Philippa Taylor

Ideology or Evidence (part two)? The battle over abortion statistics

Philippa Taylor was Head of Public Policy at CMF until September 2019 and now works with CARE. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Having blogged about the triumph of ideology over evidence in relation to the campaign in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for presumed consent to organ donation, I can now report on a campaign where evidence triumphed over ideology.

This one is in relation to the reporting and publicity of abortion outcomes.

To give some background: in January this year an organisation in Northern Ireland, Both Lives Matter, reported that an estimated 100,000 people are alive today in Northern Ireland because of the restrictive law on abortion there, compared to what would have happened if the far less restrictive 1967 Abortion Act had been passed there.  In fact they say that is a conservative estimate.

This 100,000 lives statistic received a great deal of media publicity, including billboard advertisements that highlighted it.  However the figure was challenged through complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency arguing that the billboard was ‘inappropriate, inaccurate and offensive’.   Both Lives Matter received a letter from the ASA outlining the complaint and launching an investigation into the billboard.

I’m sure many people assumed the figure was indeed an exaggeration and an ideological campaigning tool. However, five months later the ASA Executive completely vindicated the billboard claim.

During this time the statistical analysis behind the 100,000 claim had been scrutinised by a statistical expert at the ASA and then by an independent epidemiologist chosen by the ASA. Neither of these experts were funded by or known to Both Lives Matter.

Following their analysis, the ASA Executive recommended to their council that the complaint could not be upheld and that making the 100,000 claim was in fact reasonable:

‘On balance, we concluded that the evidence indicated that there was a reasonable probability that around 100,000 people were alive in Northern Ireland today who would have otherwise been aborted had it been legal to do so.’

So instead of ‘100,000 lives lost’ being a figure based on ideology, it was upheld – independently – as fact, and correspondingly it was the complainants to these facts who were exposed as following ideology not evidence.

The 100,000 figure also shows that criminal laws against abortion do in fact save lives.  This is timely in view of the current campaign to decriminalise abortion (remove all legal restrictions on abortion), and to help challenge fallacious arguments such as the comments of Justice Horner in the High Court that: ‘There is no evidence before this Court…that the law in Northern Ireland has resulted in any reduction in the number of abortions obtained by Northern Irish women.’ [Paragraph 142].

I guess if one does not believe that a life is lost through abortion, then such figures are beyond comprehension. Yet in reality, one in ten people under fifty are alive because of the law in Northern Ireland. This number could fill their national football stadium five times over. Each one a precious, valuable human being, alive today.

What a contrast to the 8 million lives lost in England and Wales to abortion since 1967. And what a challenge to us all because, as Dawn McAvoy, from Both Lives Matter says:

Whatever your view on abortion, there are 100,000 reasons to pause and ask some big questions about where our culture is going.’



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