Thursday, 18 October 2007

Dispatches on abortion II

Something's come up so I haven't got time to comprehensively go through this, but actually the programme was pretty similar to the Mail article, which I've already talked about.

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.

UPDATE
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 the
basic findings of the review. Perhaps Dr Anand could direct us to the work he is
referring to. "
Heh, what an understated way to call bullshit.

A few other reactions, mostly of the 'in last night's TV' variety, such as in the Times:

"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."

and the Guardian:
"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. "

UPDATE 2
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’."

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm going to be honest with you, it may follow the typical 'bad science' documentary form, but what i saw pretty much clinched it for me.

It raises many questions, and not questions regarding the science.

Why is it they did not allow the showing of the aborted foetus, not even ultrasound images, apparently of the dismembering, of the foetus?

Is there something to hide?

Not showing them confirms in my mind that even the doctors know that there is something wrong with what they are doing. even the doctors expression looks weary, and hes performed thousands of these operations. The entire idea feels like a last ditch desperate effort to preserve irresponsibility for the irresponsible.

This is not an issue of "women's rights." Such an assertion is almost offensive. This is wrong. I don't know how the images can be explained any other way.

(98% have the head and spine crushed, are you kidding me? this is barbaric. No wonder the doctor's expression is 'what am i doing?')

I did manage to upload the show to the stage6 video website, you can find it here in case you, or anyone else needs it. It's great quality, but you have to download some .divx codec thing to view it.

pj said...

"Why is it they did not allow the showing of the aborted foetus, not even ultrasound images, apparently of the dismembering, of the foetus?

Is there something to hide?


Well they did show some aborted foetuses, but didn't show the full abortion procedure.

To be honest, there would be much hand wringing and outrage if a full late term abortion were to be shown on TV - you always get complaints for stuff like this (I never understand who these people are who tune in to watch something they know will offend them), even news footage of people being killed in a war or people dying peacefully at home, hell it even happens for animals being killed.

"This is not an issue of "women's rights." Such an assertion is almost offensive. This is wrong. I don't know how the images can be explained any other way."

Well most people (maybe not you, I don't know) think contraception is just fine and dandy (the claims that it is a form of abortion from Catholic campaigners are actually false as it works by preventing fertilisation), and almost as many think very early abortions (where implantation is prevented or the embryo is expelled) are also morally fine.

Pretty much everyone thinks killing newborn babies is wrong, and most people think abortion should not be carried out very late in pregnancy (near full term, unless for something incompatible with life like anencephaly).

So morally we're left with drawing a line somewhere between the embryo and the near term foetus. I don't think visceral reactions based on what the foetus looks like are necessarily a good way to determine where this line should be drawn.

Which is where the scientific debate begins.

potentilla said...

pj - hear, hear.

A very thoughful post on methods of late-term abortion here.

Anonymous said...

"Well they did show some aborted foetuses, but didn't show the full abortion procedure."

Okay, I didn't watch the whole thing because I got a sick feeling in my stomach when i saw the doctor's own expression while he was talking about the procedure, and I had to turn it off and focus my mind for what i was going to see and hear. but i will finish it.

"Pretty much everyone thinks killing newborn babies is wrong, and most people think abortion should not be carried out very late in pregnancy (near full term, unless for something incompatible with life like anencephaly).

So morally we're left with drawing a line somewhere between the embryo and the near term foetus. I don't think visceral reactions based on what the foetus looks like are necessarily a good way to determine where this line should be drawn."


But thats where the problem is. For the sake of argument, lets assume I agree that in the case of anencephaly abortion is okay. But, you (not literally you) will then reason that because its okay in the case of anencephaly, then every woman, anencephaly or not, is entitled to abortion. Which I, and hopefully you would agree, is a grand canyon like leap of logic.

This is why the argument of rape, and incest is so irrelevant, because even if it was okay, we know 98% of all abortion has nothing to do with rape or incest.

Now, I know the argument of 'if they are going to do it, then lets not bring children here to further worsen things,' however providing this "service" does little to treat the real root of the problem in the first place, and once that is done, the abortion issue would take care of itself.

I just can't understand how someone can say its an "unwanted pregnancy." it doesn't make any sense. do they not know how babies are made?

Imagine walking into your bank and saying 'hello, i bought a car i knew i couldn't afford and now have debt, may i have my money back.'

stage6 said...

anonymous,

Excellent point/question. It does not make sense. However, by the looks of it, you're not going to get an answer. This is an issue of "feminism." Rest assured however that her* silence speaks volumes, as is usually the case when sound logic confronts come-hell-or-high-water agenda. Clearly her real attitude is 'abort because i want to.' I read what you wrote in the previous post pj, however it seems that you are the one hiding behind science.

pj said...

Since most people do not think that there is anything wrong with early abortion (it is simply a small bunch of cells) but something wrong with very late abortion (it is a baby) - there must be something about end term foetuses that differentiates them from embryos/early foetuses which we regard as worthy of moral consideration.

I think that is a question of science although the decision to accord moral status to babies, but not embryos is a question of morality - although a question which most people (barring, for instance, Catholics) agree on.

I haven't replied to anonymous because I'm not sure what their point is: "But thats where the problem is. For the sake of argument, lets assume I agree that in the case of anencephaly abortion is okay. But, you (not literally you) will then reason that because its okay in the case of anencephaly, then every woman, anencephaly or not, is entitled to abortion. Which I, and hopefully you would agree, is a grand canyon like leap of logic."

This is true, but it is not an argument either for or against my point that people accept abortion of embryos, but not of babies, therefore a line must be drawn.

I agree that better prevention of pregnancy (i.e. better availability and wider use of routine contraception and emergency contraception) and easier availability of very early abortion would reduce the need for later term abortions. Neither of which most people have a problem with from an ethical standpoint. If you have a problem with early abortion then you are not in tune with the rest of society - or at least not in tune with my society (the UK).

"however providing this "service" does little to treat the real root of the problem in the first place, and once that is done, the abortion issue would take care of itself."

Well early term abortion will likely always be needed since contraception is not 100%. But since most people haven't got a problem with it that isn't an issue. Late term abortions are likely to be needed for a long term to come because many foetal abnormalities that we regard as bad enough to warrant termination of pregnancy can only be detected late. Your take on whether the 2% of abortions taking place after 20wks are acceptable from a moral standpoint probably depends on your position on the moral status of the foetus. Is it more like an embryo or a baby?

So the question is what is it about a baby that an embryo doesn't have? I answer that an embryo, and earlier term foetus is not aware, not even in the sense that an animal is, it is not a person, an individual, or even a mind. Therefore it is ok to terminate its life, just as it is ok to terminate the life of a plant. Some people argue that it is a potential person, but this does not distinguish an embryo from an egg and a bag of sperm. I do think, however, that it is morally pernicious to ignore that a foetus is a human, even if it isn't a person, even if, ultimately, we make that distinction.

Now the question of whether a foetus is a mind becomes much more difficult the later we get in pregnancy, hence the scientific debate, but this is also why anencephaly is an easy case for me (but not, apparently, for some pro-lifers) because it is not a mind (since it hasn't got a brain) and can never be a mind.

[I don't know why stage6 writes "her* silence", since they have no idea of my gender, feminism isn't just an issue for women - acually I take a utilitarian rather than a purely woman's choice position on this, since, for instance, I would oppose an abortion late in pregnancy and near birth purely because a woman doesn't want a baby, since the cost to her of carrying to term is relatively small (the woman need not keep the baby after birth) and the cost to the baby (which now warrants moral consideration) is large]

pj said...

Potentilla - cheers, that was an interesting and informative link about late stage abortion and "partial birth abortion".

Anonymous said...

Derbyshire responds to the documentary here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/3993/