Spinning the Abortion Debate

Abortion is back in the news, courtesy of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – excellent commentary here by Owen Barder, by the way –  so it should come as no particular surprise to note that while researching the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship’s campaign on the draft Sexual Equality Regulations, I discovered that one of the other group’s supported by its Public Policy Officer, Andrea Minichiello Williams, Christian Concern for Our Nation has a few things to say on this subject as well.

In fact, only this week is published a press release on behalf of what looks to be another spin-off group ‘Choose Life’ with the following headline:


The press release, which I’ll analyse in a moment, trumpets the results of an opinion poll carried out by CommunicateResearch on their behalf into attitures towards abortion, the results of which, so this group claim, support their calls for changes in the present abortion law – but does it really do that and does the spin put on these results by this group genuine match up with the results of the poll?

The problems with Choose Life’s interpretation of the results of this opinion poll begin right from the very headling of the press release which makes two clear statements, that the ‘vast majority’ of women believe that abortion is cruel (full stop) and also beleive that the law should be changed.

In actual fact, the poll does not ask whether women believe abortion is cruel, in general, what is asks, instead, is whether respondents (not all of whom were women) agree or disagree with the statement that ‘aborting a baby at six month is cruel’ – to which 76% of all respondents agreed.

Not only does this group misrepresent the actual question asked in the poll but the question, itself, if both unreliable and biased, if the objective of the poll is to assess the level of support for current abortion laws. The question of whether one perceives abortion at six months is cruel is entirely subjective and limited in scope; the poll does not ask whether respondents consider an abortion to be ‘cruel’ to the foetus; to the pregnant mother or both, nor are respondents asked to consider whether, even if they perceive abortion at this stage to be cruel, whether it could also be justified or even considered necessary in certain circumstances.

As such, it is not possible to make any assertions as to the degree of public support for current abortion laws or changes in the current law based on this one question, not least as nowhere in the poll are respondents asked explicit whether they would wish to see or support changes in existing law – the headline states that women believe the law should be changed, but nowhere in the poll is that actual question asked.

The full text of the press release is given below with my own annotations, based on the actual results of the poll as published by CommunicateResearch, including a number of questions/responses that the Choose Life group have chosen to omit from their press release for what you will see are very obvious reasons.

The vast majority of women believe that abortion is “cruel” and that the existing law should be changed, according to the biggest ever professional survey of female opinion.

The assertions made int he press releases headlines, and restated here, I’ve already dealt with and shown to be unreliable. As for the ‘biggest ever professional survey of female opinion’, the research results show a total sample size of 1503, of whom 1046 were women, which means it is certainly not the biggest ever professional survey of female opinion on this subject, a 2002 survey into women’s’ perceptions of abortion law and practice (pdf) conducted by Marie Stopes International, used a sample size of 1,222 women aged 16-49 and included attitudinal data.

I’m pretty sure if one looks around, you’ll find even larger studies have been carried out in the past – a sample size of 1046 women is not that big and nothing in particular to crow about.

The survey also shows that most people – men and women – believe that too many abortions are being carried out each year and want to see the 200,000 a year toll reduced.

The survey does indeed show that ‘most people’ agreed with the proposition that 200,000 abortions a year is too many in total and should be reduced, although the actual figure for those who agreed with this statement was only 53% – 29% disagreed with the proposition (the survey did not ask why) and 18% chose ‘don’t know’ or refused to comment.

The survey does not, however, ask respondents to indicate by what methods they would prefer to see the number of abortions reduced and the simple fact is that any reasonable individual, even the most ardent pro-choice supporters, would prefer to see fewer abortions being carried out, albeit that their preferred means of achieving such a goal – better sex education and access to contraception – differs fundamentally from Pro-Lifers who favour a complete ot near complete ban on abortion.

The mere fact that a majority of people would like to see fewer abortions carried out each year, again, tells us nothing about attitudes toward current abortion law or any denabd for change.

Another key finding is that women overwhelmingly want Government money spent on charities offering alternatives to abortion, such as adoption. Eighty five per cent want to see more help given to women who want to keep their baby rather than further moves to make abortion easier.

This is, again, wholly misleading.

The actual questions asked in the survey were:

If you were forced to choose between the following outcomes, which ONE would you select?

Easier Access to Abortion – 10%

More support for women who wish to keep their baby – 84%


It has been argued that since the government funds abortions in private clinics, it should also make funds available to organisations offering women alternatives to abortion such as adoption. Would you support or oppose this proposal?

Support – 85%

Oppose – 11%

In neither case do these questions demonstrate a lack of support for the current abortion laws or servie provision – one can easily reach the conclusion that the government should prioritise greater support for alternatives to abortion simply on the basis of believeing that existing provision is already adequate and that women should have every available option open to them when choosing what’s best for them.

Pro-choice means exactly that, enabling women to choose according to their needs and their personal circumstances, whether than means abortion, adoption or motherhood.

The poll, carried out by CommunicateResearch for the campaigning group Choose Life, will add to the mounting pressure for a change in the abortion law and a reduction in the current upper limit.

But the poll suggests that women will not be satisfied with a simple reduction in the upper time limit of 24 weeks if that simply results in an increase in early abortions. Most want to see fewer terminations overall and wider availability of alternatives to abortion.

The poll, in actual fact, does nothing of the sort as none of conclusions cited so far in anyway conclusively supports this group’s claims – what they giving here are the results they wanted to see, not the results they actually obtained.

It comes shortly before a major public debate in London between doctors and lawyers on opposing sides of the abortion argument. Barrister Charles Foster and Professor Patricia Casey will declare that the the number of UK abortions is too high and that the Abortion Act, last revised in 1990, should be reviewed. They will be opposed by barrister Nick Toms and Dr Wendy Savage.

As noted previously, it does not follow that the perception that there are currently too many abortions being carried out should necessarily lead to either a review of the Abortion Act or greater restrictions on access to abortion, nor that such such restrictions would even reduce the total number of abortions carried out each year on UK citizens. As the experience of the Irish Republic clearly demonstrates, prohibitive restrictions on access to abortion, these days, only lead to those seeking abortion going elsewhere – mainly the UK.

The net effect of restricting access to abortion in the UK would be simply to encourage women seeking an abortion to go abroad, most likely to Eastern Europe to get the procedure done.

Tory leader David Cameron and his predecessor Michael Howard have both backed calls for a lower limit and the leader of Britain’s Roman Catholics Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is to meet Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt next week to press for a tightening of the law.

Professor Casey said: “For years abortion has been cast as a central tenet of feminism and as essential to women’s empowerment. But recent developments in pro-life feminism give the lie to this thesis and abortion has devastating effects on the psychological well-being of many women.

"There have been several influential studies published recently that show an increased risk for psychiatric disorder and psychiatric hospitalisation among women who have abortions.

“So, contrary to the early feminist rhetoric promoting abortion as a positive choice for women with crisis pregnancies, women deserve better and we cannot and should not act as oppressors of our unborn children as we were once oppressed by the structures within society.“

Professor Casey, quoted here, is Professor of Psychiatry at University College Dublin and Consultant Psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, and from what little biographical information I can find appears to something akin to the Irish equivalent of Raj Persaud.

Abortion is undoubtedly a traumatic experience for any woman and in some case may result in psychiatric problems, but the same can be said for both adoption and motherhood. In talking about ‘pro-life feminism’, Prof. Casey is talking about abortion in a political and a professional context, one which I would certain hope would not carry through in her work as a consultant psychiatrist as such a biased view of this issue, if applied in therapy, would create severe ethical problems and compromise her objectivity within the doctor/client relationship.

Andrea Williams, public policy officer for the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, which is organising Monday’s debate, said: “This poll confirms that women in this country are deeply unhappy with the existing abortion laws and want them tightened up. It also suggests many women fear that too often abortions are carried out because of social pressures and not because the women concerned want a termination. Above all women want to see fewer abortions in this country. It would be disastrous if the move towards a lower time limit for abortion were to lead to more early abortions. That would achieve very little”

Again, it is worth restating that the questions asked in the survey and the response received do not support the view put forward here – in fact the single most telling question in the survey is one that the press release omits from consideration, thus far:

Q5 Do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements about abortion?

A woman’s right to choose always outweighs the rights of the unborn

Agree – 65%, Disagree – 26%

In fact the survey also include this question, for which the response is equally revealing:

Q.4 If a candidate in a general election in your constituency publicly said they believed that abortion should be made less easily available would yoube more likely or less likely to vote for them, or would it make no difference?

More Likely – 19%

No Difference – 56%

Less Likely – 22%

65% of those surveyed consider a woman’s right to choice in the matter of abortion to be paramount, which is altogether a kick in the teeth for the pro-life lobby as is the abject their failure to find any evidence support for greater restrictions on abortion has a significant impact on voting intentions.

The latest survey reveals mounting disquiet among women at the scale of abortions in Britain and the laxity of the existing law. It is based on interviews with 1046 women and 457 men.

Having read the survey results that’s not, as you might have already gathered, the impression I’ve gained, but then as a trained psychologist what do I know about attitude surveys… still, lets take a closer look at the evidence.

The key findings are:

More than eight in ten women believe that aborting a baby at the current upper age limit is cruel.

That’s the third occasion that this statistic is quoted – see my earlier comments and contrast with the 65% support for the pre-eminence of a women’s right to choice.

A massive 95 per cent of Britons agree that the abortion law should be kept under regular review and fewer than one in twenty disagrees.

It’s only reasonable for any law to be kept under periodic review, so support for this proposition tells us nothing at all about any level of support for actual change, it just means that people think it prudent to keep an eye on how the law is working in practice.

Two-thirds of Britons believe that abortion law hasn’t kept pace with our knowledge of early development in the womb. Only one-quarter disagree.

Does this indicate actual support for a reduction in the time limit for elective abortion on grounds other than disability or not? The one question that the survey avoids asking is whether the current time limit should actually be reduced – quite why is unclear as it’s a simple enough question.

The most one can legitimately infer from this statement is a belief that abortion law should take into account current medical practice and clinical evidence on the viability of the foetus at certain stages of development and nothing more – it indicates support for evidence-based law-making not necessarily for further restrictions in access to abortion.

The survey also finds widespread dissatisfaction with the way the current law operates.

78 per cent of women want a compulsory cooling-off period between diagnosis of pregnancy and any abortion.

So what? Women want time to think things through properly before making a major decision about their life – nothing unreasonable in that.

That the law does not explicitly provide for a ‘cooling-off period’ between diagnosis of pregnancy and abortion is not a deficiency in law – most pregnancies, today, are self-diagnosed using home tests, follwing which, even if a women’s immediate view is that she wants abortion, she still has to obtain an appointment with a medical practitioner, which takes a couple of days at least, then undergo a counselling session and then be given an appointment for the actual procedure. Unless someone is badly ‘on the clock’, having discovered their pregnancy or decided on a termination at a very late stage in relation to the current 24 week limit, even going private with result in a delay of about a week between the initial decision to have a termination and the actual procedure, allowing time to think things over.

Why is there no statutory cooling off period – most likely because giving a patient time to think things through adn come to an informed decision is simple matter of medical ethics and, therefore, one that does not require legislation. If anyone feels that a doctor has rushed or pushed them into a decision on abortion without giving them time to reach an informed decision then their recourse is a complaint of professional misconduct to the GMC.

A massive 96 per cent of women want a right to be fully informed of the medical risks associated with abortion.

Well who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be fully informed of the medical risks before any medical procedure, If a doctor prescribes medication you’re not familar with then the second question you ask is generally going to be whether there are any side-effect – the first is always, "is this going to help?", obviously.

Again, the right to be fully informed of medical risks is a matter of medical ethics and not one that requires legislation.

The most common reason for abortion is perceived to be on grounds of disability (66 per cent), and this proportion is even higher among women than among men. But this is far from correct. In 2004 only one per cent of abortions in England & Wales took place for this reason.

Public understanding of the grounds on which abortion is sought is certainly out of kilter with reality in the matter of disability, however this was not the only thing that this particular question looked at – the actual question was:

Q6 As far as you can tell, what would you say are the most common reasons for abortion?

And the full results were:

The baby’s father is unsupportive – 45%

A girl’s parents don’t agree with her having a baby – 55%

It would be difficult to combine a baby with a full time job – 48%

Having a baby would interfere with education – 52%

The unborn baby has a disability – 66%

Note the obvious bias here, in so far as the answers given seem to relate primarily to abortions in teenagers, particularly those who are still living with parents and in full-time education.

In actual fact, one the most recent complete statistics (2004) only 2% of abortions were carried out on under 16s and teenagers, in total, account for only 20% of all abortions. The largest number of abortions by single age group – 27% – occurs in the 20-24 age group, while women over 30 account, in total, for nearly 29% of all abortions.

The vast majority of women seeking abortions in the UK are mature adults – more that half of all abortions occur in women over the age of 24 – so its not just in the matter of disability that there is a degree if general ignorance about abortion, but equally a significant degree of ignorance as to just who might be having all these abortions and, in fact, the majority of women who do seek an abortion or more than capable of making and informed adult decision as to what they believe to be in their best interests.

Two-thirds of Britons support, and one-quarter oppose, a right for healthcare workers not to have to sign abortion forms or assist abortions where this would conflict with their ethical views.

As far as I’m aware, medical practioners are under no legal requirement to sign abortion forms or assist in abortion procedures if they have a personal moral objection to abortion – should this arise the would simply be under a duty to refer the individual to medical practioner who will deal with them.

Okay, I could be wrong, in which case I would expect a fellow blogger such as the excellent Dr Crippen to correct any misconceptions I might have on this matter…

84 per cent of Britons, including the same proportion of women, believe parents of girls under 16 have the right to know if their daughter has been referred for abortion. This rises to 90 per cent among women in social groups DE, often regarded as the most prolific client group for abortion.

Again, this is a matter of natural parental concern – of course parents of girls under 16 want to know if their child is considering having an abortion. Whether some parents should know is a very different matter and I suspect that a majority of people, if asked, would take the view that it is only right to withhold such information from parents where, at the very least, it may put the teenager in question at risk of harm.

Once parent’s get over the initial shock of finding out that their teenage daughter is pregnant, many and probably most are supportive and concerned only with the best interests and well-being of their child – sadly there are some who aren’t and who may either pressure their child into having (or not having) the baby againsther wishes, or in the worst case scenarios, may abuse, assault and even kill their daughter.

The question is misleading simply because it fair to ask respondents to give an informed response on consideration of the full issues.

More than seven in ten Britons, including two-thirds of women, agree that fathers should be given a say over whether their child is aborted. Among women aged 18-24 this rises to 79 per cent.

Again, the question itself is ambiguous and therefore misleading – all this demonstrates is the view that a majority of people think that a woman who is considering having an abortion should make some effort to discuss the matter with the father of the child and seek their opinion. What this question does not address is whether peopel believe that fathers should somehow be given a veto over the decision to abort a foetus and, therefore, override the woman’s wishes. Ask that question and I suspect that the outcome would look much more like that given in relation to the question of a woman’s right to choose, at least amongst women, which is what actually matters most in this case.

More people agree than disagree with the statement ‘most abortions are carried out for purely social reasons’ (49 per cent:41 per cent). This rises to 56 per cent agreement among Labour voters.

The question is simply ambiguous once again – what does the survey mean by social reasons?

Does this include decisions based on personal economic and financial circumstances or not, for example, and if so was this clearly communicated to respondents or not. One can infer nothing from this question due to its poor framing.

The phrase “a woman’s right to choose” clearly carries enormous emotional weight, as 65 per cent of Britons (both genders) agree that it ‘always outweighs the rights of the unborn’. This however conflicts with the earlier statements about, for instance, abortion for disability.

The supposed ‘conflict’ actually comes later in this press release, not earlier, but never mind – it’s up next so I’ll deal with it there.


Only around one-third of people are aware that abortion is legal up to birth if the baby is disabled, and men are more ignorant than women of this. The youngest age group, 18-24 yrs, are the least likely to be aware of this fact.

Most Britons regard it as unacceptable that under existing law abortion is legal up to birth on grounds of disability. Opinion runs strongest among the 18-24 yr age group, 73 per cent of whom regard it as unacceptable – perhaps because disability rights legislation is a more recent development. Interestingly, among both men and women those who voted Labour in the 2005 General Election are more likely to regard this law as unacceptable than those who voted for any other party.

The reference to a woman’s right to choose carrying emotional weight seem clearly intended to devalue the results of that question – 65% support – as does the allusion to a conflict with the response to the question of abortion on grounds of disability being available right up to birth.

In fact the two are only in conflict to a limited extent based, primarily, on perceptions as to the viability of the foetus – in fact , if one takes the two set of responses together, the issue of viability is absolutely central to this whole issue.

What one can quite reasonably infer here is that mainstream public opinion is broadly of the view that a woman’s right to choice in abortion should be supported, but only to the point at which foetal development is such that the child has a reasonable chance of survival outside the womb – this is perceived by many as a pragmatic view of pregnancy which holds that the notional right to life begins for foetus at that point where it is capable of surviving independently of the mother.

That’s not the absolute right to choice that some favour but its also certainly not the absolute prohibition of all abortions that pro-lifers are after either – it’s a compromise position and one which relies largely of medical practice and technology.

The apparent conflict with views on abortion and disability is, therefore, not quite so straightforward as this group are trying to suggest and certainly does not negate or mitigate entirely against a woman’s right to choice – in simple terms how one views the rights and wrongs of abortion up to birth in cases of foetal disability is entirely contingent on the nature of disability at issue and its affect of on the viability of the foetus.

Public opinion, it would seem, would not support such late abortions for disabilities where the foetus in question has a good chance of survival and is likely to experience a decent quality of life, even allowing for their disability, but this would almost certain not carry over to severe disabilities that are likely to result in very early mortality or in the child, once born, having little or not quality of life whatsoever.

All this really tells us that abortion raises a series of complex ethical debates in which, by and large, the public view is that its interests are best served by a reliance on medical evidence – the viability argument carries considerable weight in the public eye and, for those without strong moral/ethical views on the subject is perceived to be a valid position, albeit as both Owen (linked earlier) and Brian Barder note, its adoption by the pro-life lobby is entirely hypocritical – the best response to this new particular tactic, by the way, is to turn the moral/ethical argument on its head by questioning the pro-life as to the extent to which it would be prepared to accept medical intervention in pregnancy at ever earlier stages. How would, for example, this largely, if not entirely, religiously motivated lobby respond to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ scenario in which conception and incubation to ‘birth’ takes place entirely outside the womb? One suspect, not very well, which is precisely why the question should be asked.

Support for alternatives to abortion

87 per cent of women (and 83 per cent of men) agree that government funds should also be available to organisations offering alternatives to abortion such as adoption, in light of the funding given to private abortion clinics.

Well quite – so what? It’s entirely reasonable and laudable to provide women with alternatives to abortion, should they choose to take up such options – of course by far the best alternative is always high quality sex education and access to effective contraception, which, curiously enough, this survey neglects to mention at all.

89 per cent of women support a legal duty on doctors to provide access to advice both from abortion providers and from organisations offering alternatives such as adoption.

Again, a balanced spread of information on the options available to women in order to support them in making an informed decision as to what’s best for them is, quite obviously, a good thing – provided that there is adequate quality control as to the nature and content of the information provided.

If any organisation wishes to promote adoption as an alternative to abortion, then that’s fine by mean, as long as its done properly and with the intent to inform – however, its also perfectly clear that any group whose approach is try and moralise or scare women into taking such an option, as some pro-life groups seem to think is acceptable, have no business receiving public money or being given access to women who may be considering abortion as an option – which is probably not what the pro-lifers would really want.

And finally…

85 per cent of women would rather see more support for women who wish to keep their baby than easier access to abortion – and support for this is particularly strong among the 18-24 age group and Labour voters.

Well yes, but the actual question, as noted earlier, is:

If you were forced to choose between the following outcomes, which ONE would you select?

Easier Access to Abortion – 10%

More support for women who wish to keep their baby – 84%

And the fact that a large number of women would like to see more support for women who wish to keep their baby in no way indicates support for any increased limitations in access to abortions nor, indeed, should it come as any great surprise to find that Labour voters strongly support this idea – the survey does not ask the question that needs to be asked here, which is what kinds of additional support should be provided, but as a Labour Party member I think I can safely predict that the kind of additional support that most Labour voters would have in mind would come in terms of economic/financial support, access to high quality affordable child care, strong employment rights and an equitable labour market that does not unduly penalise women for taking time out to have a baby – all things which serve to minimise the impact of financial/career considerations in the decision-making process undertaken by women which find themselves, usually unexpected, pregnant.

If Labour voters, and particularly socialists, have a clear and long-standing moral and ethical position on abortion it is is that no woman should – in an ideal world – be deprived or unduly limited and constrianed in her right to choice on the basis of purely, or largely, economic/financial considerations.

That, I suspect, is something that this particular group simply do not understand – and probably never will.


One thought on “Spinning the Abortion Debate

  1. A well thought out and researched post on this difficult topic. I am posting one about it tomorrow on my blog and am linking to your post.


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