Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Abortion and statistics

Zoe Williams, in a piece in the Guardian that decries the Catholic Church's action in falling out with Amnesty over the latter's policy of supporting abortions in Africa, is guilty of rather muddling her statistics I think, and also of being rather disingenuous. She also makes some rather eye-catching statements:
As happy as I am to defend the right to abortion to all women everywhere at any time, this is not the right moment to start tub-thumping about Catholics with regard to western women and their choices.
Blimey, well, you can't accuse her of lack of clarity on this one I suppose.
The figures on this are almost too outrageous to set down on paper. Where abortion is legal, the maternal mortality rate is 0.2 per 100,000. In countries where it is illegal, the rate is 330 per 100,000. With an estimated 20 million abortions induced, worldwide, every year, that number of women dying - for stupid, pointless reasons, for reasons which boil down to unregulated, unsanitary conditions as often as not - is just suffocatingly unjust.
I'm not actually sure what she means by this. Presumably the first figures refer to death in childbirth - maternal mortality. I don't know how that 20 million figure flows from that. In any event I'm pretty confident that Ms Williams is mixing up causation with correlation here. Countries where abortion is banned tend to be poorer and with a less developed infrastructure than those countries where abortion is legal. Abortion is illegal in Zimbabwe, legal in Sweden. To say that that is the reason why maternal mortality is higher in Zimbabwe than in Sweden is to be deeply disingenuous.
This isn't an anti (or pro) abortion post. I just dislike it when figures are used deliberately to mislead. There's more:
As is the way with these things, young women suffer most: 4.4 million women having abortions each year are between 15 and 19; the World Health Organisation says "it is believed that the majority of abortions for adolescents are carried out by unskilled staff in unsafe conditions".
Avoiding the cheap point that the babies suffer rather more even than the young women, what precisely does the WHO stat mean? That these are backstreet abortions? Or that hospitals are badly funded and staff poorly trained? Given the rise of MRSA in the NHS and the decline in nursing, would 'unskilled staff in unsafe conditions' apply here?
Broken down into region: in sub-Saharan Africa 70% of women who end up in hospital after an unsafe abortion are under 20; a study in Uganda showed that teenagers made up 60% of deaths from backstreet terminations. In short, while we are worrying about whether 15-year-olds should be allowed on catwalks, their peers in the developing world are trying to survive what amounts to a cull.
This is, I'm sure, true but arguing for legalisation of abortion misses the point. African health services are both extremely over-stretched and, crucially, generally not free. Even if abortion were legalised, it would still be out of the reach of the under-20s in Uganda. The sangoma in the village will still be used. Traditional techniques will still be used and young women will still de - unless they happen to be the daughters of rich men.



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