Fit for purpose?
BBC Newsnight's documentary on the 1967 abortion act.
In fact, the question of balance between the pro-life and pro-abortion viewpoints was very largely evaded, probably in the hopes of leaving viewers with the impression that this issue has now been settled in favour of abortion, and that society has moved on and now needs to consider some fine-tuning of abortion legislation.
If debating whether or not something is “fit for purpose”, you might think it would be important to know what its purpose is, or at least was when it was originally devised. This, however, was not touched on; and, not being touched on, it left viewers to assume that everyone knows the purpose of the ’67 Act, just as everyone knows what the purpose of a tin-opener is. But do we know? David Steel (now Lord Steel) the “architect” of the ’67 Act, has said in the past that the Act was not being used as he had originally envisaged it. As he appeared on the programme (albeit briefly), he might have been asked about this; but he was not - or, if he had managed to express an opinion on the subject during the making of the programme, that opinion was not included in the final airing. The only points he was able to make were that in 1967 abortions were surgical, whereas now there is also the option of medical (chemically-induced) abortions; and that in most European countries it is now relatively easy to obtain an abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy with few if any questions asked; which was not the case in 1967. Hence the ’67 Act may need “revisiting”.
Other people interviewed only briefly included Dr. Sethi, a consultant paediatrician who suggested that perhaps women are travelling to India for sex-selective abortions rather than having them carried out in the UK; Mark Pritchard, a pro-life M.P. who made a very brief appearance during which he pleaded, at the very least, for a reduction from 24 to 22 weeks as the maximum gestational age for abortion; and someone whose name I missed, from Abortion Rights, who said that the requirement to have two doctors give consent for a woman to have an abortion “smacks of paternalism” (if they are female doctors, does it smack of maternalism, I wonder?)
The bulk of the interviewing was carried out with Ann Furedi, CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), and Dr. Claire Gerada, GP and former Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners. In terms of “Life” issues, then, the programme could hardly be considered balanced. Dr. Gerada seemed concerned mainly to emphasise that women seeking abortions should have access to “good and safe” procedures; she did, however, betray some uneasiness about the number of abortions being carried out when she made a plea for women to be educated about contraception so that they don’t need abortions. Ann Furedi’s views hardly need commenting on, since her livelihood is derived from the BPAS’s very considerable income from NHS funded abortions. Expecting her to be in favour of reducing the number of abortions carried out would be like expecting a butcher to be in favour of vegetarianism.
The underlying agenda of the programme seemed to be not “Is existing abortion legislation fit for purpose?” but “How would we like to see it changed, - and why?” Two points in particular were raised, each having been in the news recently, and each of which might seem to prompt changes in the direction of placing restrictions on abortion providers, in one way or another.
The first of these related to abortions being sought (and carried out) for reasons of gender. An investigation by The Independent, based on detailed statistical analysis of data from the 2011 National Census, has reported discrepancies in the gender ratio of children born to first-generation immigrant families from Pakistan and Afghanistan “which can only be easily explained by women choosing to abort female foetuses in the hope of becoming quickly pregnant again with a boy”. Are such abortions legal under existing legislation; and should they be?
Nobody was quite so crass as to say that abortions carried out for reasons of gender are just fine, though Ann Furedi has said – or written – something very like this in the past: "Sex selection, like rape, may not be a ground for abortion, but there is no legal requirement to deny a woman an abortion if she has a sex preference, providing that the legal grounds are still met." Dr. Gerada said that the Independent’s statistics are “not clear-cut” (implying that perhaps, after all, there is no good evidence that gender-selective abortions are taking place). But the Independent had its figures checked by professional statisticians, one of whom, a lecturer in statistics from Imperial College London, was quoted as saying “The only readily available explanation... is gender-selective abortion. In the absence of a better theory, these findings can be interpreted as evidence that gender-selective abortion is taking place.” Perhaps Dr. Gerada, not a professional statistician as far as I know, would like to cast about for a “better theory” to explain the figures.
The second point related to the fairly recent discovery that some abortion clinics have not been complying with existing legislation in that they were having doctors pre-sign consent forms without having seen the patient, - indeed, in some cases, without the patient even being named on the form (the ’67 Act requires the consent of two doctors before an abortion can go ahead). No-one was prosecuted for this breach of the law. Ann Furedi and the Abortion Rights representative jointly argued for abortion to be removed from the criminal law altogether, for abortion to be treated like any other operation which requires the consent of only one doctor, for early abortions to be carried out by suitably competent nurses as an alternative to doctors, and for the second dose of mifepristone (RU486), the drug used to precipitate medical abortions, to be given to women to carry away from the clinic, rather than being administered in the clinic following which they “might miscarry on the bus going home”. They also want abortion law in mainland UK to be extended to Northern Ireland, despite the fact that a considerable majority of the people who actually live in Northern Ireland want no such thing. The Abortion Rights representative considered that women should be entirely free to have their pregnancies terminated without having to comply with “grounds laid down by politicians”. In other words, abortion on demand, for any reason.
The BBC’s 2007 report, “Safeguarding impartiality in the twenty-first century”, draws several conclusions about the need for balance and impartiality in its programmes. They include the following:
“Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC”
“Impartiality is an essential part of the BBC’s contract with its audience”
“Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission”
“Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for ‘the common good’ or become involved in controversies”.
By the Prayer Crusader under the Patronage of St Theresa of Avila