A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Abortion - Misconceptions and outright fabrications

Let's be frank - Abortion is an emotive issue. There are a myriad of different views between the two extremes constituting an entire spectrum of beliefs. Nor is there anything wrong with this; people have the right to their own opinions. But people do not have a right to their own facts - any position justified with bold faced fabrication and truth bending is not only intellectually dishonest, it merely spreads disinformation and muddies the water, obscuring informed debate. And yet the cynic in me thinks that this may be precisely the goal.

I personally am pro-choice. I have come to this decision after many years of researching the topic, and separating the facts from the fictions. I also think it's shameful Ireland buries its head in the sand regarding the issue and in true hibernian fashion ignores the elephant in the room. So yesterday I attended a pro-choice counter rally to the well funded "Rally for life" and as we lined the streets to peacefully protest for the rights of Irish women to make their own choices, we were met by some real friendly people from the anti-choice brigade. Like this lady ...

Apparently that's the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I initially thought she was holding up an ad for Johnson's baby lotion.

And this cheerful guy.....

He was slightly taken aback when I asked him which poundshop he got his plastic blue cross in...
There was also another anti-choicer carrying the sign "NO TO ABORTION! NO TO SODOMY! NO TO NORRIS!". The mind boggles. I've stolen these photos from my friend Jess and you can see more at her awesome blog here.It was clear that the vast majority of the "Rally for life" marchers were of a Catholic bent from the rosaries, crosses and pictures of Jesus being thrust at us. There were a number of very aggressive men and women screaming at us, calling us murderers and all manner of other slander as well but all credit to the Gardai and my fellow protesters for maintaining the peace and not taking the bait. This brings me to the crux of the issue - the right to your own opinion, but not your own facts. 

Fabrications about abortion are always rife at events like this, and in this blog I want to tackle the most prominent myths about abortion that get oft repeated as facts. Namely the myths go something like this -

  1. Women who have abortions are at higher risk of psychological damage
  2. Women who have abortions are at higher risk of cancer
  3. Women who have abortions are more likely to be infertile.

These are science and medical myths well within the scope of this blog, the triumvirate of anti-choice nonsense. Each is particularly insidious as they all allude to justifying anti-choice for the benefit of women when in reality they're the complete opposite and serve only to mask the reality of the situation. Youth defense Ireland, for example, make all three of these claims in their propaganda. So let's exam these claims to see exactly why they're false.

Claim 1: Women who have abortions are at higher risk of psychological damage

Put simply, this claim states women who opt for an abortion rather than carrying to term or adoption suffer all manner of mental maladies, such as depression, suicide and other problems. For example, here's Breda O'Brien from Catholic think tank the Iona institute in the Irish Times baldly stating that abortion leads to suicide. Scary stuff. And utter nonsense.

This is at heart a scientific claim, and can thus be tested. All you'd have to do is study a large group of women who have abortions and see if they're more likely to have mental issues than a control groups who don't. And that is precisely the methodology used by a group of doctors in Denmark, who tracked the psychological health of 365,550 women including 84,620 who'd had abortions. The results ? No increase in psychological damage, nor any elevated risk of suicide. You can read the actual study from the New England Journal of medicine here.

Nor is this the only wide scale study debunking the alleged existence of what anti-choice activists call Post-abortion-syndrome (PAS); Brenda Majors studied this in depth and found zero evidence that PAS exists. As long as the woman was not depressive before the abortion, "elective abortion of an unintended pregnancy does not pose a risk to mental health". The same results were uncovered by a study in the British medical journal and several other studies. Dr. Nada Stotland has published extensively on the topic, including a paper for the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled "The myth of the abortion trauma syndrome" in which the legend of PAS is firmly put to bed; "Currently, there are active attempts to convince the public and women considering abortion that abortion frequently has negative psychiatric consequences. This assertion is not borne out by the literature: the vast majority of women tolerate abortion without psychiatric sequelae". 

PAS ? Faux Pas seems more apt.

Conclusion - Claim is nonsense

Claim 2: Women who have abortions are at higher risk of cancer

The second claim in the canon usually tries to claim women who have abortions are are risk for higher rates of cancer. Usually anti-choice protesters try to claim breast cancer is linked to abortion, and again it's rather easy to debunk this old chestnut. Rarely was so scaremongering a claim on such flimsy ground. This is made rather clear by the definitive paper on the subject "Breast cancer and the politics of abortion in the united states" and indeed, much research has gone into the subject to quell the misinformation. Research by bodies including the WHO, US cancer society, National cancer institute, American college of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Royal college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all show zero relationship between abortion and cancers, particularly of the breast.

Conclusion - Claim is nonsense

Claim 3: Women who have abortions are more likely to be infertile

Yet another scary claim with no proof at all. An abortion will NOT affect future fertility. Studies like this one and this one pure the lie to that notion.

Conclusion - Claim is nonsense.

It is clear the terrifying claims that anti-choice activists make are counter to what the actual science and medicine tells us, and as such, should be disregarded from any debate on the subject. I find these notions repugnant, as the masquerade as being for the protection of women when in fact they're nothing of the sort. This kind of underhand tactic is highly disingenuous - if you are religiously against abortion, that is your right - but don't pretend you are against abortion because you wish to protect women. Moreover, I would encourage people to actually challenge individuals repeating these dodgy claims. Regardless on what your personal beliefs may be, if we truly want informed debate on issues as nuanced and complex as abortion then attacking false assertions head on is a vital step.

Pope Benedict - Does it for the chicks, apparently...


  1. Actually used missed a good point; that legal abortion reduces the incidence of endometritis and consequently a greater risk of PID and thus infertility a common complication of illegal abortions.
    However, you fail to address sound scientific evidence which question the morality of abortion. The most compelling of which is the formation of a unique genetic individual at conception, hence, a clear marker of the start of life.

  2. what utter nonsense - quit trolling and provide some peer reviewed references.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. what peer reviewed publication would publish an article from someone who was not aware that the genetic creation of a person occurs at conception.
    If you want to original publication I can search through journals from the 1800s

    Just goes to prove that any idiot can get a phd these days

  5. "However, you fail to address sound scientific evidence which question the morality of abortion. " That sounds like you have something peer reviewed. Or something of the scientific consensus on the matter ? But no, you don't actually have anything that would refer to that- you have already stated "life begins at conception" in the other abortion related post, somewhat nailing your colours to the mast. You are entitled to think this, but that does not make it scientific.

  6. Also, "unique genetic individual" is a pretty loaded statement. No one would contest genetic uniqueness but that is that a prerequiste for life. Individual is highly objectionable in itself too....

  7. ''Also, "unique genetic individual" is a pretty loaded statement. No one would contest genetic uniqueness but that is that a prerequiste for life. Individual is highly objectionable in itself too....'' except in the case of identical twins each individual is genetically unique and in all cases the unborn is genetically distinct from the mother and constitutes another life.

    Peer reviewed publications don't make moral statements, its a basic principle of science. I am simply interpreting basic biological facts to support a moral position.

    The only legitimate argument for abortion is the one I alluded to earlier, that illegal abortions buts a woman's life in danger. Saying that a life doesn't begin at conception is very problematic. When does it begin the David??

  8. That is a hotly contested question, and one far beyond the scope of this article. You are using biology to justify your position - I could argue the converse also using biology, that a organism that is not viable outside of a host has only the potentiality for life. I could also argue that something without a nervous system and brain is not a full human or individual .There is room for a range of views on the subject. We are not going to agree, and that is fine but refrain from the personal abuse please. No one if forcing you to comment.

  9. ''I could argue the converse also using biology, that a organism that is not viable outside of a host has only the potentiality for life''

    No you cannot; malaria is a parasite do you deny it is alive. How about chlamydia also intracellular parasite.

    A nervous system does not constitute life and any way the neural tube has closed by the time that most abortions occur.

    If you wish to make the argument that one is only alive once he or she is conscious then make it but do not pretend that science supports this view.

    I feel I have an obligation to call you out on this David it is misleading to make these comments and will only lead to people forming misguided opinions.

  10. The only one trying to mislead people here is you - as I have said prior, you are now blocked and I have not deleted your comments, but you did get identified as spamming due to the furious rate at which you posted. Sadly now I have to moderate comments on this. Go be fanatical elsewhere, I am no longer arsed entertaining you here.


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