Before getting down to business I should perhaps explain the overall purpose of this current series of posts.
I’ve been researching and documenting the dubious conduct of Nadine Dorries for quite some time, in fact a little over four years. Over that time I’ve accumulated rather a lot of information, much of which will be unfamiliar to those members of the Twitterati whose own acquaintance with Dorries stems largely from some of her more recent escapades. So, all things considered, now seems an opportune time to put together a compendium of posts detailing some of the worst and most ridiculous of Dorries’ online antics. Think of it as a bit of a ‘worst of…’ compilation if you like, although I see it more as a matter of bringing everyone up to speed with the back story behind Dorries’ unenviable position as, arguably, the most consistently loathed and idiotic MP in Britain.
With the preamble done and dusted for this post, its time to move on to one of Dorries’ most notorious attempts to bullshit her way out of trouble, the ‘Hand of Hope’ incident, which took place in March 2008.
Nadine Dorries and the ‘Hand of Hope’.
The original ‘Hand of Hope’ photo story is a well known and extensively documented online hoax which kicked off more than 10 years ago, so well known, in fact, that its covered on Wikipedia and has its own entry at Snopes.com.
The hoax stems from a photograph taken by a freelance photographer, Michael Clancy, during the course of a pioneering operation, performed by a surgical team at Vanderbilt University, Nashville. The patient was, at the time, a 21 week old foetus and the surgery, which aimed to correct a spina-bifida lesion was, for obvious reasons, carried out in-utero.
What isn’t in dispute is that during the operation, Clancy managed to capture this extremely evocative image.
What is very much a matter of dispute, is the sequence of events which led up to what you can see in the photograph.
On getting into the wilds of the internet, the photograph rapidly became a favourite amongst anti-abortion activists and was widely circulated by email with the claim that what the image shows is the foetus reaching out of its mother’s womb of its own volition to grasp the surgeon’s finger and a suitably maudlin – and entirely fictitious – quote attributed to the surgeon, Dr Joseph Bruner:
Dr. Bruner said “when his finger was grasped, it was the most emotional moment of his life.”
Michael Clancy, the photographer responsible for the photograph also got in the act, promoting much the same story but with a few embellishment of his own devising:
As a doctor asked me what speed of film I was using, out of the corner of my eye I saw the uterus shake, but no one’s hands were near it. It was shaking from within. Suddenly, an entire arm thrust out of the opening, then pulled back until just a little hand was showing. The doctor reached over and lifted the hand, which reacted and squeezed the doctor’s finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shook the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. I took the picture! Wow! It happened so fast that the nurse standing next to me asked, “What happened?”
“The child reached out,” I said.
“Oh. They do that all the time,” she responded.
It should be noted, at this point, that Clancy, who later claimed to have undergone a religious ‘conversion’ a matter of a few weeks before he took the image, derives an income both from selling prints of this image, and of other photographs taken during the operation, to gullible marks from his personal website and also gives talks to small town Christian/anti-abortion groups.
What Dorries posted to her blog in March 2008, shortly before the launch of her own ’20 reasons for 20 weeks’ anti-abortion campaign was this image plus the following description of its contents:
When the operation was over, baby Samuel, at 21 weeks gestation, put his hand through the incision in the uterus and grabbed hold of the surgeon’s finger, a gesture which was apparently met with a huge amount of emotion in the operating theatre.
Dr Bruner said that it was the most emotional moment of his life and that for a moment he was just frozen, totally immobile.
The following day, Ben Goldacre, posted a response which roundly debunked Dorries’s claims about the photograph:
In fact it seems this is a myth propagated over email and through fabulous Christian websites.
Dr Joseph Bruner – the surgeon himself – tells a rather different story.
“It has become an urban legend,” says Bruner, the Vanderbilt University surgeon who fixed the spina bifida lesion on Samuel.
Some opponents of abortion have claimed that the baby reached through the womb and grabbed the doctor’s hand.
Not true, Bruner says.
Samuel and his mother, Julie, were under anesthesia and could not move.
“The baby did not reach out,” Bruner says. “The baby was anesthetized. The baby was not aware of what was going on.”
[“Hand of a Fetus Touched the World.” USA Today. 2 May 2000 (p. D8)]
Dr. Joseph P. Bruner stated, “Depending on your political point of view, this is either Samuel Armas reaching out of the uterus and touching the finger of a fellow human, or it’s me pulling his hand out of the uterus … which is what I did.”
[ “Photo of fetal surgery still stirs emotion.” The Tennessean Newspaper January 9th, 2000]
And that might well have been the end of the matter had Dorries taken the sensible path by leaving the matter there – but she didn’t.
Ignoring the maxim that ‘if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’, Dorries posted her own response to Ben’s article in which she attempted [badly] to defend her preferred account of this image.
I’ve had an amazing response to the ‘Hand of Hope’ blog posted yesterday.
Of course, the pro-abortionist lobby have attempted to rubbish it and say it is a hoax, which it most definitely is not. Some of the pro-abortionists, who know that they can’t get away with calling it a hoax, are saying that the surgeon was operating on the hand, which didn’t reach out; and, that in fact the baby was anesthetised so reaching out would not have been possible.
Both the assertion that the foetus did not reach out and that it was anaesthetised during the operation come directly from the statements made by the surgeon, Dr Bruner, to USA Today, as noted earlier.
Two points from me: first is that if the experienced paediatrician operating on the 21 week old baby had anesthetised, then that fact endorses the Professor Anand position that a foetus can feel pain; otherwise why would this doctor, who operates on unborn babies all the time, bother?
I looked in some detail at the relevance of Anand’s views on foetal pain to the abortion debate back in October 2007 and it worth noting from that that his main recommendations on the use of foetal anaesthesia were made several years after this operation was conducted.
That said, we’re looking at an operation conducted under a general anaesthetic administered to the mother, who would likely have been given both an inhalational and an intravenous anaesthetic and the latter would, of course, have also served to anaesthetise the foetus. And, in any case, even if we set aside the issue of foetal pain, which is a considerably more complex matter than Dorries tries to suggest, by far the most obvious reasons for anaesthetising the foetus would have been for purpose of immobilising it during what a very delicate procedure to correct a spina bifida lesion.
Nothing in either the image or the operation itself necessarily supports the view of Professor Anand who’s work on foetal pain is, in any case, extremely speculative when it comes to question of what a foetus may or may not actually ‘feel’ and of no relevance whatsoever to the issue of abortion.
Getting back to Dorries…
My second point is look at the tear in the uterus. See how jiggered it is just above the hand; and yet the rest of the surgically incised openings are controlled and neat.
This is, in all likelihood, because the hand unexpectedly thrust out. It would be a poor surgeon who allowed the uterine tear to be so messy, and this is no ‘poor’ surgeon.
Dr Bruner’s skill as a surgeon is not in doubt but Dorries’ knowledge and understanding of surgical practice most certainly is and her comments on the ‘jiggered’ state of part of the incision shown in the photograph were directly address by Ben Goldacre:
My recollection, from assisting in many Caesarean deliveries in my earlier years, is that instead of making a big clean cut into the uterus (not a good idea for obvious reasons ie there’s a baby in there) you make repeated shallow superficial incisions into the uterus, between which you spread the tissues by hand with your fingers, until it eventually (and satisfyingly, surgery’s great fun) opens up.
Opening up the uterine wall is not the slightest bit like carving the Sunday roast and it would be a very poor surgeon indeed who set about the business of cutting through the muscle of uterine wall in the manner of Jason Voorhees.
Dorries’s ‘jiggered’ comment does, however, provide the origins of the semi-satirical reference to her having claimed that a foetus ‘punched’ its was out the womb. Dorries, of course, does not actually use the word ‘punched’ but rather ‘thrust’ and taken together with her description of the ‘jiggered’ state of part of the incision the clear implication is not that the foetus was capable of moving under its own steam but that it was also able to exert sufficient force, when thrusting its hand out the womb, to tear the edge of an incision in a muscle which, in other circumstances, is fully capable of propelling an 8 pound baby out of a 10cm diameter hole.
To say that Dorries claimed that the foetus ‘punched’ its way out of the womb is not, as she claims, a lie. Rather its a humourous exaggeration used for satirical purposes to emphasise the utterly preposterous nature of Dorries’ entire account of this event.
Faced with such an absurd claim, what else can one do other than subject it to ridicule.
Most retellings of the Dorries/Hand of Hope story focus entirely on Dorries’ account of this foetal re-enactment of the final scene of Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation of the Stephen King novel ‘Carrie’* but Dorries doesn’t actually stop there, and there is one further spurious claim put forward in a desperate attempt to support her preferred – but wholly untrue – version of events which merits consideration – and debunking, of course.
* This is, by the way, a much better analogy that the Alien chest-burster reference which sometime crops up in accounts of this story.
He is a surgeon, however, who is reported as saying the movement of the hand was ‘controlled’, that he was operating on the hand and the baby was anesthetised.
Why would he say that? The pro-choice and pro-life lobbies in America are far more vociferous, and unfortunately violent, than they are in the UK; and one can only guess his reasons.
The implication of this last statement is, of course, that Dr Bruner was somehow ‘got at’ and intimidated by supporters of one of the two contending ‘lobbies’ and as his version of events fails to support the account favoured by anti-abortion activists this can only mean that its was the violent pro-choicers who got to him.
This claim is one I personally investigated in some detail, not least because the rather eccentric working definition of ‘pro-choice violence’ favoured by some American anti-abortion groups which treats pretty much any violent act committed by someone known to support abortion rights as being allegedly ‘pro-choice’ violence regardless of the actual context in which the incident actually took place.
Back in the real world, there are relatively few documented incidents of violence or other criminal behaviour associated with pro-choice activism. If you search hard enough you’ll come across a few reports of petty vandalism and graffiti attacks on the offices of anti-abortion organisations and the occasional assault on an anti-abortion protester which, more often than not, occurred in heavily contested circumstances riddle with claims of provocation from both sides of the issue. Perhaps the most serious incident I’ve ever run across was a report of an incident in which a pro-choice activist allegedly produced a gun at a counter-demonstration against an anti-abortion protest/picket at an abortion clinic, which was then used to threaten a couple of anti-abortion activists. From memory, no one was actually injured during this incident and the perpetrator was quickly arrested and subsequently received a short jail sentence in return for his boneheaded efforts.
One cannot, of course, condone the use of violence in such situations but, by way of a complete contrast, the rap sheet of violent incidents that are directly attributable to the activities of US anti-abortion activists included, as of 2008:
- 7 murders,
- 17 attempted murders,
- 383 death threats,
- 153 cases of assault or battery,
- 3 kidnappings,
- 650+ ‘bioterror’ threats, most of which involved fake anthrax sent via the post,
- 41 bombings,
- 173 arsons,
- 91 attempted bombings or arsons,
- 619 bomb threats,
- 1630 incidents of trespassing,
- 1264 incidents of vandalism, and
- 100 ‘stink bomb attacks.
Arguably, given that the very definition of terrorism is a highly contentious and contested issue, one could regard the most extreme elements of the anti-abortion lobby as being amongst the most prolific sources of domestic terrorism in the United States.
Be that as it may, what this serves to illustrate is the outright dishonesty and absurdity of Dorries’ attempt to suggest that Dr Bruner has somehow been got at by pro-choice lobbyists in order to ensure that he gave an account of the events which took place during the operation which did not support the fictional account favoured by anti-abortion campaigners.
The ‘Hand of Hope’ incident is notorious not just for Dorries’ boneheaded attempt to bullshit her way out of trouble when it was pointed out that the whole thing was well-known hoax but because it provided a very clear and unequivocal example of Dorries promoting material sourced directly from the American religious right at a time when – as now – she was actively promoting an anti-abortion campaign which she [falsely] claimed was entirely independent of any established, religious, anti-abortion groups.
That claim was comprehensively destroyed shortly after that incident after it was revealed that her campaign website had been set up – and being run – by what was then ‘Christian Concern For Our Nation’ – yep, that’s me again – a relationship that was further confirmed in a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, shown later that same year, in which Dorries was shown working with CCFON’s Andrea Minichiello Williams on that same campaign.
Three years on from ‘The Hand of Hope’, Dorries is back with a new anti-abortion campaign and playing pretty much the same game as before, even if her fundamentalist buddies have made rather more of an effort to – unsuccessfully – cover over their tracks and so, the story itself is as relevant today as it was back in March 2008 as a part of an ongoing narrative which tells the story of a politician who’s first instincts are to resort to the most outrageous bullshit imaginable when confronted with unpalatable, well-evidenced, truths which contradict her own preferred version of events.
Or, as Harry G Frankfurt would have it…
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Next time out, we’ll look at the evidence that emerged from the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner’s investigation in to Dorries’ expenses claims and how this relates to her repeated claims, made over the last year or so, that she only published misleading information on her blog after being advised to conceal her whereabout by the Police. We’ll also go right back to very first occasion on which Dorries labelled someone a ‘stalker’ for reading her blog, name the individual in question, and show exactly how that fitted into a deliberate, if short-lived, smear campaign.
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