Tag Archives: abortion

Freedom of speech and the right to protest

People are screaming “censorship!” today again after a student debate was cancelled. The ridiculously named Oxford Students for Life attempted to stage a debate about abortion, with Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley arguing against and fellow Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill arguing for. It didn’t happen after a horde of students threatened to disrupt the debate with (presumably musical rather than gynaecological) “instruments”.

Cue manufactured outrage, with Brendan O’Neill’s article on the topic making the front page of this week’s Spectator. But what’s really going on here? Who has been silenced? Not the well paid journalists, and certainly not Brendan O’Neill who has managed to make a quick buck out of it. Not the Oxford Students for Life, who are now being discussed up and down the country. Not the feminists who protested against the debate, who have also received a media platform from which to air their views.

It is clear that the debate was calculated to offend. That’s what you do when you put Brendan O’Neill on stage, who if you don’t know is a sort of Katie Hopkins for dullards – especially when you invite the notorious misogynist to speak in favour of abortion. They might have wanted the debate to go ahead, but you can bet they wanted people to be making a noise about it. For O’Neill, this is his meat and drink, and he’s managed to churn out another lazy article drawing huge generalised conclusions out of a single incident.

What we’re actually looking at is a well functioning, democratic discourse. Something to be celebrated. Paradoxically however, the only way this discourse is maintained is by everyone running around insisting that important democratic principles have been chucked in the gutter. Let’s assume for a minute that no-one had been offended about anything in this incident. The debate would have happened, listened to by a desultory bunch of spotty Herberts, and it would never have entered the public imagination. A couple of well paid men in suits would have got to play a game for 60 minutes, that’s all. It’s bizarre that O’Neill and the Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman think that freedom of speech is really that dismal, and disregard everything else that has happened over the past couple of days as just noise. But then, this is by no means the first time that I’ve seen journalists imply that freedom of speech is a thing only to be valued when it comes to the views of professional journalists.

It is very lazy indeed, not to mention potentially dangerous, to equate protest – especially disruptive, effective protest – with state censorship. It leads you down the dangerous path, which governments are quick to encourage, that protest should be silenced. The next step is that the only people who’s views are allowed to enter the public realm are those well paid men in suits, while the noisy, dirty – and yes, sometimes idiotic – masses get their heads bashed in.

If you genuinely believe in freedom of expression, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tolerate the fact that it works both ways. And sometimes it even inconveniences privileged men.

Aborting common sense

Three examples of the zaniness of anti-abortion campaigners:

First of all, there was the curious case of the abortion doughnuts. I have to admit that when I first heard about “abortion doughnuts” my first thought was that Krispy Kreme had started putting marshmallow foetuses in the jam. However, the reality turns out to be much more prosaic. What happened was that Krispy Kreme issued the following press statement in advance of Barack Obama’s inauguration (emphasis mine):

“Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American’s sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies — just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet ‘free’ can be.”

The reaction of the American Life League was, well, over the top to say the least:

“Celebrating his inauguration with ‘Freedom of Choice’ doughnuts – only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion – is not only extremely tacky, it’s disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy.

“A misconstrued concept of ‘choice’ has killed over 50 million preborn children since Jan. 22, 1973. Does Krispy Kreme really want their free doughnuts to celebrate this ‘freedom.’

“As of Thursday morning, communications director Brian Little could not be reached for comment. We challenge Krispy Kreme doughnuts to reaffirm their commitment to true freedom – to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and to separate themselves and their doughnuts from our great American shame.”

Hat tip: Zoe Margolis, Miami New Times.

However, anti-choice reactionary zeal isn’t limited to the USA sadly. You might think that the Editor of the Catholic Herald would welcome the move by an MP to attempt to outlaw discrimination against Catholics, as Evan Harris is attempting to do. You would be wrong. Indeed, Damian Thompson would like to tell Dr Harris exactly where he can shove his bill:

You know something? Catholics don’t want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the “procedure” can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me… Let’s leave the constitutional bar in place for just a bit longer, shall we? It’s mildly offensive, but Catholics have more important things to worry about. Such as saving late-term unborn babies from the grisly fate that Dr Harris is happy to see inflicted on them.

Hat tip: New Humanist.

And finally, there is this video, which Iain Dale believes “even the most ardent pro-choicers will find some difficulty in countering.”

You know what, Iain? I might take that challenge. It would be tempting to respond with “when’s the Hitler version coming out?” but that would be to miss the point. The weakness of this argument is that it is essentially rooted in the unknowable. What is being argued is that Obama is a good man; Obama would not exist if his foetus had been aborted; therefore abortion is bad. But that argument is entirely contingent on Obama being not merely good, but the best president possible in all possible worlds. I’m all for saying nice things about him, but that is going a little too far Dr Pangloss.

If we’re going to talk about potentiality, let’s at least have an honest discussion and recognise that potentiality lies in everything not just in the decision whether or not to abort a foetus. The decision of a sixteen year old to have an abortion could lead directly to her completing a medical degree and discovering the cure for cancer. The decision of a woman to have an abortion could lead directly to her eventually raising a child in a more protective and loving environment, who subsequently goes on to build a fusion reactor which ushers in a new era of prosperity. And who knows what might have happened if Obama’s mother had aborted the foetus from which he grew? Her decision might have lead to the first black woman president being inaugurated this week – a woman who within her first 100 days solved the Middle East Crisis, global warming and the economic downturn in quick succession.

Sound silly? Maybe, but under the right set of circumstances all of these hypotheses are possible. And the fact is there are literally millions of people out there whose lives would have not happened or would be substantially worse if their mothers hadn’t had an abortion. Are we to automatically assume that these people’s lives are worth less than the foetuses they have benefited from the destruction of?

That isn’t to make the claim that because of this, abortion is good – that would be an equally fallacious argument. It is however to say that the value of a specific abortion or lack thereof is essentially unknowable both at the time when the decision is made and subsequently. We simply do not know what we do not know. Spending time worrying about what might have been is a shortcut to madness.

Due to the fact that we live in a vastly complex (read: beautiful, wonderful) universe, every time one possibility is closed off an infinite number of other possibilities arise. It doesn’t just apply to the few things that the Pope does or does not approve of. Indeed, CatholicVote give the lie to this by applauding Obama’s achievements despite being raised by a single mother – something that prurient Conservatives and Catholics spend the rest of the time assuring us will inevitably lead to children becoming drug crazed, gun toting thugs. Funny that.

I’m glad Barack Obama is alive but it is a simple fact to observe that if he had never lived, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have known him to care.

Can Cameron Lead the Conservatives (part 587)?

Stephen Tall has pointed me to this piece by John Rentoul on the Independent Blog:

David Cameron voted against the majority of Conservative MPs who took part in the division yesterday on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He was one of 37 Tories voting in favour; 49 voted against. The rest found something better to do.

This sounds awfully familiar. Indeed, the Embryology Bill is a fascinating case study of Cameron Non-Leadership in action.

First of all, there is the “they aren’t defying me if I make it a free vote” tactic. He did this earlier in the year when he allowed his MPs to back the Bill Cash amendment on the Lisbon Treaty. Of course, the argument against that is that the Embryology Bill comes under that catch-all of a “conscience issue”. He can probably get away with this as, aside from the apparent admission that political philosophy is completely useless when it comes to fundamental issues of principle such as the rights and wrongs of abortion, it is a view shared by politicians from across the political spectrum (while insisting that J.S. Mill & co DO have something instructive to say on, for example, the practicalities of recycling). It is hard to see how the Lisbon Treaty came under this category though. Or House of Lords Reform.

What is interesting with this Bill however, is that while Cameron supported the Bill overall, he has adopted a quite a reactionary view when it comes to the detail. Backing Mad Nad’s (I’d call her Dorries Karlof but that one’s taken) 20 Weeks amendment is particularly peculiar given the fact that her case has been pretty comprehensively quashed by the scientific evidence. 20 week fever appears to have gripped the Conservative Party. Alan Duncan was raving about it on Any Questions despite seeming unclear about what the current limit actually is (which rather suggests he hasn’t done the slightest bit of research into the subject). It has been dressed up as the safe, reasonable, responsible thing for right-minded Conservatives to do when in fact it is a blatant wedge strategy (apparently funded by the religious right, it emerges).

But the more tricksy one is this proposed amendment to the Bill regarding IVF to single women and lesbian couples. Andrew Lansley is proposing to reword the Bill’s requirement for “supportive parenting” thus: “the need for supportive parenting and a father or a male role model.”

On the surface this seems innocuous enough. Certainly a “male role model” is up there on my list of “desirable” things for a child to grow up with. Lansley was insistent that this wasn’t about excluding lesbian couples. It is certainly something worth exploring in committee. Would sticking a poster of David Beckham up on the side of the crib suffice, for instance?

And yet. And yet. While I think there is something in the argument that the current problems we face with youth gangs and violence on the streets is rooted in the lack of supportive parenting, what I’m not clear about is that it is somehow rooted in lesbians getting IVF treatment. Getting IVF is a much more stringent process than having a fumble in the back of a car, and no-one is proposing to change that. A tiny minority of women get IVF treatment. Of them, a minority of them are lesbians. Of them, a tiny minority of them are likely to end up in a gang. Just what are the Conservatives preventing here? Maybe one thug per decade being grown in a test tube?

Once again, this appears to be a “reasonable” amendment being supported by the Tory front bench which you only need to take a sideways glance at the attack dogs yapping at their sides to see the real agenda. Can you say “dog whistle”?

It all seems so tactical. I don’t know if Cameron is the liberal he claims to be or not and to an extent that is irrelevant. What I’m concerned about is how a Cameron government would behave in the face of a reactionary Conservative backbench of the kind we are likely to continue to see for decades to come. His approach since becoming leader has been to avoid confrontation where possible, and capitulate where not. In this respect he is very different from Tony Blair circa 1995. Blair loved to face down his detractors in the party; that’s why the “demon eyes” approach was so unconvincing. With Cameron, we really do seem to be getting a Tory wolf in woolly liberal’s clothing.

Anti-choice Tories attack freedom of information

You’ve got to laugh. Ben Goldacre writes:

In the case of this Minority Report on abortion, it’s a rollercoaster ride of pseudoscience and dubious data, signed by one Tory MP with the support of one other, and I highly recommend giving it a read. I’ve posted the PDF here, until it appears on the parliament website.

If you want a good example of how spectacularly weak the evidence behind this “Minority Report” is, then you need look no further than the bit where they talk about, er, well, me, bafflingly.

What Dorries and Spink are complaining about is that Goldacre used publicly accessible evidence to attack the credibility of vacillating “expert” Professor John Wyatt. In his Guardian column on Saturday. Parliament operating policies of openness and transparency? Outrageous!

Abortion – only liberalism has the answer

The New Scientist has an interesting article this week all about abortion, which seems to be back in the news in a big way today. You can’t read it all online unless you have a subscription, but the nub of it is:

Tellingly, the number of abortions fell almost exclusively in rich countries where terminating a pregnancy is both legal and safe. In poorer countries, where access to abortion is often restricted or illegal, there has been very little progress in reducing the number of abortions, says Shah.

In such countries, women are prepared to endanger their lives to terminate a pregnancy (see “By any means available”). In Africa, for example, where access to safe, legal abortions is almost non-existent, there were 29 abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age in 2003. In Europe, where abortion is widely available and legal (with the exception of Poland and Ireland), the rate was almost identical, at 28.

Even in eastern Europe, abortion rates have halved from 90 abortions per 1000 women in 1995*, to 44 per 1000 in 2003 – thanks almost entirely to the wider availability of effective contraceptives. “We now have a very powerful body of data from multiple countries showing a connection between the rise in contraception availability and a decline in abortions,” says Camp.

Bottom line: making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it, it just makes it more dangerous. If you want to reduce the abortion rate, encourage greater use of contraception. But of course the religious right don’t like that.

And if you want to reduce the number of late abortions, scrap the two referrals rule. But again, the religious right don’t like that either.

Ultimately, if your concern is reducing harm, this really is a no-brainer. If your agenda is ideological purity on the other hand…

* If you refer back to the original text, you will see that it says 2005, which makes no sense. However the study it is referring to compares the 1995 situation with 2003, so the meaning is clear.

Iain Dale: every sperm is sacred?

Iain Dale was clearly deliberately trying to cause a stink today with his post about abortions. The first question one must put to him is, what does it have to do with the country? How is it in any way our business to label these women as shameful? I would have thought that as a gay man, Iain would be a little more wary about moral pontification. He does appreciate that a large number of his allies in this debate want him to burn in Hell, doesn’t he?

Who are we to judge if the potential life of one foetus outweighs the quality of life of one woman? We could set up some kind of Orwellian evaluation procedure to calculate it scientifically, at great cost to the taxpayer and fraught with problems, or we could just leave it to her to make the decision. It does seem to me that the latter option is not just more liberal, but more pragmatic, unless we wish to see the return of the coat-hanger in modern gynecological standard practice.

At the heart of this debate is whether one considers a foetus to be a baby, and specifically at what point one considers a foetus to be a baby. This is important because, as Iain deliberately obscures but even the Daily Mail doesn’t, just one in twelve of these terminations was carried out after 13 weeks (less than 17,000) and just 136 were carried out after 24 weeks. Use the 13 weeks statistic and, even if you ignore the miscarriages (I don’t have the stats to hand for what point in pregnancy these took place – most I suspect were early in the cycle), that makes Iain’s scare statistic of 1-in-4 closer to 1-in-38. Use the 24 weeks statistic and it becomes around 1-in-4,700.

Should we consider a 12 week old foetus to be a baby? Where do you draw the line? At best it can be described as a potential human, but you could say the same about every sperm or ovum. It is not just infantile to call to every ball of cells that looks vaguely anthropomorphic human, it is degrading.

Those nice people at the CIA calculate the UK infant mortality rate to be 5.01 or every 1,000 live births (in 1911 the UK average was over 100). What is the greater tragedy? The 3,000+ infants who die each year, or the 136 abortions that take place after 24 weeks? Why is one shrugged aside as “just life”, while the other one “shameful”?

Of course it would be nice if there were fewer abortions, but how would we achieve that? Reduce poverty would have an impact, as would compulsory sex education and a far greater use of condoms and other forms of contraception. George Bush has considerately provided us with clear – and very expensive – evidence that abstinence education does not work. These would have a whole host of other knock on effects such as greater sexual health generally and reduced teenage pregnancies. If you are serious about reducing the abortion rate, really serious, then all of these would be at the top of your priority list. Otherwise, it is just so much moralistic posturing.