Science should guide all our health policies... including abortion

Our total abortion ban is no less dangerous or unhinged (or even idiotic, for that matter) than Donald Trump’s notorious recommendation to ‘drink bleach’ as an antidote to COVID-19

I guess it had to take a major global health emergency to make us finally understand what should really have been obvious all along. Yes, Dr Fearne: our national policies should be based on scientific advice... and not on popular opinion, electoral concerns, or (still less) the demands of powerful lobby groups.

It is, in fact, thanks to the health authorities’ science-based approach that Malta has so far been spared the nightmare scenarios we have seen unfolding almost everywhere else in the world. As Fearne himself put it last Friday: “We are in today’s positive situation because from the very beginning we abided by what science was telling us, and what the numbers were suggesting.”

And it is worth considering, too, how very ‘positive’ our situation really is… and why we have succeeded so admirably, where so many others failed.

After all, it was never something we could take for granted. Judging by the experience of other countries… we could just as easily have had a government urging us all to protect ourselves by ‘drinking disinfectant’, like Donald Trump did in the USA. (Or, for that matter, by keeping the national airport open at all costs… as the European Commission had recommended at the initial stages of the crisis.)

Mercifully, however, Malta took all its COVID-19 policy decisions on the basis of sound scientific advice…. and the results are there for all to see.

While even the most developed countries in the world saw their health services overrun by exponentially-increasing infection rates, and now number their dead by the tens of thousands… we have so far only had four fatalities to date, while successfully containing the spread of the virus within entirely manageable levels.

What more proof do we all need, then, of the benefits of basing our national policies on science… as opposed to political idiocy, economic expedience, or worse?

Erm… well, perhaps we do need a little more proof; seeing as how this ’scientific approach’ we now boast about, has so far been limited only to our policies concerning COVID-19 crisis, and precious little else.

Looking beyond this one issue, however… I’ll be damned if I can see a great many other areas where this government – or any other before it – ever bothered consulting scientific opinion before embarking on major policy decisions.

Even within the same health sector, there are entire areas where science has been markedly absent for decades. Like abortion, for instance.

Yes, yes, I know that the vast majority out there doesn’t seem to realise that it’s even a public health issue at all… preferring to think of it as an instant platform upon which to grandstand their own private views on morality.

But that, like I said earlier, is a matter of popular opinion… not scientific fact. And didn’t Chris Fearne just announce that he bases his health policies on ‘what science tells us’… as opposed to what the vast majority may pressure him to do, for entirely unscientific reasons?

If that were really the case, however, our national abortion policy should also be based on what science has to say on the subject. And yet… well, what do you think really informs the present government’s abortion policy more: science, or popular opinion?

We don’t need to look very far for an answer. Fearne himself told us, in no uncertain terms, in a radio interview on 21 December last year (when, if you’ll remember, he was a major contestant in the Labour Party’s leadership race.)

Asked point-blank if he would ‘introduce abortion’ if elected… his answer was a simple ‘No’.

And that was it. No further elaboration, no reference to any statistics, or scientific research of any kind whatsoever… not a word of explanation, for his dogged defence of an archaic abortion law – unchanged in over a century - which doesn’t even allow for the procedure in cases where the mother’s life may be in danger.

Some ‘scientific approach’, huh? But then again… I suppose it’s also entirely understandable: given that there are, in fact, no scientific studies that Fearne could possibly have cited in defence of such a radical, extremist and woefully unscientific position.

There are, however, plenty of studies which suggest that our approach to this issue is not only harmful to public health….  but even counter-productive to the main aim that it sets out to achieve: in the sense that it causes MORE abortions to take place, and not fewer.

In September 2017, the World Health Organisation – you know, the same global institution we all suddenly take seriously, when it comes to things like a COVID-19 pandemic – published research into global abortion trends. The study found that there were 55.7 million abortions every year between 2010 and 2014 worldwide, and 17.1 million of them were ‘unsafe’.

A further eight million abortions were categorised as ‘least safe’: involving ‘desperate and dangerous backstreet measures, from swallowing toxic substances to inserting wires to try to bring about a miscarriage…’

Interestingly enough, both the 17.1 million ‘unsafe abortions’, and the eight million ‘least safe’ ones, were associated with countries that – like Malta – have blanket abortion bans in all circumstances: mostly in Africa and Latin America.

And it is certainly no surprise that the same study also concluded that “there are fewer abortions in places where abortion is safest, such as in northern Europe and northern America where women can get contraception easily;” and that the lowest numbers were actually found in countries that “have less restrictive laws on abortion, high contraceptive use, high economic development, high levels of gender equality, and well developed health infrastructures.”

That, Dr Fearne, is what ‘science is telling you’ about Malta’s policy on abortion. And you should already know this, because you yourself admitted (in February 2019) that this same policy was also the reason why Malta had dropped 10 places in the Euro Health Consumer Index.

I assume you must therefore have read that report; and are thus aware that it also singled out Malta – alongside Cyprus and Poland – for stinging criticism over our national abortion regime.

Just like the WHO report before it, this scientific study concluded that total abortion bans like ours “do not prevent abortions, but rather turn them into a major health risk, forcing women to go abroad or having an abortion under obscure, insecure conditions.”

I need hardly add that all these concerns, and many more besides, have also been repeatedly expressed by members of the local scientific community, too.  For instance: in its position paper on abortion, ‘Doctors For Choice Malta’ listed out a whole series of ways in which current our abortion laws openly defy world scientific opinion.

Among other things, they argue that: “The complete ban on abortion is a risk to women’s lives”; “The abortion ban in Malta does not stop abortions, it only makes them less safe”; “the abortion ban hampers women from seeking timely medical help and being honest with their doctors”… and that “Due to the lack of abortion services, Malta’s medical authorities are falling short of best practice and the highest standards recommended by international guidelines which are based on evidence-based medicine.”

More to the point: unlike the blanket ‘No’ Dr Fearne gave in that interview… all their scientific arguments are supported by research and studies published by WHO, the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP).

Can Dr Fearne say the same for his own arguments? No, wait, he didn’t actually come up with any… so let me rephrase that.

Can our Health Minister provide any form of scientific justification, of any kind whatsoever, for retaining Malta’s total ban on abortion, in all circumstances?

Of course not. When it came to formulating a national health policy on abortion, Fearne’s government – like all others before it – decided to simply ignore all scientific evidence, in favour of an approach that is clearly tailored to satisfy popular opinion, for equally obvious electoral reasons. (For let’s face it: any politician who openly agrees with any of the above arguments, would also be signing his own political death certificate. Sad, but true.)

As a result, our national approach to abortion is not merely ‘unscientific’… but ‘anti-scientific’, in the most literal sense imaginable. Not only does it disregard all the advice and expertise of every relevant scientific body or institution in the world… but it also deliberately and provocatively contradicts it at every turn.

And much as I hate to say it: this makes our abortion ban no less dangerous or unhinged (or even idiotic, for that matter) than Donald Trump’s notorious recommendation to ‘drink bleach’ as an antidote to COVID-19.

I mean that literally, by the way: after all, wasn’t ‘swallowing toxic substances’ one of the methods identified by WHO as a form of ‘unsafe abortion’ in countries which ban the procedure in all forms? So, by preventing safe abortions from taking place here legally, against the advice of world scientific opinion… what is our government actually doing, if not echoing precisely the same bizarre, idiotic approach advocated by Donald Trump last week, to so much international scorn and derision?

But hey! At least we got it right with COVID-19… and like I said earlier: that is no small achievement by any standard. Just imagine, then, how much more successful all our national policies would be, if they really were based on ‘what science tells us’…

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