Jeremy Hunt, abortion and evidence

I don’t agree with Jeremy Hunt about abortion. I think the 24-week limit is about right where it is, and that reducing it to 12 weeks, as he would like to, would have very damaging consequences for women’s health. It would also derail prenatal screening for serious abnormalities, most of which can only be detected at more advanced gestational ages than this.

I accept, though, that the Secretary of State for Health’s position is one which he is wholly entitled to hold. Abortion is rightly seen in this country as a conscience issue, rather than one on which politicians must follow the party whip. If he feels that abortion after 12 weeks is incompatible with his value system, that is a judgement that is his to make.

Abortion is not an issue that can be decided by science and evidence alone. If you believe that an early embryo is a fully formed human being with the rights of a born person, evidence about viability and capacity to feel pain is not going to shift your position. That’s not my belief, but if it is Hunt’s then I understand why he thinks as he does.

What I do have a problem with, however, is the way in which Hunt explained his stance on abortion in his interview with The Times. Hunt didn’t simply state that this was a decision he had reached for personal, moral or ethical reasons. He implied strongly that his position was reached rationally in accordance with evidence. And that, I think, makes him guilty of two of the different sorts of evidence abuse that I highlight in The Geek Manifesto.

Hunt said:

“Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when they think that moment is, and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it. It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.”

First of all, he alludes to evidence that supports 12 weeks as a sensible threshold, then fails to elaborate at all on what this evidence actually is. It is secret evidence, very difficult for his critics to scrutinise or challenge, because nobody knows what it is. In this case, it may well be secret because it does not exist. I certainly know of no evidence that suggests a human foetus of 12 weeks’ gestation is either viable, or has the capacity to feel pain — the two criteria most commonly quoted as relevant to the threshold debate.

Hunt, it has to be said, was responding to a question in an interview, and thus might reasonably claim not to have had his evidence to hand, or to have lacked the opportunity to share it. In which case, I look forward to him clarifying the evidence he has in mind.

More seriously, though, I strongly suspect that Hunt’s views on abortion were not actually reached by examining the evidence before reaching a view. Rather, he has decided that he does not like the idea of second trimester abortions — perhaps for religious reasons, perhaps because he finds them distasteful — and is now seeking to portray a position reached in accordance with his values as one grounded in evidence.

There is nothing wrong with forming a view about a topic such as abortion with reference to your values. But if you do this, you should say so, and not attempt to “spray on” evidence afterwards to justify a position taken for entirely different reasons.

As I said above, I don’t think abortion policy can be reduced to evidence alone. Neither, I suspect, does Jeremy Hunt. But he should have the courage of his convictions, and say that he thinks second trimester abortions are unethical or immoral, rather than portraying a values-based decision as an evidence-based one.


A couple of links to other good writing on this issue I’ve seen today:

Wendy Savage, in the Guardian, has a good summary of the evidence in viability here.

And Catherine Bennett, in the Observer, makes some similar points to me in her column.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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6 Responses to Jeremy Hunt, abortion and evidence

  1. Joe says:

    You haven’t exactly supplied a whole bunch of evidence either

    • markgfh says:

      It wasn’t the point of this post to go over the evidence (though I do this in the book briefly, and the Wendy Savage link I’ve just added does so more exhaustively).

      The point was to highlight that Hunt has framed a position that was surely arrived at through his values as one that was based on evidence.

  2. Joe: Hunt said there was evidence. Mark asked, where is it? the ball is not in Mark’s court.

    I don’t see how viability (using modrn medical support) can be a deciding factor. What if we were able to rear a fertilised egg in vitro from conception onwards – why would that convert the blastocyte into a person worthy of protection?

    My own suggested criterion, rather like Sagan’s, is when the developing foetus shows cerebral activity complex enough to count as a person. There is also the question, even then, of whether the State should, once that stage is reached, use its power to force women to carry the pegnancy to term.

    • TheRealThunderChild says:

      The state does not claim ownership over the bodies of sane, conscious people. Except , it seems, pregnat women.
      To force a woman to remain pregnant is, in my view, medicalised, state legislated, rape.
      As a medic and somebody who’s experienced unplanned pregnancy (she’s now seven), I find this deeply unethical , and beyond distasteful.
      To have men, hiding their religious prejudice behind pseudo science,discussing-as if were in their gift- what rights to bestow women vis-a-vis their reproductive destiny, is quite frankly, enough to strengthen my conviction that men(however well meaning) will never “get it”.
      And- ergo- should not “have a say”.
      I’ve never met a man who truly believes in a womans right to choose, using that hackneyed phrase.
      **(what does it mean anyway, except that said “say” means coercing women to remain unwillingly pregnant?)

  3. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (13 October 2012) » Gocnhin Archive

  4. joycearthur says:

    Hi Mark, In light of the upcoming Oct. 31 Parliamentary debate to reduce the time limit for abortion, I hope you will find interesting the following article that I have just had published on the BPAS website Abortion Review: ”Why the UK doesn’t need an abortion law at all”

    I believe the best way for UK politicians to protect the health and rights of women would be to follow Canada’s successful example and entirely repeal the UK’s unnecessary and punitive abortion law.

    Thank you!
    Joyce Arthur, Executive Director, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC),

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