Abortion advocates in our society continue to waffle, and set the agenda for the abortion debate, because our journalists have been letting them get away with it. More often than not, in fact, our journalists could fairly be accused of aiding and abetting these abortion advocates, rather than asking them serious questions.
That is propaganda, not journalism. There was a particularly egregious example of this in an Irish Times online article last weekend, from Political Correspondent Jennifer Bray: Remote abortion consultations set to continue on foot of advice to Minister – The Irish Times
Note the title. Not, be it noted, “Remote abortion consultations, the case for and against”. Or even “Statistical evidence shows that remote abortion consultations are safe”. No, the Health Minister merely obtained “advice” on the matter, and that, unbelievably, settles the matter for Ms Bray.
It shouldn’t have. Mr Donnelly has a poor track record in seeking advice on our abortion regime. When asked in the Dáil about consultations undertaken by him, prior to setting up the abortion review, he said that he had contacted eleven different abortion advocate organisations or individuals, but he had consulted no pro-life organisations at all. Mr Donnelly has always tried to make sure that any advice he receives on our abortion regime would be in one direction only. Surely Ms Bray was aware of this. If not, it would be fair to ask why someone so ill-informed on our abortion regime is writing articles about it at all.
We do, however, live in a democracy, and Opposition TD’s still get to ask questions of the Minister, which the Minister is then obliged to answer.
Carol Nolan TD asked the Minister a parliamentary question in 2020 about hospital referrals following medical abortions (abortion pills). Mr Donnelly referred this question to the HSE, who replied directly to Carol Nolan as follows:
“There is no national reporting system in place in relation to adverse outcomes specific to medication used in the provision of termination of pregnancy services…. any medical complications that arise in relation to the provision of termination of pregnancy services are managed at local level in line with clinical guidelines and protocols.”
In plain English, the HSE does not know how many women end up in our hospitals after taking abortion pills, and does not want to know.
Armed with this information (which, again, Ms Bray should have been aware of) let us return to the issue of remote abortion consultations and safety. A statistician would approach this issue by, for example, comparing the proportion of post-abortion hospital admissions, under the remote abortion regime, with the proportion under the earlier regime of in-person consultations.
But the HSE never collected this information! The Minister for Health was unable to say, therefore, that such a comparison study had been carried out and that no significant differences were found between the two consultation regimes.
What the Minister said, instead, was:
“No serious adverse events have been reported to the HSE related to remote consultations for termination of pregnancy.”
The Minister knows that Irish Times readers will likely interpret this to mean that the HSE looked into the matter, and found absolutely no serious adverse events. Or perhaps that GP’s would have reported serious adverse events to the HSE of their own initiative, and as this did not happen there must be nothing to worry about.
In what follows, I make the assumption that a “serious adverse event” is, essentially, the same thing as “an event requiring hospitalisation”. Most people would, I hope, agree with that.
No thanks to the Department of Health or HSE, but we do have some data (from the IFPA annual report for 2019, and from a small 2019 study by the organisation START) that adverse events requiring hospitalisation actually occur in about 8% of medical abortions here.
That was under the 2019 regime, which required in-person attendance by the woman for the initial consultation with the abortion provider. We can surely all agree that the hospitalisation figure for remote consultations could not possibly be lower than for in-person consultations. If the latter figure is 8% then the former figure must be at least 8%. Telephone consultations may have their uses, but they are never going to protect women from being hospitalised after taking abortion pills.
The HSE 0% figure for reported serious adverse events, therefore, can surely be interpreted in only one way – that the HSE carried out no survey at all of the GP’s providing the remote consultations, and neither did the GP’s volunteer the information to the HSE of their own initiative.
The hospitalisation data must be in the HSE system somewhere, and could be collected and analysed by the HSE, for the pre- and the post-Covid periods. Only then would we know whether replacing the in-person consultation with a telephone consultation had the effect of increasing the hospitalisation rate to higher than 8%, or if it led to more serious health problems requiring longer hospital stays.
As of now, the Minister has no actual evidence, either for retaining or for discontinuing the remote access scheme. He tries to convey the impression that he has evidence for retention, but he doesn’t.
In fact, everything this Minister says about our abortion regime seems motivated by ideology rather than scientific evidence. Stephen Donnelly, quite simply, wants to liberalise our abortion regime further, irrespective of evidence. He ignores some inconvenient data that is available to him, such as the change-of-mind data for the three-day reflection period, and he ignores that he has no data at all for assessing the safety record of the remote consultation regime. He is also pressing ahead with his exclusion zone legislation, and ignoring that (after approximately 25,000 abortions) there has not been a single case of intimidation at pro-life vigils brought before the courts.
He inherited from his ministerial predecessor a system where basic information, on women seeking abortions, was not collected by deliberate design – and he has never complained about this or sought to rectify it. It is politically convenient not to know about women being bullied into abortions, for example, or about women having multiple abortions, or about sex-selective abortions, or abortion rates being much higher in certain ethnic or socio-economic subgroups.
Instead of highlighting this sort of Ministerial codology, the Irish Times, more and more, is appointing itself this Minister’s cheer-leader on abortion. Unquestioning acceptance of everything the Minister says, and interviewing only those who support the Minister’s position. No one in Ms Bray’s online article is given space to disagree. Ms Bray’s report in this instance could be mistaken for a Ministerial press release.
She is, unfortunately, not alone in her approach. The same could be said of other Irish Times columnists writing about our abortion regime. (Excepting Breda O’Brien, of course.)
How did this once-great newspaper sink so low?