To the sceptical and uncommitted…

1:03 pm - May 16th 2008

by Unity    

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Over the last few days, both Matthew Sinclair and Chris Dillow have written ‘abortion debate’ posts from the standpoint of the sceptic/uncommitted, a perhaps usual looking position in a debate where taking sides can almost seem obligatory, but a respectable one nonetheless and one that should be addressed.

Chris is struggling a little with his instincts, noting both that there are secular arguments for placing some value on the life of a foetus but also, importantly, picking up on a socio-economic argument that veers, somewhat, towards a point raised in Steven D Leviitt’s famous/notorious ‘Freakonomics’ paper on crimes rates and abortion.

…a major motive for a woman to have an abortion is that she is not yet ready to be a parent. Having an abortion at 20, then, can be a way of clearing the ground so that she can be a good mother at 30. If this woman were banned from having an abortion at 20, the child she has at 30 might not be born at all – as she would feel unable to give it as much attention as she’d like.

Allowing abortion, therefore, helps ensure that children are brought up by better parents – with more chance of becoming good citizens.

Before raising what is a perfectly reasonable concern:

My problem is, this argument – whilst appealing – is a close neighbour of some very ugly ones. It’s a form of liberal eugenics.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call it that but it is a valid point, nonetheless. It’s only a century or so ago that politically-driven enthusiasm for the erroneous creed of the Social Darwinists saw prominent left-wing figures, members of the Fabian Society even, speculating on the possibility that eugenics would ‘solve’ the problem of the social underclass created by the first great era of liberal free market dominance, so we’ve no cause to be complacent about the ethical question that Chris raises. That said, the excesses of the first-half of the 20th Century, which culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust have, I think, sensitised society sufficiently, for the time being. to ensure that we don’t get complacent in our thinking about the socio-economic impact of abortion, or of other measures in the HF&E bill that may/will have social consequences, even if these have not been a major feature in the current debate.

In many respects, the big problem we face is in ensuring these questions are given the prominence they deserve/merit in the face of the ease with which they can be, and are, so easily used and abused by religiously-motivated opponents of abortion as a means of trying to capture the moral high-ground. No debate between religionists and rationalists, today, seems complete without the introduction of a reductio ad Hitlerium somewhere along the way, whether the debate is on the origins of life and universe or on the question of abortion. It didn’t take long, for example, on a recent Conservative Home post about the apparent level of support in the upper echelons of the Tory Party for Dorries’ abysmal 20 week campaign, for someone throw this into comment into the mix:

The 6 million abortions reminds us that the abortion holocaust is on a similar scale as the murder of the Jews 60 years ago.

Spectacularly offensive and deeply ignorant as such comments undoubtedly are, and its not just the comment box trolls putting out this of nonsense, the opening gambit of the Guild of Catholic Doctor’s submission to the Commons’ Science and Technology was the claim that were it not for legal abortion,the UK would not have needed to allow so many immigrants into the country over the last 40 years, there are questions here that need to be addressed not just to counter such manifest, and the latter case, racist absurdities but also to satisfy ourselves that we are not losing sight of the social and cultural implications of legal abortion.

Matthew is much more critical, and acerbic, in his scepticism than Chris, even if he doesn’t seem quite to understand the underlying motivation and purpose behind this weeks series of Dorries’ posts:

Nadine Dorries may be guilty of all manner of sins. That doesn’t mean that there is any real point to Liberal Conspiracy’s group hate. They are free to do as they will with their blog but if they seriously think it will achieve much, beyond putting a few moderates off the debate entirely, they are mistaken.

Its yet to be seen quite what effect, if any, the assault on Dorries’ credibility may have – I’ve certainly got some thoughts on this, some of which people may find a bit of a surprise, but for the moment, its still too soon to say anything definitive on this and speculating on the kind of things I have in mind could easily provoke a reaction of a kind that would serve to obscure the effect I have in mind.

Will any of this affect the outcome of the vote in Parliament? I doubt it very much and if it does then the impact will be at best marginal, helping to persuade a very small number of MPs that they are correct in their instincts either to vote to maintain the status quo on the upper abortion limit or abstain on the basis that neither side has really landed a knock-out punch.

So far as what happens in parliament on Tuesday, there will be block votes for a reduction in the upper time limit from the religionists and social conservatives and against from the social liberals and those who are personally committed to women’s rights. Amongst the floating voters, some will play safe and abstain, feeling that they can’t satisfactorily unpick this issue one way or another, which is a respectable enough view, and others will try to make the best judgement call they can based on what they’ve read in science and technology committee report, their perception of how the way they vote will play with the their constituents and the press, and for many backbench MPs, their local press will be a bigger factor than the nationals, and also which lobby their party leader looks likely to head through. Although there will be a free vote on all the abortion amendments, both main party leader (Brown and Cameron) have made they views on the ‘correct’ upper time limit public and this will undoubtedly influence some of the undecideds out of a combination of mild careerism and herd instinct.

If Matthew is a little disappointed with this week’s intellectual fayre then, in many respects, that’s only to be expected – he’s joined the debate here at a stage where he isn’t really part of the target audience and would, I suspect, have got much more value out of some the formative debates that took place here a while ago:

Pipe down, Christian soldiers
Life with Dave
‘Call Me Dave’ and the argument from viability
The talking politics of abortion
Who died and made you God?
Why do women have abortions?

Matthew’s joined the fray at a time where the priority has been to counter on of the most dishonest and disreputable single issue political campaigns mounted by a ‘mainstream’ politician in living memory and that, necessarily, takes the response here is a particular direction, one that perhaps fails to do justice either the earlier debates or the thinking behind them.

That needs to change, once we get over this current bump in the road – I don’t necessarily agree with all of Stroppybird’s points, but what I would agree with is that its not enough to simply fight a rearguard action up to the vote on Tuesday then down tool and move on to something else, safe (hopefully) in the knowledge of a job well done, until the next time that Dorries or one of her supporters tries to take another nibble at sneaking restrictive amendments to the laws regulating abortion in via the parliamentary back door.

Like Matthew, I’m not the greatest fan of many of the arguments that routinely dominate abortion debates. The supposed opinions of mythical universal intelligences don’t hold any sway at in my thinking, not just because they wander directly in a wall of unbelief but because, from what I can see, I’m usually much better read when it comes to the ‘holy writs’ of some of the more vocal religionists than they are.

I also, like Matthew, find the argument from viability unconvincing and not just a little dislikeable (see ‘Call me Dave and the argument from viability’, linked above), for all that we have to work with it as it is has played a key role in the formulation of our existing abortion laws much as I’m uneasy about the emphasis placed on ‘science’ in this debate – its a useful aide to unpicking a number of important issues but too often looked to for definitive answers that it cannot reasonably provide.

Despite his misgivings, Chris’s general point about the socio-economic impact points to a field in which there is a weight of evidence I, personally, find persuasive for all of his expressed doubts as to the value of evidence-based policy making and policy-based evidence not to mention D-Squared’s views of the limitations of Levitt’s crime/abortion paper and data-mining generally.

This takes us towards some material I’ve been meaning to write-up for the past view days, which looks at some of the evidence for socio-economic trends linked to the availability of legal abortions – and which I will get around to in a day or two – particularly in terms looking for evidence to support the view that reproductive ‘rights’ have played a role in enhancing the social and economic position of women over the last 40 years…

…and the evidence is certainly there.

To give but one example, there is a clear correlation that runs right through the 1970’s between the decline in the annual number of, particularly, first marriages and marriages where the female partner was under the age of 25, and the rise in the number of abortions over the decade. A little further digging turns up another trend showing a strong correlation; a sharp decline in the number of children born annually to women who had been married for less than 8 months and, again, the sharpest falls are found in the lowest age groups, the under 20s and 20-24s.

The conclusion is a simple one – legalising abortion in 1967 (although it was actually part way through 1968 before the act came into effect) halved the ‘shotgun-weddings’ taking place in the UK in the space of a decade, particularly amongst young women. Of the 60,000 babies born to married women under 20 in 1970, 35,000 were born within the first 8 months of marriage and by 1979, there were 35,000 such births, of which under 18,000 were within the first 8 months of marriage – today there are a little of 4,000 children born to married women under 20 each year and only 1,000 or so within the first 8 months of marriage.

The value in this is well expressed by this paper – Boden J M, Fegusson DM, Horwood LJ. Early motherhood and subsequent life outcomes. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2008; 49(2): 151-16o, which concludes that:

Notwithstanding the above limitations [for which you’ll have to read the study – U.], the results of this 25-year study confirm the view that women who become mothers earlier in life are at risk of experiencing poorer mental health, reduced educational achievement, and barriers to participation in paid employment. However, for mental health outcomes and enrolment in higher education, these issues largely reflect the influence of family, social, and background factors that influence early motherhood, rather than the specific effects of early motherhood per se.

Although not a universal panacea by any means, it seems a reasonable conclusion to suggest that legalising abortion has given many women a way out of poverty, opportunities for personal advancement and improved life outcomes, outcomes that that they might not otherwise have had…

For the armchair moralists out there, BTW, the data on births within and outside marriage for the 1970s show no significant increase in the number of childen born to unmarried mothers from the start of the decade to the end; the main rise in the annual number of children born to unmarried women in both under 20s and 20-24s comes only at the beginning of the 1980’s and runs to 1987 for under 20s and 1989 for 20-24s before stabilising at current levels, not to mention that the increase may not be as large as you might think.

Even in 1970, there were around 20,000 children born outside marriage to women under the age of 20 and around 22,000 to women in the 20-24 age group, and the numbers for 1979 are broadly the same, 23.000 for the under 20s, 22,000 for the 20-24s. By 1990, the annual number of births to unmarried women under the age of 20 hit 44,000 – its actually slightly less today at 41-42,000 – while the figures for 20-24 age group topped 73,000 for 1990. Little wonder, then, that Conservative politician have been so keen to blame the liberalism and permissiveness of the 1960’s and 70s for all the social ills of modern Britain, because if its not that then we have to start asking some pretty stiff questions about how the social changes wrought in the 1980s by the Thatcher government may have helped to create Cameron’s so-called ‘broken society’.

Bringing a third British ‘econo-blogger’ into play, Tim Worstall, in commenting on the Telegraph’s coverage of an Oxford University study of social mobility noted, in January this year, that:

…these studies which show a decline in social mobility are not really very accurate. They’re measuring a decline in social mobility for men, yes. But that is then being interpreted as a decline in total social mobility, which isn’t actually what is being measured at all. And the decline in male social mobility is being described, but without reference to the largest change in the labour market, the rise to equality of women.

And alongside structural changes in the labour market arising out of Britain making the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy and legislative provisions for equality in the workplace, I’m prepared to do a bit of Levitt-style sticking my neck out and argue that legalising abortion (and, of course, the developments in contraception that complete the reproductive ‘rights’ package for women) has not only played a major role in improving social mobility amongst women over the last 40s but – getting controversial here – that the role it has played, while not as significant as changes in the economic/labour market ‘mix’, exceeds that of any single piece of equality legislation and maybe even all of it, but for, perhaps, the Equal Pay Act.

I’ll conclude this section with a link to Christchurch Health and Development Study’s publications page which is a veritable goldmine of information and includes the somewhat controversial – and frequently misrepresented – study of abortion and mental health – Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Horwood LJ. Abortion among young women and subsequent life outcomes. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2007; 39(1): 6-12.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the socio-economic impact of the legalising abortion. As I pointed out in posing the question of ‘Why do women have abortions?‘ there have been no substantive studies conducted in the UK that attempt to explore that question in the 40 years since the 1967 Act, largely, I suspect, because the Act’s careful medicalisation of the grounds under which ‘social’ abortions are carried out in the UK served to discourage research that might appear to undermine the current systems’ reliance on designating women as being at risk of physical or mental health problems in order to provide a legal justification for permitting them an abortion.

My one significant disappointment this time out is that it looks very much like there will be no amendment that seeks to alter this position and place the UK’s abortion laws on a more open and transparent footing – our parliamentarians appear to be, even now, gun shy of anti-abortionist rhetoric around abortion ‘on demand’ and lack the inclination or drive to seriously challenge some of the pernicious moralistic fallacies that permeate this debate, the kind which seek characterise women who do have abortions as being feckless and irresponsible. The reality, if one looks to America as being broadly comparable to the UK, is very different, as research that has been carried out there provides a very different perspective on this question:


The reasons most frequently cited were that having a child would interfere with a woman’s education, work or ability to care for dependants (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%); and that she did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%). Nearly four in 10 women said they had completed their childbearing, and almost one-third were not ready to have a child.

Fewer than 1% said their parents’ or partners’ desire for them to have an abortion was the most important reason. Younger women often reported that they were unprepared for the transition to motherhood, while older women regularly cited their responsibility to dependants.

So much for another Dorries’ pet fallacies – ‘forced abortions’ – which in the US make up a very small percentage of the number of abortions carried out annually in a society in which both the social and economic pressures facing women and the stigma attached to abortion are much greater than is the case in the UK.

We are also only just starting to get to grips with the question of why some women present late for abortions.

What little information we do have comes from this study by Dr Ellie Lee of Southampton University, a study that – in another telling ‘commentary’ on her campaign – Nadine Dorries argued should be excluded from the deliberations of the Science and Technology Committee on account of it not being a peer-reviewed journal paper. It had, after all, only been published on the University’s website for six months prior to committee sessions, which is more than sufficient time for the anti-abortion lobby to review its findings and respond to them should they have had any solid criticisms to make.

Lee’s brief study makes for interesting reading. 41% of women, for example, cited difficulties in reaching a decision on whether to have an abortion as one of the main reasons for their late presentation, which hardly seems an indicator or fecklessness or irresponsibility. Surely it follows that if, by reducing the current upper time limit, we pressurise these women into making decisions before they’re ready then don’t we run the risk of exacerbating the problems they may face if they come to think, later on, that they may have made the wrong choice?

38% reported having failed to realise they were pregnant until relatively late on due their periods being irregular – so that’s the very young, older, mainly menopausal, women and women who have either a medical condition that causes menstrual irregularity or who undergo such problems due to some aspect of their lifestyle, which may run to anything from crash dieting (and eating disorders) to drug addiction, particularly heroin and methadone. That’s a pretty vulnerable group of women you’re talking about compelling into motherhood if you start cutting the upper time limits.

Then there’s the 36% who got the maths wrong and thought, mistakenly, that they weren’t quite do far along in their pregnancy as, presumably, obstetric scans taken prior to their abortion demonstrated and the 31% who miscalled their condition because they’d had a contraception failure without, initially, realising it. Do we force them into motherhood for making nothing more than genuine miscalculations.

26% cited delays arising out of concerns over how their parents would react to news of their pregnancy, which goes almost without the need for comment, but for reflecting on the fact that while talked of ‘forced abortions’ is a fairly common trope amongst religionists in these debates, little or no attention seems to be given the moral and ethical questions arising of ‘forced motherhood’.

And, to cap it all, there’s 23% who appear to have been sailing along happily towards motherhood only to find, during their second trimester, that their partner is a bastard and that pregnancy, far from bringing the joys of a close family relationship, has precipitated nothing more than the sight of their partner heading off into the sunset.

I mention all that because Matthew has expressed a preference for a European-style two-tier system of a lower, on request, limit supplemented by a higher limit, giving the UK:

a system where only early or exceptional abortions would take place which might reassure the large number of people (probably a majority) who find abortions above twenty weeks distasteful but would also allow for people in exceptional circumstances.

Having looked at the various laws in effect around Europe – which again, Dorries and her supporters hopelessly misrepresent in their propaganda – it is certainly no inconceivable that a long-term solution of just this kind might not be a possibility and even worthy of consideration.


It has to be asked just exactly what Matthew means when he talks about ‘exceptions’, what criteria does he propose for assessing these exceptional situations? Are these exceptions to be only those where there is a clinical need, a risk of serious injury or to the life of the mother or evidence of a serious foetal abnormality, or do some of the many social factors which, from Lee’s research, account for why some women present late for abortion, also count as ‘exceptions’.

The view from Europe is that there is no clear consensus on this issue – some countries only allow second trimester abortions where this an overriding clinical need, some allow for social factors providing it can be shown that there are no viable alternatives and some have criteria for ‘exceptions’ that are as open to interpretation as the medicalised criteria used for ‘social’ abortions in UK.

One, Israel, even affords women a legal right to abortion right up to the birth – but only where the woman is unmarried.

In theory, if we allow for the fact this debate will not go away any time soon and that, in the public’s view, neither total or near total prohibition on abortion or an unfettered right up to birth is likely to command widespread popular support, then such a two tier system could provide a platform to lock down the debate once and for all be providing a framework for abortion that could not effectively be challenged on either side of the debate, but that would require a clear public consensus on nature and scope of these ‘exceptions’ one that I suspect will prove elusive, certain for the time being.

There is, on this issue, no one dominant default position, other than that some form legal access abortion is necessary to avoid a return to the era of coathangers and knitting needles and, much as I’ve defended the current 24 week limit and have my own personal rationale to underpin that support, I’m not blind to the fact that this limit does generate some measure of disquiet amongst both public and members of the medical profession.

That said, I’m firmly of the view that now is not the time for making changes, other than for those liberalising measures which speed up access to abortion during the first trimester, not least because there are too many ‘variables’ in this debate that we have, as yet, failed to account for and too little information and informed debate on critical elements such as abortions socio-economic effects and, critically for me, too little understanding of why abortion rates are at the levels they currently are and what factors most influence women in their choices.

For all Chris’s misgivings about evidence-based policy making, this is a debate that requires more evidence and considerably more reasoned public debate before it will be possible for us all to arrive at an informed decision as to how best to frame our abortion laws for the 21st century.

For that reason I will personally make no apology whatsoever if I’m seen be some to be actively seeking to take Nadine Dorries and her supporters completely ‘out of the game’, because its only by removing the uber-religionists that we’ll be able to get on with the debate this issue needs and deserves and the one that I think both Chris and Matthew are looking for.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,e) Briefings ,Feminism ,Nadine Dorries ,Sex equality

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Reader comments

1. douglas clark

Jesus Unity, you might have already said this, but your posts are too long. 🙂

It might also be worth pointing out to the uncommitted that the fragrant Ms Dorries, MP, is also against contraception:

From the:

Nadine Dorries own words:

I was surprised to see the Department of Health focusing on a campaign targeting the use of condoms.

This is a campaign worthy of Mary Whitehouse. She is essentially a Victorian moralist.

Excellent post, Unity. You may be right that expecting a rational debate on abortion policy right here, right now is like expecting a detailed discussion of policy detail in Crewe & Nantwich at the moment. I.e. unrealistic idealism from an ivory tower.

One point though, is that it does look like – on the specific issue of 24 versus 20 weeks – you guys are in a minority on this issue. Normally, just as a matter of political strategy, when you are in that position you want to present the most appealing and welcoming face possible to the outside world. Try and do all you can to bring people on side. Of course, you guys are bloggers not campaigners and I could be wrong so feel free to ignore my advice.

The rest of your stuff is worth more serious consideration than I have time for right now so I’ll respond, if it seems necessary, later this evening.

“One point though, is that it does look like – on the specific issue of 24 versus 20 weeks – you guys are in a minority on this issue.”

Rilly? The Christian Institute’s utterly rigged poll (the question was something like “should the UK follow the lead of other European countries where the abortion cut-off rate is 20 weeks, or are you a sick baby-murdering bastard?”) is the only recent public one I’ve seen supporting 20 over 24, while the view among MPs seems to be majority-24 as far as I can make out…


A yougov/sunday times poll from March asked about this (is this what you were talking about?). They had a plurality supporting 20 weeks, a majority if you include people who want abortion banned entirely :

Here’s the question:
“And finally, MPs will shortly debate the law on
abortion. Currently, the legal time limit for
abortion is 24 weeks. Some MPs want to reduce
this limit to 20 weeks. Leaving aside medical emergencies which of
these options do you favour?
Keep the time limit at 24 weeks 35%
Reduce the time limit to 20 weeks 48%
Ban abortions altogether 8%
Don’t know 9%

That doesn’t seem outrageously rigged to me. OK, there was no option for ‘raise the limit’ – but that would hardly cause a 20% swing against 20 weeks.

5. Different Duncan

I learnt in early secondary school maths that phrasing questions “some people think blah, what do you think?” will produce a more positive vote for blah, compared to “some people think blah, other people think blim, what do you think?” It unfairly gives legitimacy to one side of the argument to say some people think one thing without saying other people disagree… some people don’t want to feel like there opinions are in the minority.

6. douglas clark

Different Duncan,

Strangely, I learnt that in an English class. Seems odd that it isn’t taught anymore?

It is beyond understanding how ‘Dan’ thinks that that is a reasonable way to obtain an opinion.

Perhaps folk like Dan can’t even see a biased question, and their likely response.

For example:

Perhaps, if I put it like this:

“Many members of the BNP consider the haulocaust a joke. Do you agree, or support the Zionist bastards….. ”

That they would consider that a fair question.

Unbiased, even…

Duncan & Douglas,

It is very hard to construct a perfectly unbiased poll while still enabling people to identify the issue at stake but that one for the Times isn’t bad. It is clearly doing its best to get the most accurate result. Unless we can get better evidence it doesn’t seem unreasonable to take that one at face value. Apply too strong a requirement on polls like this one and you’re likely to get Type II error.


8. douglas clark



It isn’t an unbiased poll. It is a poll with a clearly leading question.

And finally, MPs will shortly debate the law on
abortion. Currently, the legal time limit for
abortion is 24 weeks. Some MPs want to reduce
this limit to 20 weeks. Leaving aside medical emergencies which of
these options do you favour?

If that is not a leading question the Pope is an atheist. Bears don’t shit in the woods, etc, etc…..

Get a grip.

The YouGov poll isn’t the Christian Institute poll I was referring to, which had a much larger majority in favour of the cut because the question genuinely did begin with “in other countries the abortion limit is lower…”.

I still reckon the YouGov one is leading, if not as outrageously as the CI. People generally prefer to pick moderate-sounding options in polls, and it clearly presents “20 weeks” as the moderate option.

If it had either left out “ban abortion altogether” (since that isn’t being debated by MPs and isn’t an imaginable option in this country, thank $DEITY), or presented “increase the limit” as an ‘extreme’ pro-choice option to compliment the extreme anti-choice option they presented, that would definitely have been fairer.

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