.

The programme’s viewers were told, for example, that abortion limits in Europe average around 12 weeks, which simply isn’t true – the 12-13 week limit that exists in many European countries applies only to abortions carried out on request without any need for additional medical grounds and many of these countries also have a secondary limit for abortions on medical grounds similar to those specified in our Abortion Act that, in some cases, exceeds our own upper limit.

Dorries also opened the canard about doctors pulling out all the stops to save an extreme pre-term neonate in one room while carrying out an abortion on a similarly aged foetus in the next, suggesting that these practices are incompatible and doctors cannot, therefore, ‘have their cake and eat it’ by continuing to do both. As ever, this is thoroughly dishonest argument; one that not only ignores the evidence on survival rates and risk of disability in extremely pre-term births – at 23 weeks gestation the survival rate is around 1 in 10 with a 1 in 2 chance of a severe functional disability and this isn’t improving over time – but it also disregards the issue of choice.

Doctors will indeed throw everything into trying to save the life of a neonate born at 22-23 weeks gestation, if that is the choice of the neonate’s parents. Not every family faced with situation will, however, make that particular choice. Some will – and do – look at the low odds of survival and the high risk of serious disability and choose, instead, not to allow doctors to aggressively resuscitate their newborn if it can’t make it under its own steam and they are entirely within their rights, legally and ethically, to make that decision. It’s this last group of would-be parents, the ones who look carefully at the odds and, reluctantly, issue instructions to their doctor not to aggressively resuscitate their newborn that are the correct comparator here but these are, of course, the people who don’t generate cosy little ‘miracle baby’ stories for the press, so you rarely, if ever, here anything publicly from them.

Where I felt Kate hit rather choppier waters was when the inevitable ‘what about adoption?’ question was throw into the mix by Schofield, derailing Kate’s argument about the ethics of forcing women to carry pregnancies to term against their express wishes and, often, in very difficult circumstances. It’s not that this isn’t a perfectly valid argument but it is one that was rather ill-suited to this particular venue and format because its not one that readily elicits sympathy in a lay audience, most of whom are unlikely to be engaged in this debate. I think it fair to say that if you mention ethics on a programme like This Morning at least part of the audience will think there’s a segment on TOWIE coming up and wonder why you’ve suddenly developed a lisp. It’s just not the right place or format for a Newsnight-grade argument on the ethics of choice and personal liberty, one that will inevitably sound rather unsympathetic unless you have enough time to tease out the issue properly – and time is the one thing Kate didn’t have on her side.

So, if I can be cheeky and offer Kate a bit of constructive criticism, the inevitable adoption question is a tricky one to tackle because, superficially, it seems to offer a consequence-free win-win solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy. As Schofield pointed out, there are thousands of childless couples out there who’d cheerfully give their eye teeth to adopt a newborn baby and play happy families and the rose-tinted image many people have of adoption – one that’s assiduously fostered by most adoption services and, especially, by anti-abortion organisations – makes it all too easy for people to take the view that compelling some women to carry a pregnancy to term is a reasonable trade-off.

What, after all, is few short months of inconvenience to a woman who’ll eventually gets what she wants by giving the baby up for adoption when compared to the joy that a baby will bring to the lives of a childless couple?

What most people don’t realise, of course, is that giving up a baby for adoption is often anything but a consequence free situation. The rosy image that many people have of adoption is one that’s sustained only by the adoption sector’s often callous disregard for the fate of women who do give up their offspring:

A number of studies of relinquishing birthmothers have found that having a child adopted is an experience of loss and grief that persists beyond the immediate aftermath of the parting, and in many cases is long term. Winkler and Van Keppel (1984) studied 213 women who had all relinquished a child for adoption when they were young and single. A great sense of loss was a key feature of many women’s stories and the greater the sense of loss reported by the women, the worse was their adjustment. For many women this sense of loss did not diminish with time, in fact 48% of the sample reported that it had intensified and was worse at particular times such as birthdays and Mother’s Day. For some women a strong sense of loss had persisted for up to 30 years. Well over half of respondents rated the adoption of their child as the most stressful experience of their life. The psychological functioning of the birthmothers was also measured and was found to be significantly worse than a matched sample of women who had not had a child adopted. This research clearly shows that it is unrealistic to make the assumption that women whose children are adopted will quickly ‘get over’ this experience. In many cases the negative consequences are serious and long lasting. Many similar findings have been outlined by other researchers both in this country (e.g. Bouchier et al, 1991; Howe et al, 1992; Hughes and Logan, 1993; Logan, 1996; Wells, 1994) and abroad (e.g. Condon, 1986; Deykin et al, 1984; Rockel and Ryburn, 1988) and key themes are obvious in biographical accounts (e.g. Powell and Warren, 1997).

Neil, E. (2004) Supporting the birth relatives of adopted children: A review of relevant literature

That’s an aspect of adoption that you’ll rarely find being discussed by adoption service providers although, to its credit, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering does list a number of relevant resources in its recommended reading section for birth relatives.

I should point out that all the studies cited in that passage from Neil (2004) deal with women who voluntarily gave children up for adoption. Although most people are aware of the problems caused by the, thankfully, discontinued practice of forced adoption during what is often referred to as the ‘baby scoop era‘, the default assumption seems to be that those problems simply went away when this practice was discontinued when, in reality, they didn’t. The risks associated with giving up a child for adoption, and particularly the risk of psychological damage and long-term mental health problems, were simply swept back under the carpet and placed firmly out of sight and, of course, out of mind.

Kate will know perfectly well that anti-abortion organisations trade heavily on promoting adoption as a safe alternative  to abortion, usually on back of saccharine-sweet anecdotes like the one Dorries pulled out of the bag during yesterday’s debate. My view is that the only genuinely effective counter to that argument is to disabuse the general public of the notion that adoption is a risk-free enterprise in which birth mothers wander happily off into the sunset secure in the knowledge that they’ve given a child a life and open their eyes to the reality of what many women experience after giving up a child for adoption; extreme stress, years of unresolved – and unresolvable – grief and a risk of developing long term mental health problems that, based on the data we do have to hand, appears to be far greater and more widespread than any risks associated with abortion.

It may seem like a harsh tactic to adopt but it has three major advantages.

It’s the truth.

It raises awareness of the often pitiful levels of support afforded to vulnerable women who do place children up for adoption and the woeful lack of research, or even interest, in this issue – in fact, given the lack of research in this area, one has to wonder quite what kind of information is given to vulnerable women considering giving up a child for adoption, particularly in regards to the long-term risks to their mental health, not least because – unlike abortion – there doesn’t appear to be any national guidelines or standards for pre-adoption counselling.

And last, but by no means least, it exposes for the lie it undoubtedly is the anti-abortion lobby’s claim that its efforts to lower the current upper limit are motivated by concerns for the well-being of women who have late-term abortions.

None of this is to suggest that Kate was, or is, at all wrong to stress the importance of choice, personal liberty and self-determination when adoption is raised as an alternative to abortion, Rather it’s to acknowledge that those are difficult arguments to put across effectively in the circumstances in which she had to operate during yesterday’s debate, particularly to an audience that is unlikely to be engaged in the debate or aware of complexity of the issues surrounding abortion, and to suggest that there is at least one alternative approach that might prove to be a little more effective while, at the same time, remaining fully compatible with Kate’s strong advocacy of women’s rights.

  • http://twitter.com/marstrina MarinaS

    Could you not also strengthen the argument against the panacea of adoption by citing the thousands of children that are currently in the system, awaiting adoption? I think the happy birth mother is only half of the dishonest story being told here – the massive pool of loving adoptive parents who never regret or mishandle their relationships with adopted children should figure in there too.

  • ed77

    Your claim ‘that abortion limits in Europe average around 12 weeks’ isn’t true. Is frankly pretty deceitful. We have an abortion limit in England Wales (and Scotland) of 24 weeks, abortion up to term is permitted for certain reasons including the discriminatory disability of the foetus clause. You point out that European countries with a lower limit also have later abortions under certain circumstances. Well so what, so do we. Either we have to be consistent and say that both the 24 week limit and lower limits are both fictions since for any reason that one might supposedly need a later abortion one can get one regardless. Or we can be perfectly reasonable and say that we have a 24 week limit and Europe on average has a 12-13 week limit. To accuse anyone of saying so as not telling the truth then proceeding to engage in dissembling yourself is frankly naked hypocrisy.

    • unity_ministry

      Deceitful, eh Ed?

      Well, first I should introduce you to my readers properly, so everyone say hi to Edward Rennie of the Catholic astroturfing organisation ‘Catholic Voices’ – He’s on the fifth row down here – http://www.catholicvoices.org.uk/the-project/team

      Now, having got the introductions out of the way, lets be clear about the facts – the 12-13 average across much of Europe relates specifically to legal provisions for abortion on request WITHOUT any requirement to demonstrate that there are any specific medico-legal grounds to support such a request.

      This IS NOT the same as the system here in the UK where abortions can be carried out only on specified medical grounds as set out in the Abortion Act 1967.

      Beyond the average 12/13 weeks ‘on request’ limit there are considerable variations between different European countries in terms of time limits, clinical and, in same cases, socio-economic grounds on which abortions are permitted and, indeed, in the interpretation and implementation of such laws, and this includes several countries where there is no specified upper limit in law for terminations in cases of several foetal abnormality.

      As such, we can either provide people with accurate information which reflects the wide variations in local abortion laws across Europe – my own approach – or we can try an bullshit people by feeding them an obviously false dichotomy – your approach.

      And don’t try and astroturf my blog…

      • ed77

        Firstly we don’t have the introductions out the way because you haven’t introduced yourself, which would be fine, online anonymity is perfectly acceptable for a variety of reasons. But to proceed from anonymity to then ‘exposing’ people who post comments on your blog which dispute your position then becomes cowardly and hypocritical. Either blog with your identity in the open, or if you wish to remain anonymous refrain from irrelevant ad hominem attacks, including the pathetic and absurd accusation of astroturfing. To post peoples identities on your blog without their consent (not that I’m at all bothered personally) is in fact a complete abuse of your position as host of this blog.

        Secondly in addressing the point about time limits no one disputes that pre 24 weeks abortions have to be carried out ‘only on specified medical grounds’ But we both know perfectly well that no women is refused abortion on the grounds that:

        ‘the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman’

        Especially given that RCOG clinical guidance has stated that

        ‘women should be advised that abortion is generally safer than continuing a pregnancy to term’

        Hey presto abortion on demand! And as we know from your previous ramblings on the subject

        http://www.ministryoftruth.me.uk/2011/12/14/are-98-of-uk-abortions-illegal/

        abortion on mental health grounds is also in effect on demand as well.

        So to claim that when someone says abortion limits in Europe average around 12 weeks isn’t true, is and remains a rather obvious deceit.

        Therefore your comment:

        ‘we can either provide people with accurate information which reflects the wide variations in local abortion laws across Europe – my own approach – or we can try an bullshit people by feeding them an obviously false dichotomy – your approach.’

        is in fact itself bullshit.