It is remarkable what politicians and political campaigners can get away with, when journalists fail to call them to account – and nowhere is this more evident than around the issue of abortion.
In the abortion referendum in 2018, pro-choice campaigners were allowed to create the impression that legalising abortion was a women’s health issue, without once being asked to name the areas of maternal physical or mental health where improvements could be expected following Repeal. They were never asked to concede that all their hard cases, combined, would likely comprise only 1%-2% of all the abortions. They were allowed to make ridiculous claims that the number of abortions here would decline if the pro-life clause was removed from the Constitution.
Pro-choice witnesses called before the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth outnumbered pro-life witnesses in the ratio six to one, and journalists affected not to notice. Journalists turned up at pro-life press conferences, seemingly for the sole purpose of causing disruption, but were meek and accepting of all sorts of guff at the press conferences of abortion campaigners.
It is still going on. Was the Minister for Health asked any questions by the mainstream media about his priorities during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, when he seemed more concerned with the continued smooth running of his abortion regime, than with discussing safeguarding measures for our nursing homes? Or did anyone ask him why he had to wait a full six months into 2020 before publishing the most basic set of figures imaginable about the number of abortions that took place in Ireland in 2019?
Moreover, when these numbers did appear, and were predictably high with 6,666 abortions carried out, the mainstream media played them down or ignored them completely. (Just as they played down the statement from the Garda Commissioner that there was no need for legislation to ban protests or prayer vigils near abortion centres, there being no actual evidence of intimidation from these quarters. The government wants to burden the police with enforcing totally unnecessary legislation, and the establishment media collectively cannot muster even a polite question to politicians about it.)
They also ignored the astonishing lack of detail in the Annual Report on abortion. Literally the only piece of useful information provided in the report, apart from the number of abortions that took place, was the county of residence of the women. And even here, there were an astonishing 525 missing cases. We, the taxpayers, forked out €450 per abortion to GP’s and, in return, the GP’s could not even be bothered to record the county of residence in 525 separate cases. The Department of Health let the GPs away with this, and the journalists in turn let the Minister away with publishing a woefully inadequate report.
One reason the county information is useful is that it facilitates comparison of abortion rates in different parts of the country, and these regional variations in turn aid our understanding of the underlying causes of abortion, surely the necessary first step in limiting abortion numbers in the future. But the official report did not even manage to tell us the abortion rates, only the actual number. The number of abortions per county on its own does not convey much information, because of huge variation in population, population density, fertility rates etc in the different counties. In order to draw any meaningful conclusion from the data, the number of abortions need to be put alongside some measure of population or fertility in each county. This was not done in the official report, and the media either did not notice or did not care. By combining the reported abortion numbers with published CSO data on live births by county, I was able to calculate abortion ratios (abortions per 1000 live births) for each county, and to use this measure of abortion rates to compare counties. (This analysis is now posted as a blog HERE). There was no good reason for omitting this information from the official report, but it was omitted, and no one thought to ask the Minister why.
In this continuing farce, the next stage is a “review” of the operation of the abortion legislation, due in 2021. Sounds reasonable, but here’s the thing. The last Dáil voted against the collection of a host of facts about abortion that would make such a review meaningful and useful. For example, come 2021, our TDs are going to discuss, and then vote upon, the three-day waiting period for abortions – but the GPs carrying out the abortions were not legally required to collect and provide any information on the number of women who changed their minds about abortion during the three-day period. Any information that is available, therefore, will be anecdotal, quite likely biased, and fed to the media as propaganda prior to the Dáil session, so as to ensure a particular result. Par for the course, in short.
Neither will our legislators have reliable information about the number of adverse reactions to abortion pills. Or the number of instances of abortion regret. Or the age, socio-economic, ethnic or marital status of the women seeking abortions. Or the number of women who feel coerced (e.g. by partners or parents) into having an abortion.
Nevertheless, the Dáil will no doubt go through the motions in 2021. They introduced draconian abortion laws in 2018 without looking at the facts, so why should it surprise that a few amendments (no doubt, to facilitate even more abortions) will be introduced in similar fashion? When it comes to abortion, facts can be awkward things, so the fewer the better. That was the attitude in 2018, and that will be the attitude in 2021.
But it is truly bad politics, and truly bad journalism. Eamon Ryan was mocked in the media recently for falling asleep on the job. On the abortion issue, however, most of our journalists, and most of our politicians, could fairly be described as comatose.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. But elective abortion is evil, and abortion policies, built upon a foundation of wilful ignorance, are simply not good enough. Our whole democracy is shamed.
Jim Stack MSc PhD, a retired Mathematics Lecturer, has acted as statistical adviser/author on more than forty published, peer-reviewed medical studies (listed on the website PubMed ). He writes here in a personal capacity.