IVF, Abortion, and Mail Mendacity

Much as I try to avoid the Daily Mail, it seems never to be too far out of my view; and it’s not uncommon that people bring it to my attention for one reason or another.  On this note, I’m dubiously grateful to Muireann Quigley and Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh for pointing me in the direction of this gem: “Dozens of IVF babies aborted ‘after women change their minds about becoming a mother‘” (see it via istyosty* here).

The general gist of the story is that some women who get pregnant by IVF later terminate their pregnancy.  If you think about it for a moment, this oughtn’t to be a surprise.  For one thing, though IVF providers will take care to ensure that an embryo is viable and healthy before implantation, 100% accuracy in the process obviously can’t be guaranteed: some foetuses will turn out to be non-viable, or to have some condition that is judged to justify abortion.  Some mothers, too, will turn out to have latent conditions that make continued pregnancy inadvisable – or they might develop one.

But that’s not the impression you get from the headline, or from the first few sentences of the article:

Dozens of women are aborting babies conceived by IVF because they have changed their minds about motherhood, figures suggest.

Many are in their teens, twenties and early thirties, implying that numerous abortions were carried out for social reasons, rather than on health grounds.

Relationship breakdowns, fears about motherhood and simple changes of heart are all likely to have played a part in the terminations.

See that word “likely”?  That’s newspaper-speak for “We don’t know; this is a bit of a guess really”; and, indeed, if you get to the end of the article, you’ll see it admitted that “figures showing how many of the abortions were carried out for medical reasons will be released later this week” – which confirms that the claim in the article is a guess.   Most readers, though, won’t get that far; as Ben Goldacre has pointed out, there’s research suggesting that people tend to drift off before reading all of the average newspaper article.  This means that all kinds of qualifications can be made later on in the article that simply never get noticed, but readers will be left with the impression that the things they read at the start are the whole story.  (“[B]y the time you get to a story length of 8 to 11 paragraphs, on average, your readers read only half the story,” as Goldacre puts it.)

Anyway – let’s get back to the article.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority statistics, released by the IVF watchdog through the Freedom of Information Act, have angered family campaigners who accuse the women of treating babies like ‘designer goods’.

We don’t know who made the FoI request – the article doesn’t tell us – and the “campaigners” who accuse the women of treating babies like designer goods turn out actually to be one person, Ann Widdecombe.  Nor is there any reason to suppose that her accusation has any merit.  There might be women who have terminations for silly, or even morally repugnant reasons.  I’d go further – there probably are such people.  But you can’t generalise like that.

The statistics show that an average of 80 abortions are carried out in England and Wales each year following IVF treatment.

In 2007, the figure was as high as 97  –  with almost a third of the women aged between 18 and 34.

80 out of how many?  Well, if you get to the end of the article, you’ll learn that 80 abortions represent less than 1% of all IVF pregnancies – which is pretty good going.  It’s less than the rate of abortion in the general population: I can’t easily find more recent statistics, but the ONS states that the UK abortion rate in 2008 ran at 1.8%.  (I’ll admit it: my search was shoddy, and it might well be possible to find more recent statistics easily.  But the fact that I can undermine the Mail‘s claim with a shoddy search is telling.)  Oh, and it’s hardly going to be a surprise if most people who have abortions are between 18 and 34, what with most people who get pregnant being in that age-range.  Just sayin’.

Some of them would have had IVF on the NHS, while others would have paid thousands of pounds to private clinics.


One woman told how she had an abortion after being pressurised into starting a family by her husband.  Another opted to abort her much-wanted IVF baby when it became clear her marriage was breaking up.

Family planning experts estimate that every abortion doctor sees at least one patient a year requesting a termination after IVF treatment.


Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister, said that women who ended pregnancies for non-medical reasons were treating their babies like ‘designer goods’.

Widdecombe seems not to have noticed that there might be welfare-based reasons for termination that are not easily reducible to medical reasons; and, perhaps more importantly, she seems to have forgotten that women are, on the whole, more than just incubation machines.  Granted, they do have an incubation machine built into their physiology – but the idea that every other aspect of their life has to be ditched as soon as pregnancy begins doesn’t follow from that.  Her attitude to women’s freedom to exercise control over their bodies is startling.

Bill Ledger, who sits on the HFEA, is reported as saying that he didn’t know that there are so many post-IVF abortions, and that “each one is a tragedy”.  But, in the grand scheme of things, there actually aren’t than many post-IVF abortions; and (at risk of labouring a point that I’ve made several times on this blog already) I don’t think anyone is actually pro abortion.  Noone denies that it would be better to live in a word in which none happened because noone had a pregnancy that they wanted to end.  But we don’t live in that world.

The Mail could have chosen to report that women who have IVF are much less likely to have abortions than are women who don’t.  But, of course, that would not be a very Mail-friendly story.  Much better, for the sake of selling papers to their red-faced-and-permanently-outraged readers, is to present the facts as indicating that women are either fleecing the taxpayer for babies that they then kill (the harridans), or paying for those babies themselves like handbags (the… er… harridans).  Same statistics, different story.  That doesn’t stop the Mail‘s version being mendacious.

And mendacious is exactly what it is.

*I’ll post something about istyosty soon.  Whether or not I should use it on this blog is something that’s been playing on my mind.