Kate Smurthwaite

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Guardian, UK


Perhaps one of the reasons why reporting on abortion figures is wide of the mark is the influence of anti-choice campaigners

You may have read the headlines this week: “;Abortion ‘raises risk of premature birth next time'” and “;Women who have abortions more likely to have premature births in later pregnancies”. The stories cover the results of a paper published on the BMJ open website examining reproductive outcomes following an induced abortion. Unfortunately, regular BMJ readers might be forgiven for thinking newspapers were engaged in a bad science writing competition, where prizes would be conferred for presenting the headline most likely to misinform and frighten women.


What most have failed to make clear is firstly that the risks in all cases remain minimal and secondly that “induced abortion” means surgical abortion – the least common type of abortion, and the type most likely to take place for serious medical reasons in late pregnancy. There was no mention of the alternative to abortion either, which is for women to complete their pregnancy against their will. The likelihood of this affecting women’s physical and mental health is very high. Interestingly, another widely reported piece of research, which hit the papers just a week earlier, claims that one termination has no tangible impact, but that three or more can increase the risk of premature birth. The two reports contradict each other, yet each is reported as scientific fact.

I’ve been the media spokeswoman for the pro-choice campaign group Abortion Rights for several years. I’m very used to skewed reporting on abortion. Whenever annual statistics come out, headline writers comb through for the “shock” data. We read about “more teen abortions” while repeat abortions fall, and “more repeat abortions” when teenagers are actually seeking fewer terminations.


The reality is that abortion rates are remarkably stable in the UK. Unsurprising, since unwanted pregnancy is a fact of life in a society where women don’t all live in nunneries, and that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is one taken seriously, not on the basis of fleeting fads and trends. The truth is boring and under-reported.


As such, perhaps it’s not surprising that journalists are drawn towards the opportunity for a shocking, attention-grabbing headline. But there is more at stake than that. A small minority of people in the UK oppose abortion. Most of them express that through the tried and tested method of not having one, and leaving the rest of us alone. A small minority within that group are also committed to a political campaign to criminalise women who make that choice, and doctors who facilitate that choice. Of course however much we might disagree with them, they must have the right to express that opinion and campaign on it.


Sadly, there is yet another minority within that minority for whom any and all tactics are acceptable in the crusade to control women’s bodies. This group appears to be on the rise, and use tactics suspiciously similar to anti-choice groups in the US. None of these publish their funding information, but it is widely assumed they are funded by church groups; it is likely that individuals donating in church collection trays are not always aware where the money will end up (a recent mass prayer meeting held outside a clinic in Bloomsbury in central London was led by the auxiliary Catholic bishop of Westminster).


These groups hold “vigils” outside abortion clinics, harassing and intimidating women going in for medical appointments. They have lobbied for and won access to private medical data that could lead to the public identification of women seeking late-term abortions for serious medical reasons. They run fake crisis pregnancy counselling centres, which are in fact fronts to distribute false information in the hope of deterring women from abortion. The group Care was found to be funding an estimated 20 interns in the House of Commons. They hit the news when it emerged that alongside their anti-choice campaigning, they also oppose gay rights and believe homosexuality can and should be “cured”.


So does it come as any surprise to discover these groups also comb through any and all research and data on abortion and repackage it as “shocking news” before sending it out in press releases to publications across the country? Of course not.


For me this is a matter not only of good journalism, but of human rights. You see I’m not pro-abortion, I’m pro-choice. I think every woman should be able to make the choices about what happens to her own body for herself. But in order to make these choices, she needs good, reliable information. The research at the back of these stories is important, and should continue and be available to women and to medical professionals. The sensationalised headlines however are misleading. Journalists should get wise to the anti-choice tactics at play, and endeavour to present an accurate and truly scientific picture of the issue.