The programme basically followed the standard bad science documentary by having 'amazing new research' that everyone has ignored/has only just come to light that is actually nothing of the sort. It also ended on a rather jarring partisan note with first the anti-abortionists making their claims, Sunny Anand is allowed to say something like 'the balance of scientific evidence shows that foetuses feel pain at 20 weeks and below', despite there being no evidence that this is the case, and only a single pro-choice advocate is presented, who says nothing about the science at all, (and no sign of Stuart Derbyshire who is the only scientist who appears to argue the scientific consensus earlier in the documentary)
The primary flaw was to imply that they had discovered brand new research from Sunny Anand that shed light on the question of foetal pain - in fact he has been making the same arguments for years, and has no scientific evidence to support him (he doesn't even do research in this area). There's some nice euphemistic talk about the 'top bit of the brain' that people think supserves emotional and other higher cognitive processes - somehow I think most people would understand reference to the 'cerebral cortex', but then that would probably draw out the contrast with the claim (based on currently no evidence at all) that the subplate mediates foetal pain, and then dies off in development, and the cortex then takes over pain perception (so foetuss have a special bit of the brain that only lasts a few months but is designed so they can feel pain whilst in the womb, but that then largely disappears to be replaced by a whole other neural system to serve the same purpose when the baby is actually born). So there is no reason to believe that this is the case, unless you happen to need to believe that there must be a mechanism that underlies foetal pain because you already believe that foetuses feel pain - can you say post hoc rationalisation?
They also rather slyly try to imply that this 'new evidence' (that isn't) was ignored by the RCOG panel when they came up with their advice on the issue (that's right, not just magic new science, but also suppressed science - these documentaries write themselves!) There was also constant reference to bringing the limit down to 12 weeks (as in many places in Europe) without any explanation as to why this age might be chosen given the discussions around viability or pain at 20-24wks. They showed what they called a foetus that was 'at least' 24 weeks old but implied that this was representative of foetuses earlier than 24wks, which I thought was rather misleading.
There was one amusing moment where the interviewer points out to Prof. Campbell with his 4D images of foetuses that they aren't really smiling or crying because they don't have the requisite neural connections, and he pauses for a long time and essentially says, 'yes, but look at them, they're cute, this'll stop people having abortions', scientific debate-tastic. There was also an interesting point made that before about 22 weeks the lung is too immature to function so that would represent something of a hard limit on foetal viability for the forseeable future.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) respond to the dispatches programme:
"We are unaware of the work of Dr Anand or any other work that contradicts theHeh, what an understated way to call bullshit.
basic findings of the review. Perhaps Dr Anand could direct us to the work he is
referring to. "
A few other reactions, mostly of the 'in last night's TV' variety, such as in the Times:
and the Guardian:
"Abortion: What We Need to Know was “what we needed to know” if we were as keen, as the programme obviously was, about advocating that the time limit on having an abortion should be reduced from 26 weeks to 20 weeks."
"Like most viewers, I think, the arguments and spokespeople marshalled by the documentary team in Dispatches: Abortion - What We Need to Know (Channel 4)have probably been largely obliterated by the footage (filmed by US anti-abortion activists) of bloody foetal sacs being pulled from vaginas and dozens of tiny, jellied crimson limbs spread before us, a massacre of the innocents laid out on a hospital towel. It was shocking as an image, and arguably shocking as an inclusion in a documentary purporting to be an unbiased look at the controversies surrounding the issue of terminations before MPs gather to discuss possible changes to the law in a few months' time. "
Thanks to an anonymous commenter, Stuart Derbyshire responds to the documentary:
"The programme was a dreadful mess. Anyone who was hoping to be enlightened on the question of fetal pain will have been disappointed. If American researcher Sunny Anand has new evidence demonstrating that pain is possible due to activation in the brainstem, which fetuses possess, I would have liked to see it. But that evidence was not forthcoming in the programme.
I didn’t fare any better in my appearance, being reduced to stating that nothing in the past 10 years changes the view that the biologically necessary components for pain are not in place until about 26 weeks’ gestation. My arguments about the importance of the cortex relative to the brainstem and the necessity to understand pain as a conceptually driven, rather than a biologically driven, experience were all cut.
Ultimately the Dispatches programme was flat-out biased. In the online forum discussion after the show, Davies claimed the show was not biased because all the comments were balanced by objections from the experts being interviewed (8). The problem, however, is that Davies’ voiceover controlled the show and she was evidently keen to get the law changed. Towards the end, Dr Evan Harris, a UK Liberal Democrat MP who is a member of the Science and Technology Committee currently considering abortion legislation, was berated by Davies for having already made his mind up about viability and fetal pain (9). Harris defended himself well, but in case you missed the point about him having already made his mind up, the programme makers helpfully cut in Sunny Anand to explain that there are ‘none so blind as he who refuses to see’."