I’ve been watching with horror and disbelief the debates in the US state of Virginia about a proposed new federal law which would mandate that all women wishing to have an abortion, regardless of the reason, would first have to have an ultrasound scan. Given that many abortions take place before 12 weeks, when it is difficult to detect a foetus using transabdominal ultrasound, this effectively mandates the use of transvaginal ultrasound, a considerably more invasive procedure, whether or not the woman consents to this. There has been a lot of debate about how this wrests control of reproductive choices from women, referred to by some commentators as “state-sanctioned rape”, and in effect “dictating a medical procedure to a physician”. There are a couple of articles here and here with more detail.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, where in 2011 the government tried to introduce anti-abortion legislation using EU funds earmarked for gender equality projects (see here and here), a renowned obstetrician and midwife who has for some years championed home births in Hungary had her appeal against imprisonment not only refused, but her ban on practice lengthened. There is background to the case of Dr Agnes Gereb here and a Guardian report of her unsuccessful appeal here. Home birth is not illegal in Hungary; however it appears that legislators are fearful of an intervention which, in the case of women of low obstetric risk, is at least as safe (and in many cases arguably safer) than hospital births, and this state-sanctioned censuring of the choice to give birth at home is another attempt to reign in choice and increase control over reproduction.
These depressing stories put me in mind of my PhD research, which looked at sexual and reproductive health in Romania and Moldova. Romania in particular had particularly repressive policies around reproduction during the communist era, particularly under Ceausescu – from 1966 abortions were outlawed in all but certain restrictive circumstances, and whilst not banned all methods of contraception were very difficult to obtain, and propaganda against hormonal contraception in particular was so strong and all-pervasive that more than two decades after the end of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania there is still a deep-seated suspicion of it, amongst both public and the medical profession. Women were subject to compulsory gynaecological examinations, doctors and women performing or requesting abortions risked imprisonment and official figures suggest that between 1966-1989 nearly 10,000 women died from the complications from illegal abortions (the real figure is undoubtedly higher, as many deaths will have been illictly recorded as being from other reasons). One of the legacies of this state-sanctioned interference in women’s fertility and reproduction is an ongoing suspicion in Romania of any governmental attempts to promote any national campaign relating to sexual and reproductive health (a recent example would be the disastrous and failed campaign in 2009 to vaccinate school girls against Human Papilloma Virus).
I would recommend anybody who is interested in the consequences of extreme pronatalist and anti-choice legislation read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity. This is a masterly, seminal book about Romanian reproductive policy under Ceausescu which details the inevitable outcome of banning abortion, making contraception in effect unavailable, and seeking to control fertility and reproduction so ruthlessly. Policy makers in Virginia in particular, but also elsewhere including Hungary, would do well to learn its lessons.
Oh dear it has been nearly a month since I last posted, sadly the combination of marking, tutorial preparation and my day job in clinical practice got the better of my good intentions! However I will be reducing my clinical hours from the beginning of March so intend to catch up on writing then.
I did have a blog post brewing, inspired by a piece in the Moldovan media, but (much like the early days of my PhD) I kept finding myself wandering down lots of intellectual side roads with it and losing focus somewhat. However last weekend I came across some media reports, again in Moldovan online media, which whilst interesting in their own right also raised more general questions for me about the reporting of statistics and research findings in the media. One of the academic blogs I like to read is by Dr Petra Boynton who is meticulous in detailing the shortcomings of media reporting of research findings, and in particular the sloppy way in which research is evaluated beforehand. One of the issues she frequently encourages of journalists is to ask questions about the research – rather than accepting it at face value, question the methods and the findings. Can the conclusions be justified given the methods, what (if any) are the shortcomings of the research, how have the figures quoted been reached?
Last week I noticed a few articles on some Moldovan media sites reporting that “the majority of young people in Moldova have prostituted themselves at least once” (Unimedia). The reports (also repeated here by ProTV) use the words “shocking” and “scandalous” and at first glance seem to imply that 70% of Moldovan women have prostituted themselves. The source for this figure is a quote from French media from the Scelles Foundation, a coalition of NGOs in France working in the area of sex trafficking and exploitation. Their president was reported here as saying “In Moldova for example, an extremely poor country, 70% of women between 15-25 have prostituted themselves at least once”. However, the ProTV article above states that the research being cited was actually saying that 70% of Moldovan prostitutes are between the ages of 15-25, which is considerably different. I am encouraged that, unlike much of the media according to Dr Petra Boynton’s blog or French media going by the Europe1 article quoted above, the Moldovan media is showing at least at a basic level of understanding of the need to get the facts right behind the statistics and not twist them (there were a number of times during my PhD when I was doing my media review when I despaired of what I was reading, so this was encouraging to see). There is understandable outrage at the misquoting of the statistics (and perhaps misquoting of the Scelles Foundation president?) to imply something very negative about Moldovan women, something which is also discussed in this Vox Publika article, albeit with a rather stereotypical and idealistic alternative presentation of Moldovan women. That article also points out what I had found when I had a poke round the Scelles Foundation site, which is that the original report/research on which the 70% figure is supposedly based is nowhere to be found. It does not say where or when or who was interviewed/surveyed to come up with these figures, or what methods were used, so there is no way at all of verifying or questioning them.
What I think this shows is that, as well as the responsibility of the media to report research responsibility and accurately, it is important for those of us wishing to disseminate our research to ensure that it is accessible, and not open to blatant misinterpretation.