The Anti-Abortion Lobby’s Sham Parliamentary Inquiry

Britain’s small, thoroughly unrepresentative and unremittingly dishonest anti-abortion lobby has found a brand new toy to play with – the sham ‘Parliamentary inquiry’.

We’ve seen one of these already, Claire Perry’s so-called ‘independent Parliamentary inquiry into online child protection’, which at least had the courtesy use the word ‘independent’ to hint at the fact that it had no actual official status as a parliamentary inquiry. I took a look at the evidence base that underpinned Perry’s ‘findings’ – naturally – and, well, to call it risible would be to afford it far more praise than it deserves. It nevertheless received the uncritical press coverage that she’d been angling for despite several obvious red flags, not least the fact that printed report was sponsored by an evangelical Christian radio station, all of which journalists studiously ignored.

This time around, it’s the anti-abortion wing of the Tory Taliban, and a few fellow travellers, that’s decided to get in on the sham inquiry act, and in keeping with their long established practice they’re taking the level of dishonesty and misrepresentation involved to new heights, or more accurately, depths.

Take a good look at this “inquiry’s” homepage. You should notice, straight away, that the full title given to the page in your browser (not on the visible page itself) reads “Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disabilty”. Underneath the visible page title, which refers only to it being an ‘Inquiry’ you’ll see the words ‘UK Parliament Inquiry’ next to the site’s URL and, of course, on the right hand side of the page, Parliament’s official portcullis logo is prominently displayed underneath the words ‘UK Parliament’.


Anyone who’s not a bit of a politics geek could easily be forgiven for taking away the impression that this indeed the website of an official Parliamentary inquiry without necessarily wondering why it doesn’t appear at all in the official business of Parliament as listed on the official UK Parliament website. And that, of course, is the whole point of the site; to create a wholly unmerited and unjustified veneer of officialdom, one that is entirely at odds with this “inquiry’s” wholly unofficial status. It is not a Parliamentary Inquiry at all, it’s just desperately trying to look like one when, in reality, it’s nothing more than an ad hoc group of MPs and Peers with a predetermined agenda that they’d prefer the general public not to scrutinise too closely.

And, boy, are they about to be seriously disappointed.

But before getting into this properly I’d just like to invite you compare this website with that of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, which is currently holding an inquiry of its own.

What you should notice, immediately, is that this group makes no pretence whatsoever of being anything other than what is, a special interest group for MPs of all parties who’re interested in cycling. The homepage includes a clear explanation of what an All-Party group is, what it does and how it relates to the rest of the machinery of Parliament. Its inquiry page provides a very clear and detailed explanation of the background to and purpose of it’s current inquiry ‘Get Britain Cycling”, one that includes a clear statement of its terms of reference, aims and format, and you’ll note that it describes the format as a “select committee-style inquiry” – no passing off here.

Its not the most sophisticated website but it is nevertheless a good website because it’s clear, open and, above all, honest, a quality sadly lacking in the abortion and disability “inquiry” website.

Getting back to the Abortion and Disability ‘inquiry’ website, you’ll see that it consists of four main pages; a homepage, a page giving rather cursory details of the ‘inquiry’ and two pages which briefly explain:

a) the provisions in abortion law under which pregnancies can be terminated later than 24 weeks gestation where there is a substantial risk of child being born with a serious disability, and

b) the basic provisions of the Equality Act 2010 vis-a-vis discrimination on the grounds of disability.

This second page, which refers to equality and discrimination law is red herring. The Equality Act 2010 does not apply to a foetus, at all, because a foetus is NOT a person.

That’s not a philosophical position I’m taking, although I’m perfectly content to debate the question of personhood in those terms. Rather it is the current legal position in England and Wales; a foetus does not become a person in law until it’s born and up until that point it has no express rights in law although, notionally, one could make the argument that a foetus does possess the right not to be terminated before its born other than accordance with the terms set out in the Abortion Act 1967 and that’s it. End of story.

Any claim that current abortion law is ‘discriminatory’ because it allows a seriously disabled foetus to be terminated after the current 24 week gestational limit for abortion on other grounds has no legal standing whatsoever, but that’s precisely the dishonest and factually incorrect argument that this ‘inquiry’ is gearing up to make, even before its bothered with the messy business of taking any ‘evidence’ on the matter.

The other potentially contentious point that this ‘inquiry’ is seeking to bring into play is to be found on the abortion law page where it notes that:

“The law does not define these criteria and they are broadly interpreted.”

Which is perfectly true is so far as the law does not incorporate an exhaustive list of congenital and chromosomal abnormalities, and other conditions, which it views as giving rise to a disability of sufficient severity to justify a late-term abortion and for a very good reason; it would be nigh on impossible to generate such an exhaustive list, one which covers not only relatively common abnormalities, such as Down’s Syndrome and spina bifida, but also the many thousands of rare conditions that can arise, some of which are so rare that there are no more than handful of recorded cases worldwide.

If you look in the official abortion statistics produced annual by the Department of Health and Office for National Statistics, what you will see in table (, which provides the data for terminations carried out under Ground E (risk of serious disability), are a lot of ICD-10 codes – ICD-10 is the current international standard system for classifying diseases and related health problems.

Congenital and chromosomal abnormalities are classified with the letter ‘Q’ and there are 100 separate codes covering everything from minor developmental abnormalities that can readily corrected surgically to extremely serious conditions which are highly likely to result in severe disability and/or death.

Codes Q60-64 deal with malformations of the urinary system and, to give but one example, Q60 is the code for ‘renal agenesis and other reduction deficits of the kidney’ – in layman’s terms, the foetus’ kidneys failed to develop properly – which itself has eight separate sub codes (Q60.0 – Q60.7) covering everything from ‘no kidneys at all’ through to Potter Sequence, which tosses cranial abnormalities, clubbed feet and problems with lung development into the mix to go with the renal problems.

Now that is just the coding for congenital and chromosomal abnormalities but there are also other codes that come into play, which deal with everything from abnormalities caused by ‘maternal factors’ (health problems affecting the mother that result in developmental abnormalities) to abortions carried out due to there being a family history of heritable genetic disease and abnormalities arising from foetal contact with communicable diseases. In the most recent data (2011) there are three abortions coded as z20-z22, including one which took place after 24 weeks. The diseases covered by Z20-z22 include, amongst other things, Rubella (German Measles), Toxoplasmosis, Syphilis and HIV, none of which auger well for developing foetus.

So one key reason why the law does not define ‘seriously handicapped’, which is the term that actually appears in the Abortion Act is the sheer impracticality of defining that term is precise and exacting terms; that’s why it falls on doctors to interpret the Act in conjunction with their patients.

Right about now I feel that its time to put a few facts on the table.

Based on data from the Office for National Statistics for the five years from 2007 to 2011, inclusive, there have been, on average, just under 900,000 conceptions per year in England and Wales of which just over 192,000 a year ended in a termination. Of those, just over 2,100 a year were carried out on Ground E (risk of serious disability) and of those, an average of just 138 a year took place after 24 weeks gestation.

Late-term (i.e. post 24 weeks) abortions accounted, during this five year period, for just 6.5% of all abortions due to a serious risk of foetal abnormality disability, just 24 out of every 10,000 abortions in England and Wales and just 15 out every 100,000 conceptions. We are looking at a very small number of terminations each year, an average of just 138 per year over the last five years for which we have data.

To break that down further, what we have in the data is an average of just under 100 terminations after 24 weeks due to congenital abnormalities split 60:40 between abnormalities of the nervous system and other malformations. The ‘big ticket’ items here are spina bifida and abnormalities affecting the brain and the cardiovascular system (heart/lungs) which collective account for over 50% of late term abortions due to congenital abnormalities.

Chromosomal abnormalities, including Down’s, Edward’s and Patau’s syndrome account for approximately 28 post-24 week abortion a year leaving a balance of 11-12 a year which were carried out for other reasons, primarily reasons to do with problems arising from the mother’s state of health or because the foetus just failed to develop normally for reasons that cannot be adequately determined.

And as I’ve already mentioned, one of the abortions classified under other in 2011 occurred as a result of contact with a serious communicable disease, although exactly which one is not specified, and there are two other termination included in the figures that are is listed as having taken place under ‘Grounds A, B, F or G’ which collective cover serious and imminent risks to the life or health of the mother.

There is, in truth, not much on the list of conditions that resulted in post-24 week abortions that one could quibble with in terms of their amounting to serious disability but, in part because the data for 2011 gives a little more detail that previous years, there are couple of items that I fully expect this ‘inquiry’ to use – dishonestly – in an effort to provoke a controversy.

One is Down’s syndrome which is just about the most common and widely recognised of the main chromosomal abnormalities and the vast majority of people will be well aware of the fact that, today, many people who are born with Down’s syndrome go on to live healthy, happy and – to a considerable degree – independent and productive lives.

Many… but not all.

People with Down’s syndrome are as individual in their personalities, cognitive abilities, etc. as any other people and this, of course, means that are some who don’t go on to live happy, healthy independent lives because their cognitive impairments are just too severe to permit that to happen. Down’s syndrome is unpredictable, both in terms of the impact it will have on the person affected by it and in terms of the families which it affects, for all that we know that the risk of a baby being born with Down’s syndrome increases with the age of the mother, and while many families cope wonderful well, some are, for a variety of reasons, unable to take on or cope with the many emotional, financial and other stresses and strains that go with raising a child with Down’s syndrome.

Crucially, while Down’s syndrome can be readily diagnosed in the womb, what no doctor can predict with any significant degree of accuracy is the extent to which it will impact on the cognitive abilities/development of the child once its born. Doctors are doctors, not fortune tellers and each family that is given such a diagnosis has to consider that there is a risk that their child will be unlucky enough to one whose impairments will be particular severe and decide for itself whether it could cope adequately if that were indeed how things turn out.

For all that the public image of Down’s syndrome has improved immeasurably over the last 30 years, real life does not always conform to that image, not for every person with Down’s syndrome and not for every family who receives the news, following an amniocentesis test, that their child has Down’s syndrome. In taking a view on whether or not we consider Down’s syndrome to be a serious disability, one sufficient to justify an abortion later than 24 weeks gestation (if that is what a family chooses) we need to allow for the worst case scenario, not just the best, which is what I expect this ‘inquiry’ to peddle relentlessly in the hope of swaying public opinion in their favour.

The other item in the data that I expect this ‘inquiry’ to focus heavily on is covered by ICD codes Q35-Q37, which are the codes for cleft lip and/or palate. This has been a signature issue for the anti-abortion lobby since at least 2001, on the back of an unsuccessful case brought by a Church of England priest, Joanna Jepson, who had, herself, undergone reconstructive surgery to correct a congenital jaw defect. In 2011, a successful legal challenge mounted by the ‘Pro-Life Alliance’ finally forced the Department of Health to publish a detailed breakdown of the reasons for which late-term Ground E abortions had been carried out, a practice that had been discontinued in 2003 for conditions where there were less than 10 abortions carried out in a calendar year.

What the data for 2011 tells is that four abortions were carried out in 2011 that were coded as Q35-Q37, albeit all before 24 weeks gestation and with this data to play with, I fully expect the ‘inquiry’ make the biggest meal it can of the presence of these abortions in the data because, on its own, a cleft lip and/or palate is a very common abnormality which is found in, on average, around 1 in every 700 births and it’s also one that can be readily corrected via reconstructive surgery, albeit that there can be a sizeable risk of significant speech and hearing impairments associated with a cleft palate and with other craniofacial abnormalities.

So, on the whole, a cleft lip/palate is not on the whole a serious disability and yet there have been instances, in the past, where an abortion has been carried out after 24 weeks gestation due to the foetus having a cleft lip/palate leading to the claim that these abortions were carried out solely for ‘cosmetic reasons’ by parents who just couldn’t bring themselves to accept a child that was anything less that perfect.

That is the anti-abortion lobby’s line but it’s not the whole story by any means, so lets look quickly at what neither the anti-abortion lobby nor, I expect, this inquiry will tell anyone about the other factors that may influence some parent to choose to abort a foetus with a cleft lip/palate.

There are, in fact, quite a number of genetic conditions, which vary considerable considerable in terms of both prevalence and severity, for which a cleft lip or palate may be diagnostic if discovered in the womb. Some are extremely rare and give rise to serious disabilities, e.g. Malpuech Syndrome for which it was reported, in 1999, that there were only 12 recorded cases worldwide at the time.

Others are somewhat more common, such as Treacher Collins Syndrome, which is found in about 1 in 50,000 births – that’s a fairly low risk but not a negligible one. With an average of 900.000 conceptions and a little over 700,000 births a year in England and Wales, you’d expect to see 14-18 cases a year with a little over 1 in 7,000 cases of a cleft lip/palate. The presence of a cleft lip can be also indicate the possibility of Siderius X-linked mental retardation, one of number of X-linked genetic conditions which collectively account for around 16% of all cases of intellectual disability in males.

So, a cleft lip/palate is not always just a cleft lip/palate. In some, admittedly relatively rare, cases it can be an indication of a much more serious genetic condition for most such conditions there is currently no diagnostic test that one can use on a foetus – for some the cause has yet to be identified.

This is where legitimate questions of interpretation can arise when it comes to the text of the Abortion Act 1967. For an abortion to permissible within the law after 24 weeks, there must be a significant risk of a serious disability but what exactly is a ‘substantial risk’ and is this something that should be evaluated solely in terms of prevalence?

That’s how Hungarian law treats abortions on the grounds of a heritable genetic disorder; there are three different time limits for such abortions depending on the estimated level of risk such that the greater the risk, the later an abortion can be performed.

However, another way of looking at this question of what amounts to a substantial risk is to take into account the potential severity of the condition and, in effect, cut people a bit more slack on the question of prevalence if the degree of disability that might result for a particular condition is extremely serious?

Now, I’m not going to advocate one view over another here. Rather the point I’m driving at is that the vast majority of people, including an awful lot of doctors, are really not very good at evaluating risk, particularly when it comes to low incidence, high impact events. For example, if you live in the United States, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are around 1 in 100, while the odds of dying in plane crash are 1 in 20,000 and yet millions of people get into their cars every day and feel perfectly safe while some of these same people find it almost impossible to board a plane without first taking some sort of tranquillizer.

By the same token, an honest and ethical doctor faced with the task of informing a pregnant woman that her unborn child has been found to have a cleft lip/palate is duty bound not only to point out that this can be corrected, cosmetically, but all that the child may be at risk of significant hearing loss and, in rare cases, that their outward deformity could indicate the presence of a much more serious genetic condition, one that cannot currently be tested for.

How will a pregnant woman react to that news? Some will find the news that a cleft lip/palate can be easily dealt surgically to be extremely reassuring both others will have their attention captured by the news that it could be a sign of a more serious problem and imagine that the worst case scenario will likely happen to them, leading them to think that this is a substantial risk.

The presumption made by the anti-abortion lobby some women choose to abort a foetus with a cleft lip/palate for purely cosmetic reasons in not necessarily valid. It’s just not that simple a matter once you understand that a cleft lip is not always just a cosmetic issue.

Ultimately what this boils down to is a simple question, who is best placed to decide what is and isn’t a substantial risk and a serious disability, a doctor, working with the facts of an individual case, or a politician who would probably struggle to explain the difference between their rectum and their humerus.

Okay, so by now you may well be thinking that this is all very interesting but where’s the actual proof that this ‘inquiry’ is going to turn out to be a complete and utter sham?

Well, the answer to that is to be found on the fourth page of this website in the ‘inquiries’ list of members and we’ll start with the Chair, Fiona Bruce, and allow her to introduce herself:

It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I am the vice-chair of the all-party pro-life group. My colleague, Jim Dobbin, would have been present but was detained on constituency business.

So we’re already off to a flying start here and if we look at the contents of Parliament’s Register of All-Party groups what we find is that are at least two more members of this ‘inquiry’ that are also currently officers of this same all-party group; John Pugh (LD) and Baroness Masham of Ilton (LD).

By no great coincidence, both Pugh and Baroness Masham are Roman Catholics.

Pugh is a former religious studies teacher and Head of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the independent Merchant Taylors’ School, Crosby with a doctorate in Philosophy from St Cuthbert’s Society, Durham University and doesn’t,as a general rule, appear to use the title Dr. very much, so one has to wonder whether his billing as ‘Dr John Pugh’ for this ‘inquiry’ is yet another piece of subtle misrepresentation as this could easily be mistakenly interpreted as suggesting that he might be a Doctor of Medicine.

Pugh’s past form on abortion and related issued includes voting for a 12 week abortion limit in 2008 and against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in its entirety at its third reading in the House of Commons.

As for Baroness Masham of Ilton, aka Susan Susan Cunliffe-Lister, aka the Dowager Countess of Swinton, she’s a crossbench peer and a prominent Roman Catholic convert and a patron of the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, a Catholic theological college based in Cambridge.

Masham has plenty of previous form on abortion including attempts, in 2007 and 2008, to introduce amendments designed to prevent Ground E abortions being carried out after 24 weeks gestation.

The four other Conservative MPs involved in this ‘inquiry’ are all, like Bruce, from the 2010 intake – all the better to conceal any pre-existing views on abortion – but two of them, Paul Maynard and Robert Buckland did vote in favour Nadine Dorries’ failed attempt to shaft BPAS and Marie Stopes International by excluding them from the provision of pre-abortion counselling.

Maynard is yet another Roman Catholic while Buckland is a member of the Church of England. Fiona Bruce, is, by the way, an evangelical Christian

Stewart Andrew also bills himself as a Christian (denomination unspecified) and bit of political switch-hitter, having stood unsuccessfully for the Conservatives in Wrexham in 1997 before quitting to join the Labour Party in 1998, for whom he became a local councillor. Two years later, after losing his council seat, he moved to Leeds and rejoined the Tories, becoming a city councillor before being elected MP for Pudsey in 2010.

Andrew is gay, a patron of LGBTory and, citing his Welsh origins,  pulled off a nice line in ‘only gay in the village’ gags during the recent debate on same-sex marriage, which he supported, but as far as his views on abortion are concerned, the only thing on record is a self-professed support for a reduction in the upper limit to 22 weeks, which – not uncoincidentally – was the option added to the 2008 debate on abortion limits by one of David Cameron’s parliamentary minders in order to allow Cameron to publicly put a bit of distance between himself and Nadine Dorries’s 20 weeks amendment, even if Cameron did slip quietly into the Yes lobby on Dorries’ amendment as well.

Whether Andrew has any strong views on abortion beyond whatever he thinks will best help him up the greasy poll is, on this evidence, anyone’s guess.

That leaves Paul Uppal as the only Tory MP to have publicly backed the current 24 week upper limit.

In addition to the five Tory MPs and John Pugh, from the Lib Dems, there are two Labour MPs, Virendra Sharma and Rob Flello, and David Simpson, a Free Presbytarian and member of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Do I even need to bother researching Simpson? Okay then, if you insist.

For the record, Simpson voted for a 12 week abortion limit in 2008 and backed Nadine Dorries’ effort to shaft BPAS/MSI. He also signed the Coalition for Marriage Petition against same-sex marriage and has signed up to several Early Day Motions in support of homeopathy. Last and in many respects least, Simpson has also been identified by the British Centre for Science Education as one of several DUP MPs who’ve been trying sneak the teaching of creationism into schools in Northern Ireland.

Is that enough?

Getting back to the Labour MPs, Sharma, despite being vice-chair of the ‘inquiry’ is a bit of mystery having developed a something of a knack of not showing up to any abortion-related votes since he was elected to the House of Commons in 2007. He did, however, vote in favour of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008 at its third reading.

Sharma’s personal biography does show that he once worked as a day services manager at a centre for people with learning disabilities, which seems to have been enough for the Daily Telegraph as one of the ‘experts on the panel’ in its coverage of the launch of this ‘inquiry’.

As for Robert Flello, the other Labour Party MP involved, he’s another Roman Catholic and he voted for Nadine Dorries’ shaft the BPAS bill and against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in its entirety.

By my reckoning that lease us with just four remaining members of this ‘inquiry’ to deal with, all of whom are members of the House of Lords.

Two of these are Conservatives; Baroness Knight of Collingtree and Lord McColl of Dulwich, and together I think their presence provides for a near perfect summation of the sham nature of this ‘inquiry’.

Baroness Knight is probably better known as Jill Knight, former Conservative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, and she has the singular distinction of having been in politics for long enough to have voted against the legalisation of abortion way back in 1967. Knight is also, infamously, one of the two Conservative MPs who were responsible for introducing the notorious Section 28 amendment to the Local Government Act 1988, which sought to prevent local authorities ‘promoting’ homosexuality.

Lord McColl of Dulwich does at least bring a clinical background as a retired Professor of Surgery to the table but what’s most interesting here is the stuff that you won’t find in his official Tory Party biography, not least his favourite anecdote, which he’s trotted out at least twice in the House of Lords during debates on assisted dying:

Some noble Lords have a rather touching faith in the ability of the conscience clause in the Bill to protect healthcare workers if they do not wish to take part in euthanasia. When I read that conscience clause I was sure that I had seen it somewhere before. Sure enough, there it was, with the identical wording, in the Abortion Act 1967, which states that,

“no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate”.

Have noble Lords forgotten about the two professors of obstetrics whose lives were made a living hell in the 1970s? Exactly what had they done to deserve such a fate? All they had done was to insist on living within the law.

The Abortion Act 1967 permitted abortion under certain well defined conditions hedged about by all sorts of precautions. It did not allow abortion on demand and because the two professors would not agree to that, because they would not break the law they were hounded by the all-too common baying hordes of the so-called politically correct, as the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, has already mentioned. Not only were their lives made a living hell but hundreds of other doctors, nurses and healthcare workers were discriminated against when they applied for jobs. Denied employment they had no real alternative but to emigrate. The same would happen all over again, and it has already happened in Holland where a doctor was recently reprimanded for not carrying out euthanasia.

Hansard – 6 June 2003

It is no comfort to point to the conscience clause. At best, it will be divisive and, at worst, it will be ineffective in protecting would-be physicians who will probably opt out of geriatric care, just as those who rely on a similar clause in the Abortion Act have opted out of gynaecology. The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, speculated about the questions that would be asked of somebody applying for a job. How right he is; that is exactly what happened over the Abortion Act. The question that was asked of would-be obstetricians and gynaecologists by interviewing committees was whether the candidates would be prepared to take their share of abortions. If they said “Yes”, they were considered for the appointment; but if they said, “Yes, I will act within the law”, they would be excluded. Hundreds of midwives and obstetricians had to emigrate because they were discriminated against in that way.

Hansard – 10 October 2005

Despite my best efforts to check the veracity of McColl’s claims we are, unfortunately, looking at events which allegedly took place in the 1970s, so online sources are very thin on the ground.

However, there are a couple of things that can, perhaps be commented on here. In regards to the two Obstetrics Professors whose lives were allegedly made a living hell in the 1970s, I think the key phrase there is the reference to their having insisted on ‘living within the law’. This rather seems to suggest that ran into problems after they chose to interpret the terms of the Abortion Act along much the same narrow and wholly spurious lines as that put forward by Peter Saunders when trying to argue that 98% of abortions currently carried out in the UK are illegal.

As for the claim that hundreds of midwives and obstetricians had to emigrate because of their personal opposition to abortion, well there I suspect we’re looking at a bit of revisionist history. We are talking about events that allegedly took place towards the end of Australia’s ‘Ten Pound Poms‘ period and even after that countries like Australia and New Zealand continued to offer preferential treatment to skilled workers from the UK in order to plug gaps in the own, rapidly growing, labour market. Doctors, nurses and other trained medical staff were very much in demand at the time, but then so too were teachers, tool-setters and other skilled machinists, many of whom also emigrated down under during that same period in the hope of a better life far away from Britain’s rapidly crumbling economy with its strikes, three-day weeks, crippling inflation and rising unemployment.

I think McColl’s claim is, at best, highly dubious and at worst a piece of outright bullshit anti-abortion propaganda, and in view of some of the other bits of background information I’ve managed to dig up on McColl, I’m rather more inclined towards the latter.

If, for example, we head all the way back to October 1990, we find that McColl also has previous form for seeking to prevent late-term Ground E abortions:

AN “11th hour, 59th minute” attempt to curb the worst excesses of the Embryo Bill was due to be debated late this week in the House of Lords.

The amendment, tabled by Catholic peer Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, Tory ex-nurse Baroness Cox, Labour former speaker Viscount Tonypandy and surgeon Lord McColl of Dulwich, sought to amend the clause in the Embryo Bill which would allow abortion up to birth in some circumstances, by requiring doctors who perform late terminations to “take reasonable steps” to ensure that the child is born alive.

And, ten months earlier, McColl also had some interesting things to say on the subject of late-term abortions:

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, during the debate on the embryology legislation last week I found myself very much in agreement with my noble friend Lord Caldecote. In particular I agreed with him that the back street abortion era was a great evil. That situation was improved by the Abortion Act 1967. That Act permits the lesser of two evils. I shall never forget seeing the tragic suffering of so many young women as a result of the sordid back street abortion system of the 1950s and 1960s.

I sense a feeling in the House that those who oppose abortion are all members of some strange, inhuman sect. However, I wish to point out that the doctors and nurses who have to carry out abortions find the whole thing repugnant, whether or not they hold any religious views. They find themselves caught in a trap, especially with those women who are more than 18 weeks pregnant. Those are the women in greatest need. They are often terrified, not very bright and socially deprived. What is more, if the pregnancy continues, we know that half of the resulting children will be dead within two years. Many of them will be battered to death. That is the dilemma that faces the caring, thoughtful people who work in the National Health Service.

No, this is not a early version of the Jeremy Kyle Show.

Moving on, McColl’s biographical entry on the website offers up another small nugget of interesting background information:

Party groups

Member, governing council, Conservative Christian Fellowship

Well, there is a surprise, but then a trip over to Sourcewatch offers up some even more illuminating information and an object lesson in image manipulation and astroturfing:

Lord McColl of Dulwich is a conservative peer in the House of Lords. He is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. He is a patron of the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy.

Ah yes, the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy whose partner organisation include the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Medical Fellowship, Christian Institute and CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), not that you’ll find any mention of that on its current website, where its been rebranded as ‘Biocentre’ and carefully scrubbed of any obvious signs of its links to evangelical Christian organisations.

Other things you won’t find on its current website are:

– any reference to its previous identity as the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy,

– any mention of the involvement of known anti-abortion activists in its advisory board or executive committee such as Lord (David) Alton, Josephine Quintaville and Peter Saunders.

Unfortunately, for those involved in this carefully contrived brand sanitation exercise, we can actually follow their efforts to conceal their past via the magic of the Wayback Machine, which shows that in September 2005, they were all to keen to let the world know about their ‘Judeo-Christian values’:

The CBPP exists to make a difference in bioethics and national life by promoting clear ethical thinking, based on Judeo-Christian values.

The Centre was established in 1991 as a response to public concern over new bioethics challenges. A group of doctors, ethicists and lawyers were convinced that there was a crucial need to develop a clear ethical framework for the latest technological developments in medicine, science and technology.

By February 2006, their Judeo-Christian Values are still on display, albeit a little less prominently that previously:

The CBPP exists to make a difference in bioethics and national life by promoting clear ethical thinking.

The Centre was established in 1991 as a response to public concern over new bioethics challenges. A group of doctors, ethicists and lawyers were convinced that there was a crucial need to develop a clear ethical framework, based on Judeo-Christian values, for the latest technological developments in medicine, science and technology.

However, by the following November, the re-branding has begun in earnest with top billing being given to the new name ‘Biocentre’, and all references to the organisation basing on its work on Judeo-Christian values have been quietly dropped:

Welcome to BioCentre, the Centre for Bioethics & Public Policy.

BioCentre was originally established in 1984 in response to public concern over fresh challenges to ethics and policy posed by emerging technologies. It was therefore one of the earlier centres active in the world of bioethics and biopolicy, and its first public event was a major conference convened to address the Warnock Report (which became the basis for UK policy on in vitro fertilisation and embryo research)shortly after its publication. The centre drew together doctors, ethicists, lawyers, nurses, researchers and others across disciplinary and professional lines, with a common concern that in welcoming new developments in technology we also assert the dignity of the individual and the uniqueness of human nature.

By February 2007, the old Index page has been replaced by  a rolling news page and we’re down to the minimal amount of information contained in its page branding for any clues as to the organisation’s background and origins:


After this, we’ve got a bit of a gap in the archives from August 2007, the last date on which the site was archived with the branding introduced in February 2007 in situ, all the way through to December 2008, by which time the sanitisation is complete, the name ‘Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy’ has disappeared entirely and we finally have a brand new ‘About Us’ page which the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian values’ is noticeable only for its complete absence:

BioCentre was originally established in 1984 in response to public concern over fresh challenges to ethics and policy posed by emerging technologies. It was therefore one of the earlier centres active in the world of bioethics and biopolicy, and its first public event was a major conference convened to address the Warnock Report (which became the basis for UK policy on in vitro fertilisation and embryo research) shortly after its publication. The centre drew together doctors, ethicists, lawyers, nurses, researchers and others across disciplinary and professional lines, with a common concern that in welcoming new developments in technology we also assert the dignity of the individual and the uniqueness of human nature.

The other slightly odd thing you might well notice here is that ‘Biocentre’ – the new, carefully sanitised, iteration of the old Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy – appears to have miraculous started work and held a major conference on the 1984 Warnock report seven years before the old Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy even existed.

As it happens, the earliest event listed on the current website is a 2003 conference on cloning and biotechnology and this event also appears on the oldest archived CBPP previous events page I can find, from November 2004. This same archived page also shows an earlier event, which took place in November 2002, which didn;t make it to the new site – let’s see if you can work out why?


Well, that would rather give the game away, wouldn’t it?

This was all, of course, going on at much the same time that Perter Saunders was busily touting his wedge strategy presentation around various evangelical Christian organisations, one that makes it clear that their ultimate objective is a total ban on abortions in any circumstances, including foetal abnormality, rape and even where the life of the mother is at serious risk but that, for purely strategic reasons, they would be seeking to push through a range of incremental restrictions on access to abortion.



I think it fair to say that the re-branding and sanitisation of the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy is part of this overall strategy, which is driven by a clear recognition that religious arguments against abortion command very little public support in the UK, as, indeed, is this current sham ‘inquiry’.

Okay, just two more peers to go, one of which is Baroness Sheila Hollins of Wimbledon who, like McColl, brings some very impressive clinical credential to the table, particularly in the field of learning disabilities. Hollins is a former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the current President of the British Medical Association…

…and yet another Roman Catholic – if you’ve already lost count that’s five out of fourteen ‘inquiry’ members – in fact, in 2010, the Catholic magazine ‘The Tablet’ ranked Hollins and her daughter, Abigail Witchalls, in 81st place in their list of the UK’s 100 most influential lay Catholics. This was however, only three place above the-then England manager, Fabio Capello, so maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.

In any case, Hollins appear to be impossible to pin down in terms of any general position on abortion but, from the transcript of the first evidence session, she is evidently taking a particularly active role in this ‘inquiry’, which may be something that members of the BMA might like to question given that she is quite clearly lending her considerable professional credentials to such an obvious sham.

Oh, and I should mention that one of the witnesses in this first evidence session, Lynn Murray, is a member of the Edinburgh branch of SPUC, another little detail that a genuine inquiry would be sure to disclose by way of requiring witnesses to make a declaration of interests.

And that (Phew!!!) leaves us with the sole Lib Dem peer, Baroness Benjamin of the Square Window, err… sorry, Beckenham, who is far better known as the actress and children’s TV presenter Floella Benjamin.

Floella is the only member of this ‘inquiry’ without either an obvious religious affiliation or discernible track record on abortion, although she has done Jesus Christ Superstar on the stage and there’s some peripheral chatter about her having narrated a few Christian audiotapes and videos aimed at children, both of which could easily nothing more than paying gigs. So nothing much to report other than a couple of slightly worrying appearances in the House of Lord which rather suggest that years of holding conversations with a couple of threadbare Teddy bears and a rag doll have not done much to sharpen her critical faculties.

Here she is, for example, tossing a zombie statistic into a debate on an obscure European directive on audio visual media services:

Baroness Benjamin (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, in a recent survey, 20 per cent of eight year-olds said that they had seen nudity online. Is my noble friend the Minister aware that on the most popular websites, children are exposed to advertising of an adult nature and are invited to explore links to very explicit websites? If so, will the Government consider encouraging Ofcom to take further measures to protect children and young people from being targeted in this way by putting in place simple practical steps so that online media owners can take action to prevent clear-cut examples of inappropriate content appearing in places where children are likely to see them?

If anyone can actually find a survey from 2010-11 that contains that statistic then please do let me know because I certainly can’t find the damn thing unless one of these ‘most popular websites’ is perhaps a reference to the Daily Mail.

Benjamin is also, so far as I can tell, the only Parliamentarian to have name checked Aric Sigman in the House – in a debate on child development – of whom Ben Goldacre has had some choice things to say, particularly in regards to the practice of  cherry-picking.

Okay, so that a wrap on the background to this ‘inquiry’ and I think you can clearly see why I’ve labelled it a sham. It’s not just because of the fairly blatant attempt that’s been made to make it look like a genuine Parliamentary Inquiry but also because of its members’ extensive and, in many cases, very well documented links back to the anti-abortion lobby.

I think that covers everything for now.

3 thoughts on “The Anti-Abortion Lobby’s Sham Parliamentary Inquiry

  1. Unity – not sure if I’ve said this before (I’ve certainly meant to) but – thank you for your ongoing work and attention to this cold war against womens reproductive rights, it is much appreciated, especially the citing of sources. Keep it up…

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