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FactCheck: Who got it right in this abortion debate between Ruth Coppinger and Cora Sherlock?

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck attempts to resolve an argument over abortion facts on Tonight with Vincent Browne last night.

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THE EIGHTH AMENDMENT and abortion remain firmly on the political agenda, with bills being presented in the Dáil this week and next week.

Last night, TV3′s Tonight with Vincent Browne hosted a debate on these issues between AAA/PBP TD Ruth Coppinger and the Pro-life Campaign’s Cora Sherlock.

Things got somewhat heated when Sherlock made a point about what she saw as the possible consequences of liberalising Ireland’s abortion regime, and a factual dispute ensued over Down Syndrome diagnoses and terminations.

Both accused the other of telling untruths, so we decided to step in and try to sort it out.

(Remember, if you see a fact-fight that needs to be resolved, email factcheck@thejournal.ie)

Claim 1: 90% of Down Syndrome diagnoses in England end in termination – Cora Sherlock
Verdict: Mostly TRUE

(Note posted 03 Feb 2018 – A new pro-life campaign has begun to post billboards around the country which claim that “90% of babies with Down syndrome are aborted”. This is not true as the claim does not make the clarification that Cora Sherlock made in the 2016 comment we factcheck here, namely that she was referring to the percentage of terminations of pregnancies with a prenatal 
diagnosis of Down syndrome. See the 2018 billboard claim and our FactFind here.)

Claim 2: In England and Wales, 44% of pre-birth Down Syndrome diagnoses end in live birth – Ruth Coppinger
Verdict: Mostly FALSE

What was said

A quick note before we start. This dispute relates to a very sensitive and broader medical and ethical issue.

But in this article, we will just be examining one specific statistical question. Some of the language we use might sound cold or clinical, but this is needed to try to get as close as possible to the facts.

So everyone is on the same page, here’s a clip of the dispute from last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne. You can watch the entire episode on TV3.ie.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Cora Sherlock’s claim:

In England at the moment, 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted.

Ruth Coppinger’s claim:

There are some statistics that were done in England and Wales from 2008-2012, and they showed 44% of pregnancies that got a pre-natal Down’s diagnosis were born.

The Facts

We asked Cora Sherlock for a source for her claim. She cited this 2013 UK Parlimentary Inquiry report on abortion on the grounds of disability.

The relevant figures there were in turn taken from the National Down Syndrome Cytogenic Register (NDSCR) for England and Wales, Annual Report 2010.

  • The figures are for England and Wales, not just England as Sherlock said on Tonight with Vincent Browne
  • The report found 1,188 pre-birth Down Syndrome diagnoses in 2010
  • 79% (942) ended in termination; 4.5% (54) ended in live birth; 2% (25) ended in foetal death; the outcome was unknown in 14% of cases (167)
  • Of the cases whose outcome was known, 92% ended in termination.

But those figures are old. The most recent NDSCR report was for 2013. It found:

  • 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.

28/10/2014. Abortion Issues Pill Trains Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

We asked Ruth Coppinger for a source for her claim, and she cited data from EUROCAT – a European network of registries for the “surveillance of congenital anomalies”.

The figures she supplied related to England, Ireland, Wales and Glasgow, and not just England and Wales, as she stated on Tonight with Vincent Browne.

We ran the numbers ourselves, and here’s what we found:

  • From 2008 to 2012, there were 3,836 Down Syndrome diagnoses in those areas
  • 46.6% (1,788) ended in termination after a pre-natal diagnosis; 49% (1,887) ended in live birth; 4.2% (161) ended in foetal death.

Let’s isolate just England and Wales, so we can make a direct comparison with the NDSCR figures cited by Cora Sherlock.

  • From 2008 to 2012, there were 3,237 Down Syndrome diagnoses in England and Wales
  • 54.8% (1,774) ended in termination after a pre-natal diagnosis; 41.3% (1,337) ended in live birth; 3.9% (126) ended in foetal death.

Which is right?

There is a significant gap between 54.8% and 90%, and there is a simple statistical explanation for that.

That 54.8% is 54.8% of all Down Syndrome diagnoses, not just those made before birth.

The pre-birth detection rate for Down Syndrome in England and Wales in 2013 was about 65%, according to the NDSCR report.

It found 1,886 diagnoses (both before and at birth) in 2013, 49% of which ended in termination. That figure is not far from the rate found by EUROCAT, and other studies from around Britain.

  • In 2012, the British and Irish Network of Congenital Anomaly Researchers (Binocar) found 58% of Down Syndrome diagnoses in England and Wales ended in termination (page 24).
  • From 2006-2010, the East Midlands and South Yorkshire Congenital Anomalies Register found 47.4% of Down Syndrome diagnoses in that region ended in termination (page 13).
  • From 2005-2012, the Congenital Anomaly Register for Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire found 58.5% of Down Syndrome diagnoses in that region ended in termination (page 25).

But if the numbers were limited to only pre-birth diagnoses, the rate of termination would by definition be higher.

Let’s take that 65% detection rate in England and Wales, for example, and apply it to the figures for England and Wales found by EUROCAT (the source Coppinger cited).

According to EUROCAT, there were 3,237 diagnoses in England and Wales between 2008 and 2012.

65% of that is 2,104. And there were 1,774 terminations after a pre-birth diagnosis.

That means around 84% of pre-birth diagnoses ended in termination between 2008 and 2012 in England and Wales, if we use the 65% detection rate found by NDSCR, and apply it to EUROCAT data.

Not far off the 90% found by NDSCR, and cited by Cora Sherlock.

Conclusion

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 5.13.27 PM Source: TV3.ie

Both Coppinger and Sherlock misstated their own claims on Tonight with Vincent Browne.

Sherlock said “England”, when the data she was citing actually related to “England and Wales”, and did not specify she was talking about pre-birth diagnoses.

However, allowing for that as a simple misstatement, the 90% figure she presented was largely accurate, and her claim is Mostly TRUE.

A note of caution there would be the possibility that the 17% of cases where the outcome was unknown skewed heavily against terminations, although this seems unlikely.

Coppinger said “England and Wales”, when the data she was citing actually related to England, Wales, Glasgow and Ireland.

This can also fairly be put down as a simple misstatement.

However, she presented terminations as a percentage of all diagnoses, as terminations as a percentage of pre-birth diagnoses.

This massively skews the data, and gives us a rate of 54.8%, where (as we calculated above) 84% is more likely to be accurate.

Her stated claim was that 44% of pre-birth Down Syndrome diagnoses end in live birth, but we know this cannot be true, if around 84% ended in termination.

However, there is no absolutely definitive source for this statistic, and studies vary somewhat by method and geography.

For this reason, her claim is Mostly FALSE.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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