You’ll have to forgive me, put I couldn’t resist a follow-up to my last post on the Christian Institute’s threat of legal action against Google without giving a demonstration of precisely why the information its pushing on abortion is misleading, factually inaccurate and, in places, entirely dishonest.
So, from its current, and updated, briefing on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, let’s see what the Christian Institute has to say about abortion.
There is a compelling case for the 24-week abortion limit to be significantly reduced.
In the Christian Institute’s opinion…
In certain hospitals with appropriate neonatal expertise survival rates of 46% at 23 weeks and 82% at 24 weeks have been recorded.
Yes, its John Wyatt’s dodgy data yet again – and hilariously, the source being cited is his submission to the Science and Technology Committee, which was, of course, dismantled by Ben Goldacre before it had chance to hit the ground hobbling, rather than his belatedly published paper, which not only fails to address any of Ben’s criticisms of his ST&C submission but which appears to contain some other questionable statistics (scroll down the article to about half way).
For reasons known only to Wyatt and, perhaps, other staff at UCLH, the hospital appears to have consistently more births at 22 and 23 weeks than the national average (about 8% more) and consistently less at 24 weeks than one would expect from the national figures (strangely enough, about 8% less), all of which smacks a little of a bout of Spinal Stats… (cheers for the idea, Tim)
Pioneering neural research has called into question long-held assumptions about the foetus’ lack of ability to feel pain. One world authority has argued convincingly that the foetus utilises unique neural structures which can process pain from 20 weeks or earlier.
No, it hasn’t, because there’s a very big difference between feeling pain and processing pain.
This is, of course, a reference to work of Dr K J S ‘Sunny’ Anand, which I’ve already covered in detail but the short version is that what Dr Anand appears to have found is that foetuses at 20 weeks gestation, and maybe as early as 18 weeks, exhibit some unconscious ‘reflex’ responses to ‘pain’ stimuli, not least of which being the release of stress hormones. However, similar responses, which occur automatically, have also been found in adult patients who are in a persistent vegetative state, i.e. deep coma, and in cases of anencephaly, where a major portion of the foetuses brain, skull and scalp, and most importantly the entire forebrain (without which conscious thought is impossible) fails to develop – neither coma patients nor foetuses with anencephaly are capable of ‘feeling’ pain because ‘feeling’ requires the capacity for conscious thought…
… and the same applies to foetuses throughout the first two trimesters of gestation.
Nothing in Dr Anand’s work counteracts or calls into question any of the well established neurological evidence which shows that even the most rudimentary capacity for conscious thought, without which any kind of ‘feeling’ is impossible, does not develop in foetuses until 26-28 weeks gestation because the apparent capacity to automatically, and unconsciously, ‘process’ pain stimuli uncovered by Dr Anand’s work is not the same as the conscious capacity to ‘feel’ pain and to suggest otherwise is deeply misleading.
Embryos develop rapidly: by week 6 the heart is pumping and by week 9 the baby has begun to move. The latest ‘4D’ ultrasound technology has clearly shown the obvious human characteristics of the foetus.
This is a reference to the work of Professor Stuart Campbell, and his ‘4D’ ultrasound system.
This is actually a 2D system (it uses a standard 2D computer monitor) which displays pseudo 3D models of the foetus (like the kind you’d see in a ‘3D’ computer game like Doom or Resident Evil) which are shown moving in real time (this being the ‘4D’ bit) – so lets dispense with the airs and graces and get down to the science.
What the system shows, therefore, is a (seemingly) three dimension moving picture of the foetus, or rather of the exterior of the foetus as it doesn’t look inside its body and tell us anything at all about its internal development, and especially it neurological development. As a clinical tool, the system has some limited value in making it a little easier to spot obvious developmental abnormalities of the kind that result in foetuses having bits missing or extra bits that they shouldn’t have.
As for it showing ‘obvious human characteristics’, on one level the answer to that is ‘so what?’. There are plenty of things we see every day that have ‘obvious human characteristics’, like the kind of dummies you see in the windows of clothing retails which, to varying degrees ‘look’ human, but which aren’t human, for the obvious reason that they’re made of plastic.
However, what interests the Christian Institute most about Campbell’s work is that it also shows the foetus ‘doing’ things in womb that look like conscious actions and behaviours, things which take place at a relatively early stage in the foetus’ development, much earlier than the current upper limit for abortions.
On this occasion, the Christian Institute have shown a bit of uncommon restraint when it comes to Professor Campbell’s work – usually what you’ll be told is that his system shows foetuses “walking” in the womb or indulging in “thumb-sucking” and you may even get a few photos and even video to drive home the point.
However, appearances can be deceptive, and nowhere more so than in relation to this system. You’ll more often than not see that reference to a foetus “walking” are very carefully put in quotation marks and this is because the foetus isn’t actually “walking” – that’s a conscious behaviour and, as already mentioned, its only after 24 weeks gestation that the capacity for conscious thought begins to develop. What you are seeing is nothing more than the foetus unconsciously moving about a bit, a completely automatic process and nothing more.
So, with all that now explained, exactly how relevant is Professor Campbell’s work, in scientific terms, to the question of abortion?
Well, its about as relevant as this…
Altogether now… Oooga Chaka… Oooga Chaka… Oooga Chaka…
The consequences for women
After having an abortion, many women deeply regret doing so and experience psychological problems.
And many women experience psychological problems after having a baby, too – although you don’t see groups like the Christian Institute demanding that women should be given mandatory counselling about the risks of post-natal depression before becoming pregnant. (would that be a total buzzkill or what!)
In a significant policy shift the Royal College of Psychiatrists recently warned that having an abortion can damage a woman’s mental health and women should be told the risks before proceeding.
All of which is a complete misrepresentation of what the Royal College of Psyciatrists actually did and said.
What the RCoP did was update it guidance on abortion, which was originally published in 1994, at the request of the Science and Technology Committee, and its revised guidance makes only one substantive alteration to its 1994 guidance – it revises its view of the evidence that having an abortion might give rise to subsequent psychological problems from ‘no evidence’ (1994) to ‘inconclusive’ (2008).
What it has not done is altered the nature of its guidance in regards to dealing with women who present themselves for abortion, as you’ll see after this next bit from the Christian Institute.
It now calls for doctors who assess women for abortion to “assess for mental disorder and for risk factors that may be associated with its subsequent development.”
What it actually, in full, is:
Women with pre-existing psychiatric disorders who continue with their pregnancy, as well as those with psychiatric disorders who undergo abortion, will need appropriate support and care. Liaison between services, and, where relevant, with carers and advocates, is advisable.
Healthcare professionals who assess or refer women who are requesting an abortion should assess for mental disorder and for risk factors that may be associated with its subsequent development. If a mental disorder or risk factors are identified, there should be a clearly identified care pathway whereby the mental health needs of the woman and her significant others may be met.
You see, the Christian Institute has very carefully chosen to quote a single sentence out of context to support its position, when the full statement clearly doesn’t support such a view.
So far as the 1994 guidance is concerned, it notes that there was no evidence of an increased risk of subsequent psychiatric problems in the majority women who had had abortions in the first trimester (before 13 weeks) and an increased risk of medium term risk of distress and depressive illness in women having second trimester abortions, risks that were linked to the circumstances under which these abortions were taking place and not to the procedure itself, but that in all cases these risks were less than the risks associated with the continuation of the pregnancy.
What the 1994 guidance also said was:
For the minority who do develop psychiatric disorder, there are predictable risk factors and such women should be offered a psychiatric assessment before the termination and psychological help afterwards.
So the guidance of the RCoP in 1994 to healthcare professionals in 1994 was…
Check for pre-existing problems and risk factors before termination and if any are present then ensure that they get appropriate aftercare.
And their new guidance says…
Check for pre-existing problems and risk factors before termination and if any are present then ensure that they get appropriate aftercare.
Which is obviously a ‘major policy shift’, isn’t it?
For many the decision to have an abortion is made under pressure and with little time for careful thought. Those who pressurise women in this way are morally responsible.
So far, the Christian Institute have stuck to misinterpretation and misinformation but having exhausted those possibilities they’ve now move on to complete fabrication.
It is impossible to say whether ‘many’ women make the decision to have an abortion ‘under pressure’ or indeed what kind of pressure they may come under and who that pressure may be coming from because there has been no research into the question of why women have abortions and what influences their decision in the UK in the forty years since the 1967 Abortion Act made abortions legally available in the UK.
Some women do, undoubtedly, get pressurised into making their decision by their partner or, in the case of some teenagers, by their parents and/or other members of their family but as to how often this happens and how many women are affected, we simply don’t know, although evidence from the US, where some research has been done, suggests that the numbers of women who are pressurised into their decision is very low -t he American data states around 1%.
As for the assertion that ‘those who pressurise women in this way are morally responsible’ – morally responsible for what?
For the termination of the foetus?
For any adverse psychological reaction in the woman having the abortion?
The Christian Institute don’t say, largely because they know that high-minded talk of ‘moral responsibility’ has little real traction in this debate.
Christians holding to the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of life from conception oppose abortion and seek to raise awareness of what abortion really involves.
This one always amuses me, because not content with misrepresenting the scientific and medical evidence on abortion, the Christian Institute cannot even manage to accurate represent the contents of the book that is central to their religious beliefs.
In the US Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs Wade, a passage dealing with precedents in in English Common Law illustrates the problem with the Christian Institute’s claims about the ‘sanctity of life from conception’:
3. The common law. It is undisputed that at common law, abortion performed before “quickening” — the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy — was not an indictable offense. The absence of a common-law crime for pre-quickening abortion appears to have developed from a confluence of earlier philosophical, theological, and civil and canon law concepts of when life begins. These disciplines variously approached the question in terms of the point at which the embryo or fetus became “formed” or recognizably human, or in terms of when a “person” came into being, that is, infused with a “soul” or “animated.” A loose consensus evolved in early English law that these events occurred at some point between conception and live birth. This was “mediate animation.” Although Christian theology and the canon law came to fix the point of animation at 40 days for a male and 80 days for a female, a view that persisted until the 19th century, there was otherwise little agreement about the precise time of formation or animation. There was agreement, however, that prior to this point the fetus was to be regarded as part of the mother, and its destruction, therefore, was not homicide. Due to continued uncertainty about the precise time when animation occurred, to the lack of any empirical basis for the 40-80-day view, and perhaps to Aquinas’ definition of movement as one of the two first principles of life, Bracton focused upon quickening as the critical point. The significance of quickening was echoed by later common-law scholars and found its way into the received common law in this country.
So, if the Bible actually teaches that life begins at conception then how did such a learned and eminent theologian as Thomas Aquinas – a saint, no less – come to miss that crucial piece of information to the extent that he took it on himself to attempt to define first principles of life?
Could Aquinas not read?
In actual fact, the Bible says nothing at all on the subject of abortion, and what little is does say on the subject of when life begins is entirely out of kilter with the idea of life beginning at conception.
The very few passages that deal directly with the question of life are to be found in the book of Genesis and all these define life in terms of ‘breath’, including the story of Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:& wherein God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”.
Now if ‘breath’ is key point then life does not begin, scripturally speaking, until birth, although at various times Christianity has taken other views ranging from Aquinas’ view, which has been interpreted in a number of ways leading to views ranging from 2-3 weeks after conception to the period of ‘the quickening’ referred to by the US Supreme Court. Another scriptural view equates the soul with the presence of blood – the latter does not develop in the foetus until around 13 days after conception.
The ‘life begins at conception’ view is far from being a biblical certainty and appears to be based primarily on a very literal view of the sixth commandment (‘thou shalt not kill’) and several passages which suggest that ‘god’ knew certain individuals ‘by name’ while not only in the womb but actually before conception, as in this case:
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:30-31 KJV)
But then if god is omniscient, surely he’d know or that regardless of when life actually begins, because he knows everything anyway. so it actually proves nothing at all about when life begins. This is just one more interpretation amongst many that have favour at different times in which case one cannot say definitively what the Bible ‘teaches’ about when life begins, one can only say that the Bible is interpreted in a particular way at a given time by those who read it and if the Bible is open to interpretation then its supposed ‘view’ on abortion is not as absolute as the Christian Institute suggests.
So, logically speaking, Google is entirely correct in its assertion that the Christian Institute does not provide factual information about abortion because it cannot even state, definitive, what the factual position of the Bible on abortion actually is, it can only offer an interpretation and interpretations are, of course, matters of opinion and not fact.
So, in reality, the position of the Christian Institute on abortion is, perhaps, best summed up by this last piece of video footage.