Key errors of crusade against abortion

Tue, Dec 4, 2012, 00:00

Here are five key statements repeatedly made by anti-abortion campaigners. Every one of them is factually wrong:

1. Ireland is the safest place in the world for a mother to have a baby.

This claim is repeated endlessly – for the very good reason that, if true, it would be powerfully persuasive. There are, however, two enormous problems with it. Firstly, the figures on which it is based are extremely dubious. They come from a 2005 report, Maternal Mortality in 2005 estimates developed by WHO, Unicef, UNFPA and the World Bank. It does indeed show Ireland with the lowest rate of maternal death in the world at just one per 100,000 live births. This is a spectacularly good result – the average in the developed world is nine per 100,000.

The figure in Ireland’s case represents the number of deaths recorded on death certificates as having occurred during or immediately after a pregnancy. No independent expert believes these figures to be accurate. The whole basis on which they are collected is currently being changed – the new, more accurate results should be available next year. The chair of an all-island multidisciplinary working group established in 2007 to review the issue, Dr Michael O’Hare of Daisy Hill hospital in Newry, told the Medical Independent in 2010: “We believe that the situation is not as rosy as it would appear to be. In fact, we are certain that it is not as rosy.” Instead of one death per 100,000 births, the true figure is likely to be about 10, making Ireland roughly typical of developed countries.

The second big problem with the claim is that it is used to imply Ireland is spectacularly safe “without abortion”. But, of course, Irish women in difficulties get abortions – the only difference is that they usually get them in the UK.

2. There is a significantly increased risk of suicide among women who have had abortions.

This claim is especially relevant because the risk of maternal suicide is an established ground for abortion under the X case. It is groundless. Last year, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in the UK commissioned a systematic study of global scientific evidence on this question. It found: “The rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth.”

3. There is a clear distinction between abortion and the “indirect and unintentional” killing of a foetus as part of a procedure to save a mother’s life.

This distinction is theological. It goes back to St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote 800 years ago about the “double effect” of certain actions. Catholics argue that if a doctor had aborted Savita Halappanavar’s baby, he or she would not have “intended” to do so because the intention of the action was purely to save Savita’s life.

People are perfectly entitled to such religious beliefs but they make little sense in either medicine or law. In those fields, which are the only relevant ones, people are assumed to be responsible for all the foreseeable consequences of their actions, direct and indirect. Those consequences may well be justified but the idea that they are irrelevant accidents is sophistry that cannot be put into law. It is noteworthy that the Medical Council guidelines initially included a “direct and intentional” clause but dropped it in 2009, presumably recognising that it is not a scientific medical concept.

4. Opposition to abortion legislation is “in keeping with the wishes of the public”.

This claim is based on a single poll conducted by Milward Brown for the Pro-Life Campaign in 2010. It found 67 per cent support for “constitutional protection for the unborn that prohibits abortion”. But the question was highly qualified by the addition of the phrase “but allows the continuation of the existing practice of intervention to save a mother’s life in accordance with Irish medical ethics”.

This states an opinion as fact – the whole point of the argument is whether existing practice actually does save the mother’s life. A succession of other polls has found that a clear majority favours the legalisation of abortion in certain circumstances. More importantly, two referendums to roll back the X case judgment have failed.

In both cases, voters were explicitly told that if they did not support these proposals the government would legislate for abortion.

5. The European Court of Human Rights ruling in the ABC case does not require Ireland to legislate on abortion.

The ECHR held that there was no accessible and effective procedure to enable C to establish whether she qualified for a termination of pregnancy in accordance with Irish law, and that this is a breach of the convention by which Ireland is bound.

It found that the existing 1861 law is a “significant chilling factor for both women and doctors” in the implementation of a constitutional right. At the very least, Ireland is obliged to legislate to change the 1861 Act. Even statutory regulations would require enabling legislation. There is simply no basis for the claim that the ECHR ruling can be complied with without legislation of some kind.

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