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FactCheck: Does this pro-life leaflet stand up to scrutiny?

The Life Institute’s Yes to Life pamphlet has been printed 120,000 times. How much truth is in it?

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WITH THE CITIZEN’S Assembly already beginning its work, debate about the 8th Amendment and abortion continues.

Last weekend at mass, Seán Lynch came across a leaflet by Yes to Life, a project of the pro-life Life Institute, and one FactCheck reader asked us to take a look at it.

We obliged. This is our fact check of 19 selected claims from the leaflet, which the Life Institute told us has been printed about 120,000 times.

We will rate each claim separately, before tallying the verdicts at the end, as we have done with a previous document-based fact check.

You can read the leaflet here.

THE FACTS

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1. “The 8th Amendment…was approved by a huge majority of the Irish people in 1983″.

Referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, 7 September 1983 (page 36).

Total Electorate: 2,358,651
Votes Cast: 1,265,994
Turnout: 56.7%

Votes for: 841,233
Votes against: 416,136

Margin (as a percentage of votes): 33.58%
Margin (as a percentage of the electorate): 18.02%

The 8th Amendment was clearly approved in 1983, and by a majority of those who voted (66.45%), but not by a majority of the electorate (those who could have voted), due to the turnout of 56.7%.

However, there is a certain degree of licence here to use “the Irish people”, when what you technically mean is “those who voted”. This loose shorthand is commonly (though wrongly) used.

After all, only two referendums have ever been passed or defeated by a majority of the electorate – to join the European Community in 1972 (58.6%), and to ratify the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 (52.5%).

But was it a “huge” majority of those who voted? Of course it’s hard to precisely define “huge”, but let’s put it in context.

We calculated margins of victory/defeat in all 40 Irish referendums since 1937, based on votes as a percentage of all votes, and votes as a percentage of the electorate.

The referendum to introduce the 8th Amendment was passed by the 16th-biggest margin in terms of votes cast, and the 15th-biggest margin in terms of the total electorate (out of 40 referendums).

That’s above average, but not by much.

Taking into account the imprecision of using “the Irish people” rather than the “Irish electorate”, and the fact that, actually, the margin of victory for the 8th Amendment was only a bit above average, we rate this claim Half TRUE.

(You can download a spreadsheet with referendum results since 1937, here).

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2. ”Since 2001, the number of Irish women travelling abroad for abortion has fallen by 45%”

UK government statistics show that in 2001, some 6,673 women travelled to England and Wales for an abortion (pg 39). In 2014, that was 3,735 – a decline of 44%.

In 2015, the figure was 3,451 – representing a 48% fall since 2001. (pg 71) A relatively small number of women travel to the Netherlands each year (16 in 2014), but data is not available for 2001.

Data is not available for Scotland.

Based on the best information available, we rate the claim Mostly TRUE

3. ”In Britain, 20% of all babies have their lives ended by abortion”

In 2015, there were 697,852 live births in England and Wales, 3,147 still births, and 191,014 abortions (pg 23). 

This means there were 892,013 pregnancies in total, 21.4% of which ended in abortion.

In Scotland, there were 55,098 live births, 211 still births, and 12,082 abortions (pg 6). So out of a total of 67,391 pregnancies, 17.9% ended in abortion.

In Great Britain as a whole (England, Wales and Scotland), there were 203,096 abortions out of 959,404 pregnancies – a rate of 21.1%.

The claim is Mostly TRUE.

4. “In Ireland our abortion rate is 5%…”

According to the CSO, in 2014 the number of live births in Ireland was 67,295, and the number of still births was 164. (2014 is the most recent year for which figures on still births are available).

Calculating the number of terminations among women living in Ireland is trickier. We know that at least 3,735 travelled to England and Wales in 2014, and 16 travelled to the Netherlands.

However, no good data is available for the number of pregnancies which end in medical termination by way of abortion pills delivered to women resident in Ireland.

Furthermore, it is widely thought that when Irish-resident women travel abroad for terminations, some do not give their real, Irish home address, which is what the UK Department of Health uses as the basis of its calculations.

So the figure available – 3,751 abortions in England, Wales and the Netherlands – should be seen as the absolute minimum, with the actual number being higher.

If we add the number of live births, still births, and registered abortions, we get 71,210 known pregnancies in Ireland in 2014 – 5.3% of which are known to have ended in abortion.

This is the source of the figure presented in the leaflet. However, the gap in our knowledge – the number of medical abortions – is potentially quite significant, and therefore we rate this claim UNPROVEN.

5. “It’s estimated that 250,000 Irish people are alive today because abortion wasn’t available in Ireland”

Figures provided by the Life Institute show that it was calculated in this way:

  • Calculate the abortion rate in Ireland and in Britain every year since 1984, the year after the 8th Amendment was implemented
  • Assume abortion became legal in 1984, and apply the British abortion rate to the number of pregnancies in Ireland every year
  • All other things being equal, this yields the number of abortions that would have occurred in Ireland without the ban on abortion
  • The difference between this number, and the number of abortions actually undergone by Irish women in England and Wales is, according to the rubric, the number of abortions prevented by the 8th Amendment and the abortion ban
  • That number is 270,520

The first thing to note here is that this is, fundamentally, a counter-factual claim, meaning a claim based on an assumption that past events went differently (i.e. abortion was legalised in 1984).

FactCheck stays away from such claims, as they are essentially impossible to prove, and indeed, we rate this claim UNPROVEN.

However, since the claim is included in a larger document we’re looking at, it’s worth pointing out that there a couple of problems with the analysis, beyond its counterfactual nature.

All counter-factuals are based on assumptions, but some assumptions are more reasonable than others.

Firstly, it cannot be assumed that without the 8th Amendment, abortion would have been legalised in 1984. There was no legislation proposed, and no groundswell of public support for a loosening of abortion laws, at that time.

Abortion was already illegal in Ireland in 1983, but the right to life of the unborn had not been enshrined in the Constitution, which is what the 8th Amendment did.

There is no factual basis for a reasonable assumption that without the 8th Amendment, abortion would instantly have been legalised.

(In its counterfactual, the Pro Life Campaign somewhat more modestly allows a 10-year lag, assuming that abortion would have been legalised in 1994).

Secondly, it cannot be assumed that without the 8th Amendment, abortion would have been legalised to the extent it is legal in the UK (i.e. for any reason up to 24 weeks, under stricter conditions after that point).

Thirdly, it cannot be assumed that the abortion rate in Ireland would have been identical to that of Britain’s, and certainly not immediately, in the first year of legalisation.

The UK legalised abortion in 1967, and so by 1984, there had been 17 years of “bedding in” of the systems, administration, infrastructure, not to mention recruitment of healthcare personnel, involved in this.

So it cannot reasonably be assumed that Ireland’s abortion rate would instantly have hit the same level as that of Britain’s, although of course, we don’t know.

Furthermore, social and cultural differences – in particular the unique role of the Catholic church in Ireland – also mean it cannot reasonably be assumed that Ireland’s abortion rate would have been on a par with Britain’s.

Fourthly, as we have already explained, the statistical basis of Ireland’s “abortion rate” is shaky. It is likely it has been higher (perhaps significantly higher) since 1984 than is reflected in official figures.

Therefore the difference between actual abortions and abortions under a British-style regime (the “lives saved”) could well be smaller than is assumed in this analysis.

6. “When abortion was banned in Ireland, we were one of the safest places in the world to have a baby, according to the United Nations. Our maternal mortality rate…was amongst the lowest in the world”.

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This was the subject of a FactCheck article back in August, which you can read in full here.

Since 1985, Ireland has consistently had one of the lowest rates of maternal death in the world, hovering around joint 6th in the global rankings.

So the claim is TRUE. However – it has to be emphasised that this very low maternal mortality rate has continued unchanged since the limited legalisation of abortion in Ireland in 2013.

So it is entirely unnecessary to preface the claim (as the leaflet does) with “When abortion was banned in Ireland”.

Ireland’s ranking in terms of maternal mortality is the same now that abortion is not entirely banned, as it was when it was.

7. “It’s estimated that 90% of parents in Ireland continue with their pregnancy following a life-limiting diagnosis” 

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The source cited for this in the leaflet is a 2013 Irish Independent column written by Niamh Ui Bhriain, herself a spokesperson for the Life Institute.

In it, she writes “In 2011 there were 36 abortions carried out [in Britain] on Irish women for these conditions [fatal foetal abnormalities]“.

The Life Institute sent FactCheck figures provided by the UK government in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Those figures show that in 2011, Irish-resident women had 51 abortions on the grounds of serious foetal abnormality, in England and Wales. Ui Bhriain excluded non-fatal conditions like Down’s Syndrome and spina bifida from this, and arrived at the figure of 36.

The Life Institute also cited a 2012 Irish Times report entitled ’Although we have a pro-life identity, we do not have the healthcare that supports parents and newborn babies who have complex needs’.

The article cited research by Dr Joan Lalor of Trinity College Dublin, which found that about 740 pregnancies a year involve diagnoses of severe foetal abnormalities, and about 10% of those pregnancies end in abortion.

These are not definitive numbers, though, and there is no official source of data on the number of pre-birth diagnoses of severe abnormalities.

However, it is certainly TRUE that one estimate puts the percentage ending in abortion at 10%, as reflected in the claim.

8. “Recent studies show that abortion in [fatal foetal abnormality] cases can cause huge trauma for mothers…”

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The leaflet cites one study here - this one, from 2013.

That research tracked levels of grief, trauma and depression in women and men after a decision to either terminate or continue with a pregnancy involving anencephaly, a foetal abnormality which involves the absence of a significant portion of the brain or skull.

In short, it found that women who chose to terminate their pregnancy rather than continue it, experienced a higher level of grief, despair, avoidance, and overall depression, and concluded:

There appears to be a psychological benefit to women to continue the pregnancy following a lethal fetal diagnosis.

Once again, the use of “huge” in the claim is somewhat subjective, but fundamentally this is a fair reflection of the findings of the study in question.

In response to FactCheck, the Life Institute also cited this 2009 study, which featured in one of our previous fact checks.

It compared the psychological test results of three groups of women after a specific event.

That is: two weeks, six months, and 14 months after 1) the termination of a late pregnancy (second or third trimester) due to foetal anomalies, 2) a preterm (premature) birth of a VLBW (very low birth-weight) child, and 3) the birth of a healthy child.

It found that the rate of diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder was consistently higher among the first group, at every time interval, although the vast majority of women in all three groups did not have such diagnoses.

However, the paper does not compare between women choosing to terminate a pregnancy after a diagnosis of foetal abnormalities, and women choosing not to terminate a pregnancy after a diagnosis of foetal abnormalities.

So the study does not state that the choice to terminate the pregnancy (as opposed simply to the sheer presence of fatal foetal abnormalities) is what caused the increased rate of psychiatric order.

The evidence in this area is mixed, so we rate this claim Half TRUE.

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9. “Women who had abortions were 30% more likely to experience mental disorder, according to a major study…”

The source cited in the leaflet is this 2008 study, which involved extensive psychological testing on a cohort of women in New Zealand, over the course of 30 years.

It compared the prevalence of mental health problems (depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, alcohol and drug dependence) among women who had never been pregnant, with four groups:

  1. Women who had had an abortion
  2. Women who had experienced pregnancy loss
  3. Women who had had a negative reaction to their pregnancy, and gave birth
  4. Women who had had no negative reaction to their pregnancy, and gave birth.

It also took into account the possible role of various external factors like socioeconomic status, pre-existing mental health problems, academic achievement, employment problems, relationship problems.

In the end, the study found:

  • Women who had had an abortion were 1.37 times (37%) more likely to have mental health problems than women who had not been pregnant, and after five years, 1.32 times (32%) more  likely
  • Women who had experienced pregnancy loss were 25% more likely, and after five years, 1.06 times 6% more likely
  • Women who had had a negative reaction to their pregnancy, and gave birth, were 11% more likely, and after five years, 5% more likely
  • Women who had had no negative reaction to their pregnancy, and gave birth, were 7% less likely to have mental health problems, but after five years, 22% more likely.

So the claim in the leaflet (“Women who had abortions were 30% more likely to experience mental disorder”) actually slightly understates what the study says.

As a statement about that specific study, we rate it TRUE.

However, it should not be taken as comprehensive of all research into the psychological effects of abortion, which has been very mixed, with several studies finding no increased likelihood of mental health problems stemming from abortion, or that most women who undergo an abortion do not regret their decision.

10. “The suicide rate for women who had abortions was 6 times higher than for women who had given birth, according to a 13-year study”

The leaflet cites this 2005 study, which tracked deaths and injuries among various groups of women in Finland between 1987 and 2000.

In short, it found that the rate of suicide among women who had had an abortion in the previous year was 33.8 per 100,000 pregnancies - 6.15 times higher than that of women who had given birth (5.5 suicides per 100,000 pregnancies).

However, after the introduction of new care guidelines in Finland in 2001, a follow-up study by the same author in 2015 found that the suicide rate among women who had had an abortion in the previous 12 months had fallen by 24%.

We don’t have more updated figures for the suicide rate among women who gave birth, so we can’t say how these two cohorts compare now.

Secondly, it’s important to note that this study does not find that abortion causes the increased suicide rate.

The author, Mika Gissler, in an earlier study on the same issue, wrote:

The relation between suicide, mental disorders, life events, social class, and social support is a complex one. Abortion might mean a selection of women at higher risk for suicide because of reasons like depression.
Another explanation for the higher suicide rate after an abortion could be low social class, low social support, and previous life events or that abortion is chosen by women who are at higher risk for suicide because of other reasons.

However, he added that a causal link was possible:

Increased risk for a suicide after an induced abortion can, besides indicating common risk factors for both, result from a negative effect of induced abortion on mental wellbeing.

The situation in Britain

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Many of the claims made in this section actually refer specifically to England and Wales (rather than Britain), but where possible, we have found evidence relating to Scotland as well.

11. “Up to 200,000 abortions every year”

In 2015, there were 191,014 abortions in England and Wales (pg 23), and 12,082 in Scotland (pg 6). In Britain, therefore, there were 203,096.

The claim is TRUE.

12. “90% of babies with Down Syndrome aborted”

This was the subject of a fact check article in June, and you can find full details there.

These are the basic facts, from the 2013 report of the National Down Syndrome Cytogenic Register for England and Wales:

  • There were 1,232 pre-birth Down Syndrome diagnoses in 2013
  • 75% (925) ended in termination; 6.7% (82) ended in live birth; 1.6% (20) ended in foetal death; the outcome was unknown in 16.6% of cases (205)
  • Of the cases whose outcome was known, 90% ended in termination.

Evidence was not available for Scotland. Given this gap in our knowledge, and the fact that the 90% figure refers to known outcomes, rather than all outcomes, the claim is Mostly TRUE.

13. “Abortion up to birth where the baby has a disability”

Under a 1990 amendment to the 1967 Abortion Act, there is no gestational age limit for abortion in the UK in the following three circumstances:

  • Continuing the pregnancy would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of a woman that terminating it
  • The termination is necessary to prevent serious, permanent harm to the physical or mental health of the woman
  • There is a “substantial risk” that if the child was born, it would be seriously physically or mentally handicapped

While there is no precise legal definition of “substantial risk” or “serious handicap”, and these determinations are left to two qualified doctors, it’s clear that not just any disability is, in practice, accepted as a grounds for termination after 24 weeks.

Some of the foetal diagnoses involved includes: spina bifida, anencephaly, microcephaly, Down’s Syndrome (pg 33).

And it is also relatively extremely rare. In 2015, 230 abortions took place in the UK after 24 weeks (6 months), on the basis of a substantial risk of serious disability in the foetus.

That’s 0.12% of the total 185,824 terminations among women resident in England and Wales.

Some 52 terminations took place after 32 weeks (in the ninth month), the latest gestational age band specified. That’s 0.03% of all terminations among residents of England and Wales last year.

The phenomenon described in the claim (“Abortion up to birth where the baby has a disability”) is extremely rare, and the disability involved is required to be deemed “serious” by two medical professionals.

However, it is allowed under British law, and does take place. We rate the claim Mostly TRUE.

14. “Babies that survive abortion simply being left to die. (66 in 2008 alone)”

As evidence, the Life Institute cited the Confidential Maternal Deaths Enquiry’s 2007 report on perinatal mortality in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The year referred to was 2005 and not 2008.

The report states (pg 28) that of the 2,235 neonatal deaths (deaths of newborns) in England and Wales that year, 66 came after an abortion. That is, a termination was performed, but the child was born showing signs of life.

The report points out that in most of the 66 cases, there had been a diagnosis of congenital abnormality, and that the newborns died on average after 55-66 minutes.

It should also be pointed out that the phenomenon of neonatal death after an abortion is extremely rare.

In 2005, there were 194,300 abortions in England and Wales. There were 66 neonatal deaths after an abortion – that’s 0.03% of cases.

There is no evidence in the report that these newborns were “simply left to die” – i.e. that medical professionals were negligent or indifferent toward their survival, after they were born.

For this reason, we rate the claim Mostly FALSE.

15. “37% were repeat abortions in 2014″

Figures taken from the UK Department of Health, and NHS Scotland, for 2014:

  • Abortions by residents of England and Wales, and in Scotland: 196,046
  • Abortions by women who had previously had one or more abortions: 72,606
  • 37.03% were repeat abortions

Using the same figures and method, 35.5% were repeat abortions in 2015.

The claim is TRUE.

Europe

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16. “In Spain the abortion rate is also at 20%”

In 2014, the most recent year we have data for, there were 94,796 abortions in Spain, according to the country’s Department of Health.

According to the national statistics agency INE, there were 426,303 births that year, and there were 1,347 still births.

That’s a total of 522,446 pregnancies, 18.1% of which ended in abortion.

The claim is Mostly TRUE.

17. “In France it was 21% in 2013″

In 2013, there were 229,000 abortions in France, 811,510 births, and 7,281 still births.

That’s a total of 1,047,791 pregnancies, 21.9% of which ended in abortion.

The claim is Mostly TRUE.

18. “In Sweden 41% of all abortions are repeat abortions”

Official Swedish government statistics show that in 2015, there were 38,071 abortions.

  • 21,479 (56.4%) were among women who had never had an abortion previously
  • 9,631 (25.3%) were among women who had had one previous abortion
  • 6,516 (17.1%) were among women who had had two or more previous abortions
  • In 445 cases, the previous history of the woman was not known
  • 16,147 cases were among women who had had one or more previous abortions – that’s 42.4% 

The claim is Mostly TRUE.

19. “In France 35% are repeat abortions”

In 2011, 37.3% of women undergoing an abortion had previous undergone one or more (pg 9 – “Nombre d’IVG antérieures”).

The claim is Mostly TRUE.

Conclusion

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We tested 19 factual claims from the Yes to Life leaflet.

  • 2 were TRUE
  • 4 were TRUE, but required disclaimers or explanations
  • 8 were Mostly TRUE
  • 2 were Half TRUE
  • 1 was Mostly FALSE
  • 0 were FALSE
  • 2 were UNPROVEN

You can read the leaflet in full here, or a newly-updated version of it, here.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

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