Current Affairs Repeal The 8th

Repeal The 8th Resources

If you’re looking to campaign to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland, I’ve gathered some resources that I’ve found helpful in answering questions, or encouraging further reading. I may edit this post again to add further links/resources as I come across them.

General Links
The Guttmacher Institute is a great source for clear, easy-to-understand information and statistics about abortion.

Waiting Periods
In particular, I have found this section on waiting periods to be particularly useful: I’ve summarised some of that info myself here:

Mental health / regret / women hurt
There are a wealth of studies which show that women, by and large, don’t regret their decision to have an abortion, a few of which are listed here:

Mentioned in some of the studies above, and also in another linked below (specific to the Irish situation) is some discussion about why women who do feel sadness and regret may feel this way – it’s linked heavily to a lack of community support, stigma about sex, stigma about their decision, etc.

Physical harm
There’s no links between abortion and breast cancer, failure to conceive later, etc. Abortion itself is not a risky procedure, and has lower rates of risk at all stages than pregnancy.

Abortion as contraception / repeat abortions
There’s a lot of chatter about repeat abortions and the stats are often used to imply that people will frivolously choose abortion, or that they are using it as contraception. People are often using contraception when they become pregnant, and one contraceptive failure doesn’t protect you from further contraceptive failures or make it less likely that it’ll happen to you again. The same logic applies when discussing fatal foetal abnormalities – if you have had a pregnancy where a fatal foetal abnormality has been diagnosed, this doesn’t make you less likely to have another, and may even make it more likely.

Countries where abortion is legal have similar or lower rates than countries without legal abortion, so the evidence from other countries doesn’t support the idea that legalising abortion here would significantly change the number of people accessing abortion. Abortion rates are typically under-reported in countries where abortion is illegal, so the numbers may even be higher than we know for Ireland. Rates of abortion in developed countries are actually in decline in general, and greater access to contraception has led to steady declines in unintended pregnancy also.

Notable incidences in Ireland
There’s a number of incidences of the 8th interfering in pregnancy, or the treatment of pregnant women, in Ireland.

Implications in pregnancy (consent, etc.)

Important Stories

Current Affairs Repeal The 8th

Waiting periods for abortion

There has been much coverage recently of the policy paper on what the law might be if the 8th Amendment is repealed. The Times highlighted point 8 in this policy paper, a policy which would potentially add a waiting period for women who request a medical abortion, i.e. abortion prior to 12 weeks using pills, and notes that this might be a 3 day waiting period. I have written to Simon Harris and my own local TDs, urging them to reconsider this, in the hopes that they will examine the evidence which suggests that a waiting period is not beneficial and is, in fact, detrimental to women in a number of ways.

Waiting periods for termination present a number of barriers for women hoping to access this service. Many people will have difficulty getting time off work to attend an appointment in the first place, especially those in less secure jobs, jobs without sick leave, jobs with zero hour contracts, etc. and to force them to take two days off will be prohibitive. Many GPs have long waiting lists for appointments, and regularly run over-time and behind schedule – my own GP needs to be booked at least a week or two in advance for an appointment, and unless you are the first in the door, you will likely be sitting in the waiting room for a long time beyond your appointment. In some cases, I’ve waited for over an hour or more beyond my scheduled time. To ask women in a vulnerable employment situation to do this twice, while employers chastise them for lateness or missing work, or to ask women attempting to seek a termination without letting others know to explain prolonged absences like this not once but twice is prohibitive, and will prevent women from accessing the care they need.

Waiting periods are almost never required for other medical procedures, so there isn’t a good medical reason to apply a waiting period to this procedure. I, for example, have had my appendix removed, and have had laser eye surgery, and I was able to access both of those irreversible medical procedures on request, without the imposition of a waiting period.

All the best evidence shows that when women arrive at a medical facility seeking termination, they have made their decision and that decision is fixed. Waiting periods are rooted in the idea that they may change their minds, but evidence shows that a majority of people do not. Moreover, there is an infantilising and slightly insulting undertone to the waiting periods that women may simply be too emotional, too flighty, or otherwise unqualified to make and commit to a decision, or to make a decision and then not change their minds afterwards.

Waiting periods, far from making sure women are able to change their minds and protecting them from regretting or being upset by their decision, are actually detrimental to the mental health of women. One third of surveyed patients in Texas, for example, felt that the mandatory waiting period had a negative effect on their mental state.

Adding a waiting period also led to difficulties with women accessing termination, which often led to later term abortions taking place. While the risk for all kinds of abortion is very low, that small risk does rise with later gestational age, and waiting periods delay this treatment for an unspecified amount of time, as there is no guarantee that a woman might be able to return precisely three days later, either due to her own schedule, or to the GPs schedule.

I understand that there is a perception that people might be pressured into a termination, or might regret it or change their minds, but the evidence overwhelmingly does not back this up. The vast, vast majority of people are sure of their decision when they seek a termination, and they don’t regret it afterwards either.

Women are confident in their decision to have an abortion. Mandated waiting periods only add a delay between a woman’s decision and her procedure. See below from the Guttmacher Institute.

  • A study of Wisconsin’s 2013 mandatory preabortion ultrasound law found that 93% of women were certain in their decision to obtain an abortion, both before and after the law was implemented.5
  • A nationally representative survey of abortion patients conducted in 2008 found that 92% of women reported they had made up their mind to have an abortion prior to making an appointment.6
  • According to a study of women seeking abortion at a U.S. clinic in 2008, 99% of abortion patients reported being “sure” or “kind of sure” of their decision to have an abortion, and 98% reported that “abortion is a better choice for me at this time than having a baby.”7
  • A 2015 qualitative study on travel-related barriers to abortion found that facing multiple barriers, such as limited access to clinics and financial constraints, had a cumulative impact on abortion access.8 The study authors considered waiting periods to be harmful in the context of these barriers.
  • In a 2014 study of Utah women seeking an abortion, 74% of participants said that the 72-hour waiting period did not affect the certainty of their decision to have an abortion and 17% said that the waiting period made them more certain about the decision.9

The percentage of women who regret having a termination is very small, and has been over-blown and misrepresented by pro-life advocates during their campaign. There is ample evidence which tells us that the majority of women believed it was the right decision for them. All of these studies confirm that women felt their decision was the right one for them, with no regrets, or regrets only that they had to do something illegal in their own country.

In summary, women don’t change their minds because of waiting periods, and they feel their decision (which was already made when they sought a termination) was the right one for them. The primary contributing factors in women who did have negative feelings was the stigma associated with abortion, something which will not be helped by a waiting period and the associated perception that women might choose abortions on a whim, or change their minds if they sleep on it.

Adding a waiting period just imposed a barrier and makes it more difficult for a person to access the healthcare they need. It adds a time and travel barrier, a cost barrier, an access barrier. It adds no benefit. None. Adding a waiting period is not compatible with any system which would claim to “trust women” as it implies that we can’t be trusted.

Please trust us to know our own bodies and minds.

Current Affairs Repeal The 8th

Do Women Hurt After Abortion

Note: I generally prefer to be more inclusive, and use the term “pregnant people/person”. However, throughout this, I will sometimes use the term “women hurt” in response and reference to the “Women Hurt” slogan being used by pro-life campaigners.

A frequent claim by pro-life groups is that “women hurt” after abortion, and that these women are ignored or marginalised by Repeal campaigners. I wanted to look into this, to see what the statistics said about how people felt after abortion.

Having looked into it, I’m certain that this claim (like many others) does not hold much water.

There have actually been numerous studies to examine how people feel about their decision to have an abortion. One study in the US, which examined both people who had early terminations, and people who had terminations closer to the term limits for abortion, found that 95% of those questioned felt that abortion was the right choice for them. 95%. 90% of people in this study felt relief that they were able to obtain an abortion. Even when people who had an abortion felt primarily negative emotions, like regret and sadness, more than 80 percent still said that it was the right choice.

And this isn’t the only study. Here’s another, with similar results – its conclusion notes that “The finding that the incidence rate of psychiatric contact was similar before and after a first-trimester abortion does not support the hypothesis that there is an increased risk of mental disorders after a first-trimester induced abortion. In fact, study after study supports this.

Every time people are asked, in all the countries they have been asked, they report that abortion was the right choice. 

Another article (about a paper in British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) notes that far from hurting, the only regret expressed by Irish women who obtain abortion pills online is “that they are having to do something that is illegal in their country. They express anger and disappointment that they could not access a safe, legal abortion and felt they were treated as second-class citizens.”

These studies don’t report 100% percent of people, and a frequent claim is that the 5% of women who do hurt are ignored. What about the other 5%? The women who hurt, who the pro-life campaign claim are not being acknowledged by the campaign?

Well, some people do experience negative feelings after and abortion. Why? Because of negative social attitudes, low social support, stigma. This study talks about how higher perceived community stigma about abortion was associated with negative feelings. And this is a whole thesis exploring the impact of this stigma on the mental wellbeing of people who have accessed abortion.

In other words, “women hurt” because pro-life campaigners stigmatise their decision. In other words, “women hurt” because pro-life campaigners lie about statistics and cultivate an atmosphere of shame.

The negative feelings people have after abortion are associated with an atmosphere which stigmatises people who have abortions, and which does not support or care for people after abortions. When you cultivate an atmosphere which shames people for making choices about their reproductive health, it is inevitable that some people will feel ashamed. People need support after abortion the same way any individual needs support after making an important life decision, and when they don’t get that, they may hurt. Not because of the abortion, but because of how they are isolated by those who stigmatise abortion.

The issue of emotional hurt is difficult because abortion (like all decisions surrounding reproduction) is a highly personal experience. There is another aspect to address, however, and it is the issue of physical hurt. There are many claims about the physical after-effects of abortion which have been repeatedly shown to be false.

So what about physical hurt? The ARC says that abortion has fewer risks at any stage than pregnancy and they are not alone in saying this. 0.23% of all abortions in the US lead to major health complications. That’s less than 1%. Less than 1/4 of 1%, in fact. It is an incredibly safe procedure. Nor is there any evidence to support a link between abortion and any of the conditions to which it has been falsely linked. Abortion doesn’t increase your risk of cancer, or affect your fertility.

Moreover, pregnancy and birth are not without risks. Here is an excellent thread by a nurse which discusses some of the risks associated with pregnancy and birth (please click through to twitter to read in its entirety):

These images say that “no one told me I would suffer after my abortion” but that’s not true. Pro-life campaigners regularly tell people they will suffer, and imply that they should. They cultivate an atmosphere of shame and stigma which discourages people from speaking openly about abortion. Women don’t hurt because of abortion, they hurt because of the lies that are told about why they choose abortion. They hurt because of the aspersions that are cast on tough decisions they have made. They hurt because they are repeatedly told that they must. It’s not ok.

Overwhelmingly, the evidence says that a majority of people do not hurt, physically or emotionally, after abortion. Those who do have their hurt exacerbated by people who lie about abortion statistics, and who cultivate an atmosphere of shame and stigma about their reproductive decisions. I acknowledge that some people may regret their decision, just as individuals may regret any major life decision, but I will not contribute to the regret they may feel with half-truths or lies about what they have done. People deserve better than this. People deserve the support of their friends, family, and community when they go through difficult times, and denying them this support is what truly makes women hurt.

Current Affairs Repeal The 8th

On repeat abortions.

Some lies are particularly prevalent when people are discussing figures about repeat abortion. Some people have had more than one abortion. This is true. There are figures which show this clearly. Many imply (or outright say!) that these people should have “learned their lesson” the first time, or that these people are simply lazy or ignorant of contraception, or should “keep their legs closed”. (At this point, it seems prudent to point out that many people who would like others to “learn their lesson” are also people who do not accept that pregnancy is a burden which someone may not be able to bear, but insist that every child is a blessing.)

Let’s address these points in order.

The sex education system in Ireland has a lot to answer for, not the least is the woeful understanding that many people seem to have about contraception. So here comes a primer.

Contraception is not perfect. It is incredible to me that I have to say that aloud. It is not perfect. Even with perfect use, contraception is not 100% perfect. And it doesn’t have perfect use. With typical use, pregnancy happens. Even when you are using contraception.

In fact, in 2014, over 50% of people accessing Marie Stopes services were using contraception when they became pregnant. Over half of the people were using contraception. Let that sink in. Almost 60%, actually. Not lazy, not about “lessons”.

Contraception failure happens. More often than you think. It’s insulting to imply that person didn’t “learn a lesson”. What’s more, contraception failure happening once certainly doesn’t preclude it happening a 2nd or 3rd time. The idea that you should just use contraception and then you would never need an abortion is laughable. Contraception isn’t magical, it fails. And it can fail more than once. There isn’t a lesson to be learned, or a conclusion to be drawn. You can do everything by the book, and even everything by the restrictive “good, moral sex” book, and still end up pregnant. It happens.

Further, the idea that one can simply keep their legs closed in order to avoid pregnancy, in our current culture, is laughable. Marital rape in Ireland was only made a crime in 1990, and since then, just two people have been convicted of it. Two. Some people seem very concerned that people will be coerced into abortion by doctors after a FFA diagnosis, but they do not seem to be as concerned about the fact that many will end up pregnant as a result of being coerced into sex.

Leaving aside the issue of imperfect contraception, we also know that many people are faced with the diagnosis of a FFA (fatal foetal abnormality). What people seem to be ignoring is that abortion may not be a one-time choice for these people either.

If you are a carrier of a genetic condition, and your partner is too, then your child has up to a 50% chance of developing that condition (This percentage varies depending on autosomal dominance, etc.) The chances vary depending on the type of genetic disorder, and whether both parents are carriers, or whether it is autosomal dominant, recessive, etc. There are many factors which play into this. But with two autosomal dominant parents, the chance of a child inheriting a particular condition can be as high as 1 in 2. It may be possible to lower these odds, but it usually requires significant medical intervention – IVF, embryo selection, donor sperm or egg, etc. It is not trivial.

But, importantly, it doesn’t disappear because you’ve had more than one pregnancy. The chance is always present. In fact, if you’ve had one pregnancy with a genetic malformation, the chance of you having a second is often higher.

There are too many iterations of different conditions and different ways of inheriting conditions to go into in extensive detail. A decent overview of some of this information can be found here

It discusses, in easy to understand language, the different risk factors for genetic disorders.
In short, having a pregnancy where a foetus is diagnosed with a condition which is incompatible with life may not be a once-off for prospective parents. Unfortunately, they may find themselves having to travel more than once for the same reason. Tarring these women with some sort of “too lazy to use contraception” brush helps no one. It is insulting and hurtful in the extreme.

People like to imply that women are just lazy, or just casually using abortion as contraception, but the truth is that we can’t know for sure why women have more than one abortion. We do, however, know that contraception is not infallible. We do know the risks of genetic conditions being passed from parent to child. We do know that those risks increase when a previous pregnancy has had issues. It is lazy and ignorant to imply that women are simply too lazy or ignorant to use contraception, and I’m tired of hearing it.

Women are not helped by judgemental comments about their decisions. They are not helped by implications that they are too stupid or lazy to use contraception. This is not how you love both.

Women need access to free, safe, legal abortion, without judgement about the reasons for accessing abortion.

Current Affairs Repeal The 8th

Abortions for “cosmetic” reasons

I wanted to address something that I keep seeing, over and over again, in relation to the Repeal campaign – the assertion that “children are aborted right up to birth in the UK for cosmetic reasons”, and links to articles talking about a “huge increase” in this.

Here are just two examples, both linking to the same article:

I did some research and found that (as so often is the case) the figures are being misrepresented, and the truth is a good deal more complicated than these tweeters would have you believe. We keep seeing the statement that babies are aborted “up until birth” for “cosmetic reasons”. The implication is that hundreds of foetuses with cleft lips are being aborted at late foetal age, above and beyond the usual termination limits. As per usual, the truth is just a little bit different.

There’s a report, which logs the number of, and reason for, abortions. In 2015, 11 terminations with cleft lip / palate as a reason. The number after 24 weeks was zero. In 2014, the number was 10. The number after 24 weeks was still zero. In 2013, the number was 9. The number after 24 weeks was still zero.

So between 2013-2015, that’s an astonishing rise of 2. Just 2. And still none over 24 weeks.

We have to look back to 2012 to see a smaller number, which was 4. The number after 24 weeks was, you guessed it, still zero.

So, now that we’ve addressed the claim of “up to birth”, let’s look at “just for cosmetic reasons”. Note, also, that the various linked documents state not the sole reason, but the “principal medical condition”. Meaning that it may not be the only one. Why is this important? Well, it is well established that cleft lip / palate is often associated with other malformations / issues. It is more than cosmetic.

A study in Pakistan, for example, found that the most common associated condition is congenital heart disease. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists also has an information page detailing the numerous foetal abnormalities which may be associated with cleft lip/palate. In fact, there is a lot of research surrounding conditions which are associated with cleft lip / palate, which include Van der Woude syndrome,22q11.2-related disordersRobin sequenceStickler syndrome and Treacher Collins syndrome. More than 40% of children with a cleft palate but not a cleft lip also have one of these associate conditions. Here, the Cleft Lip and Palate association of Ireland, discusses conditions associated with a cleft lip and/or palate.

In short, while cleft/lip palate may have been the primary diagnosed condition, it’s possible (and in some cases, very likely) that another or multiple other issues were subsequently identified which led to a pregnant person choosing termination. There are many reasons why a pregnant person may choose termination. To dismiss these reasons as “just cosmetic” does everyone a disservice. Unless they choose to share them, we can’t know the reasons a person chooses termination. Making repeated (false) claims about cosmetically motivated abortions up to birth casts aspersions on the motivations of pregnant people and implies flippant, superficial, selfish behaviour, or behaviour that one might want to be ashamed of – which is, of course, the exact emotion these claims are designed to evoke. These claims are based on a falsehood that is simply not borne out by the numbers.

People are wilfully misrepresenting this number, and straight up lying about these abortions being performed up to birth. And people are misrepresenting the decision that these people made, and the statistics, to manipulate others. So many people, and groups, are misleading the public about these numbers, about this information. Enough is enough. It is not good enough to imply that many foetuses are being aborted up to birth for cosmetic reasons when the actual numbers do not support this assertion. This is a claim designed to shame, based on a lie. Don’t repeat it.

Current Affairs

It’s time to talk about vaccinations

It’s been a long time since I sat down to write a blog, but what’s happening right now in Ireland has motivated me out of my slumber.

Vaccination programs in Ireland are going through some troubled times. Though we have a well-established program designed to provide the best possible protection from some awful conditions, people who believe that vaccines cause autism or other unspecified health issues are increasingly being given publicity in papers, on tv, on the radio, and online.

Recently, REGRET have been occupying a lot of media time, and their campaign against the HPV vaccine has already borne some very bitter fruit – the number of people getting the vaccine has almost halved. This week also brought the news that the makers of the VAXXED movie plan to come and visit Ireland with their particular brand of anti-vaccination propaganda.

This is not ok.

HPV and the Cervical Cancer Vaccine

70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. 70%. Recent academic work suggests that this number might be as high as 90%.

Two strains of HPV in particular are responsible for this number, 16, and 18. Both of these strains are covered by this vaccine.

I appreciate that parents have concerns for their children. Of course they do, it makes perfect sense – parents only want the best for their children, and that includes their health! And I know that a lot of people just brush off these concerns and that it doesn’t reassure parents as much as it possibly could. It’s unfortunate because it’s maybe not the best way to always address these concerns, but these comments are also coming from a place of concern and worry.

The majority of cervical cancers are caused by two of the HPV strains protected against by the vaccine, and there is evidence linking HPV with vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers also. And since the introduction of the vaccine cervical cancer diagnoses have dropped by 50%. That is half the number of families who will go through the pain, stress, and upset of a sick family member, and that is hugely significant. So when people complain about anti-vaxxers, it is also from a place of concern – concern that these numbers will change for the worse. Concern that people won’t be protected, and concern that young women will continue to get cervical cancer, even though it is preventable.

I know that the issues reported by some are a cause for concern, and I know that these girls are having health issues. But all the available evidence suggests that these issues are not caused by the vaccine. There are a number of health conditions which have similar symptoms to those most frequently reported, and these conditions often present in teenage years. Just like the MMR and autism, the issue is correlation rather than causation – i.e. just because two things happen together does not mean one has caused the other, and it’s not scientifically correct to assume so. Unfortunately, there are a number of medical conditions which present in adolescence and early adulthood, and it is at these times that many girls are receiving the vaccines.

Groups like Regret are calling for investigations, but those investigations have already happened. And overwhelmingly, those investigations have deemed the vaccine to be safe, and life-saving. These girls and their families need help and support for whatever medical conditions are affecting them, absolutely, but those conditions were not caused by the vaccine. Sadly, groups like Regret are also frequently misrepresenting information in order to push for these investigations, and that is very hard for some people (myself included) to see. In their TV3 “documentary”, for example, they talk to one girl who is now unable to go to school because she is unwell and having seizures. Every article about this girl says that she had her first seizures after the vaccine. But in the documentary, her mother talks about how she was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child after having a number of seizures. It is sad that this girl is unwell again, but it’s simply not accurate to represent her medical history as “perfectly well until vaccine” or “no seizures until vaccine”, and yet this is how Regret repeatedly present her case.

Though there have been repeated calls for the HSE to investigate these claims, it’s not really up to the HSE to address the issues any more than they already have done. The HSE isn’t the group to do additional studies or investigate these claims. They have noted the evidence for the safety of the vaccine on their sites, they have sent representatives to comment on it repeatedly. There have already been numerous worldwide studies on the vaccine, and they have shown it to be safe and effective. They have also not found any evidence linking it to the medical issues that some girls are experiencing.

In 2012, my dad passed away after battling cancer for the second time. If there was a vaccine to prevent this happening, to prevent his type of cancer, I would take it in a heartbeat. The pain of losing a family member will never leave me, it utterly changed our family. At the same time, our neighbour also passed away from cervical cancer. She also left behind a family who were heartbroken. This vaccine prevents tragedies like this. Families receiving the worst kind of news and saying the hardest goodbyes. Cervical cancer is a preventable cancer and people who instill fear about the vaccine will ultimately be responsible for girls going unprotected and more cancer diagnoses.

MMR and autism

While studying for my MSc, I researched the purported MMR/autism link from a science communication perspective. It is a very sticky controversy, which persists despite ample evidence that it is not true. It changes itself in response to the evidence, first claiming that mercury in the vaccines causes autism, then pivoting to blame other preservatives once it was established that mercury was no longer present in the vaccine. It is a many-headed beast which refuses to die.

There is a wealth of information about how doctors, scientists, and the media all spoke about the MMR vaccine during the height of the scandal, and it has never been more important to consider this information and use it to inform how we communicate about vaccines. Ultimately, it is well established that there is no link between the MMR and a child developing autism. In the many millions of doses that have been given, a link has never been proved. But the myth persists because of groups who prop it up, media who give them a platform, and scientists who do a bad job of addressing the very real fears that parents have. If we don’t change this now, history will repeat itself. This is already happening with the HPV vaccine and will continue to blight medical progress.

Then, and now, parents are led to believe that there is an equal amount of evidence on both sides of the debate by multiple media accounts which opt to provide “balance” above and beyond accuracy. Parents don’t just frivolously decide not to vaccinate – they were more likely to not allow the MMR vaccine, for example, if they had experience with a family member or friend’s child who had developed autism – they decide based on their experiences with autism, their worries about their children, and their understanding of the perceived debate or controversy within the medical community about the safety of the vaccine. With the MMR vaccine, there were a lot of opportunities to communicate with parents, but most of the communications were instead addressed to scientists and doctors who already believed the MMR was safe. These communications weren’t clear to everyone and weren’t accessible to people who needed information to make a crucial decision. While it was necessary to debunk the false claims about the MMR, doing so by dismissing parents’ fears as irrational, superstitious, or stupid was ineffective, and didn’t address the genuine fears and concerns that parents held.

All available evidence suggests that the MMR is safe and effective. All available evidence also suggests that conditions like Measles, like Mumps, like a hundred other things we can now vaccinate against, have terrible, and potentially fatal, results. Mumps may seem like a sore throat, but it can also render men infertile. Measles may seem like a bad dose of the chickenpox, but it causes the most vaccine-preventable deaths of any disease. Rubella can lead to hearing and sight loss, and profound brain damage.

The MMR doesn’t contain thiomersal anymore, and even when it did, thiomersal doesn’t contain the kind of mercury which accumulates in the body and causes issues. Andrew Wakefield lost his license because his unethical, unapproved, biased research didn’t meet any reasonable standard, and the damage he has done is profound and long-lasting. He was struck off the register because his paper (on which he based his press conferences about the MMR) was fraudulent. No researcher has been able to reproduce or validate the claims that he made, and many have tried. Before he submitted the paper, he received £55,000 from solicitors who were seeking evidence that vaccines had caused problems in certain children, and he didn’t inform anybody. This is a clear conflict of interest, and further investigations showed that he had ultimately been paid almost £500,000 over a period of time to find evidence that these vaccines had caused problems, and that he had filed patents for rival vaccines. This man launched a campaign which permanently damaged the reputation of a safe and effective vaccine, and when he did so, it was not because he was concerned about the children. It was for personal financial gain. It was all about the money.

When people make claims that Big Pharma is keeping people sick or suppressing cures, they often imply that it is for financial gain. While there are many pharmaceutical companies who have been guilty of unethical behaviour, it is important to also look at the people pointing the finger. People who have made these claims are very often not motivated by what is best for the children, but by their own desire for financial gain. Many people who promote alternative cures to diseases do so because they stand to gain financially from them, not simply because they wish to tap nature’s potential for healing. The alternative health industry is a profitable one, and its financial figures rival those of any large pharmaceutical company.

What can be done

For those like me who don’t believe the scaremongering about vaccines, perhaps a better response would be to not get frustrated when we see these things misrepresented, but it’s hard not to when you see the same things over and over again. I know parents want the best for their children, but I also know that people are lying about the safety of these vaccines and that that is not the best for anyone’s children.

The media must step up and see beyond the need to fill human interest space. If people are unwell, it is important that they get help, but when the result is a serious impact on the uptake of life-saving, disease-preventing vaccinations, it is also important that we get them help without propping up untrue claims about what has made them ill. With the MMR, we have seen the damage that can be done when we imply that there is equal merit to, or equal evidence for, both sides of a debate. In short, claims about vaccines put lives at risk, and flattering unquestioning publicity is dangerous. Parents deserve better this time around.

Don’t support VAXXED if and when they travel to Ireland. Don’t take their claims at face value. Ask questions, but please ask the right questions of the right sources. There are lots of excellent resources about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, particularly the MMR and the HPV vaccine, both of which have been in use in numerous countries for years, and which have had a real and lasting (positive!) impact on the health of people everywhere. None of those resources have Regret or VAXXED in the title.

Current Affairs

When the headline confuses the issue

Writing a headline or title is sometimes hard – I’ve often written an entire blogpost and then spent almost as long wondering what on earth I’ll put at the top of the page. Headlines are important; they draw people in to your content, they summarise and provide some idea as to what you’re writing about, and sadly, they sometimes act as unrepresentative clickbait which serves to confuse.

Yesterday, IFLS published an article about some research into new cancer therapies, an article which they reblogged from The Conversation. The research is interesting – cancer cells stimulate the over-production of a protein which allows them to use glucose to grow faster, and inhibiting or reducing levels of this protein starves the cancer cells, causing cell death. Like many discoveries about the growth, development, and death of cancer cells, this could potentially influence treatment for cancer patients, and that’s good news. The reporting of this news, however, is anything but good.

IFLS facebook post
The Conversation post

Both IFLS and The Conversation lead with the headline “Starving cancer cells of sugar could be the key to future treatment”. And, in a sense, they are correct. Inhibiting the protein starves the cancer cells by damaging their ability to use glucose for growth. The problem is that IFLS and The Conversation are not the first people to say that “sugar feeds cancer”, even if what they are saying is a good deal more complicated than that.

There has long been a myth perpetuated by cancer quacks and alternative medicine practitioners that sugar feeds cancer. They advocate a diet low in sugar to starve the cancer, putting the body into a state of ketosis, and radically changing one’s diet to remove all sources of sugar. Unfortunately, this seems to be a misunderstanding since research shows that, basically, the cancer cells will find a way to get glucose wherever they can, and that simply depriving yourself of sugar will not prevent the growth of cancer cells. As with many such things, the key phrase is “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

The article that they’ve written/copied does actually make these points – it links to those advocating a sugar-free diet and the research which shows that this is all not quite that simple. The article talks about the research (which is really centred around this protein, not dietary sugar intake) that was done into the protein, and also notes that cancer cells will “always find alternatives to fuel their tank of glucose, no matter how little sugar we ingest”. But you would never know this from the headline that they chose, and the comments under the article bear this out:



Without reading the article, people are assuming (based on the headline) that the long-held alternative medicine theory that dietary sugar feeds cancer, and that all you need to do to cure your cancer is eat no sugar. And while IFLS can’t be responsible for the myriad of nonsense cancer theories that exist on the Internet, they absolutely can do their part to not add fuel to the fire with clickbait, sensationalist, or inaccurate headlines.

Science communication is important. Accurate, readable, understandable, and representative reporting of science is crucial to ensuring that the truth of a message is not lost. We’ve seen time and time again how irresponsible reporting can colour a story, and mislead the public. If you really love science, in my opinion, it behoves you to do better.


Edit: linked in missing citations (swallowed by a mobile edit during writing!) for cancer/dietary sugar link

Current Affairs

Freedom of conscience

With the setup of Renua Ireland, and the impending marriage equality referendum, there’s an awful lot of talk about conscience lately. When Lucinda Creighton was expelled from Fine Gael for voting against a bill related to abortion, she spoke a lot about how it was a “matter of conscience” for her, and her new party’s policy on abortion rights states that they “do not believe party politics in Ireland has a place for issues of conscience”. More recently, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made comments about the place of conscience in today’s society, when speaking about how lay Catholics might be “forced” to provide services relating to LGBT marriage ceremonies even if it was against their beliefs.

One would be forgiven for thinking that conscience is something which only matters to people who wish to curtail things like abortion rights or LGBT rights. Lucinda told us that she should be able to vote with her conscience, and now Diarmuid Martin wants us to consider conscience as we vote on marriage equality in May. Both seem to make the same error – assuming that they are the only people who have conscience, and who choose to vote with it, and that anyone who consults their conscience must ultimately come to the same conclusions as they have. They are, in my opinion, quite wrong. Conscience isn’t something which only matters to anti marriage equality (or anti abortion rights) campaigners, and I dearly wish that they would stop pretending that it is.

There are a great many people (myself included) who find in unconscionable that, in this day and age, a group of people would be denied rights based on sexuality, but my freedom of conscience doesn’t seem to matter as much to Diarmuid Martin, who speaks from the privileged position of not only having all rights afforded to him, but even having a free pass on employment discrimination. He speaks from a pulpit on top of a hill of rights and freedoms, and some people aren’t even allowed to start climbing it yet.

It weighs on my conscience that there is a large group of people in this country who will have their fate decided by others, and my conscience tells me that the right thing to do is to treat all people as equals – not a watered-down limited “separate but equal” equality, but genuine equality. My conscience tells me that I should make this decision with forethought and compassion for my fellow man, because I accept that marriage equality isn’t about denying “traditional” marriage, nor about redefining it, nor is it about destroying parenting and ruining children. It is about the right of two people to be treated equally with respect to their relationship, two people being afforded the basic dignity of not having to fight for recognition of their relationship, or accept a compromise solution that “traditional” married couples will never have to. I have the luxury of having an automatic right to marry someone of my choosing, and I can’t, in good conscience, deny that right to other people.

It weighs on my conscience that women are forced to travel abroad to access abortion services which they should be able to access here. The limiting of this access disproportionately affects women in difficult circumstances, poor or disadvantaged families, and anyone who can’t simply spare a great deal of money at a moment’s notice. It forces women who are confronted with the devastating news that their baby will not survive to travel far from family and friends, and then wait for their baby’s remains to arrive by mail, or to endure the rest of the pregnancy (and the countless comments from well-wishers who won’t know that questions about the baby’s sex or whether you’ve bought a pram are heartbreaking). It forces parents into the high court to allow a daughter to die with dignity, and brings judges and lawyers into a decision that should be made by medical professionals and family.

These, too, are matters of conscience, and when I vote on them, I will vote with my conscience. It is inaccurate and insulting to assume that people who support marriage equality and abortion rights (or any of the other topics to which conscience has been loudly attached) do so without conscience, without consideration, without thought. Conscience is not solely owned by the religious right, by “think tanks” like the Iona Institute, or by pro-life campaigners, and it’s about time that they stopped acting like it is.

Current Affairs Science

Lush throw science out with the bath water

Facebook post from Lush Cork advertising their charity pot party event.This week, Lush found themselves the subject of some controversy when they posted a message about an upcoming charity pot party supporting the Girl Against Fluoride. In an event that spanned Friday 24th to Sunday 26th, Aisling FitzGibbon, aka the Girl Against Fluoride, was to appear and discuss her opinions on water fluoridation, and potentially (as implied by the charity element) raise money for her campaign. When the event link appeared on Facebook, something really beautiful happened: people came, and almost unilaterally sent Lush a message – we support science, evidence, and reason, and if you don’t then we will take our business elsewhere.

It really cheered me up to see (especially in wake of Dublin City Council’s questionable decision regarding water fluoridation) that the large majority of the people commenting were shocked that Lush would support someone who appears to ignore science, and subscribe to a lot of dangerous, disproved, or just downright insulting beliefs. Not only is the Girl Against Fluoride against fluoride, but she’s also apparently not a fan of vaccines, real medicine, or gay people, and commenters took her, and Lush, to task over these points and more.

RebeccaLush1After a significant number of commenters both on Facebook and Twitter called for Lush to make a statement about the event, their charitable giving manager Rebecca Lush weighed in to ask for some evidence about the points that people had raised – but only about the homophobic comments made by Girl Against Fluoride’s creative manager and mother, Martha Brassil. Rebecca went as far as to say that she wasn’t looking for information on the science behind the anti-fluoride campaign, just evidence of the homophobia.

Several commenters obliged Rebecca and Lush with evidence of the homophobic comments, and we began a long wait for Lush to comment. With the start date of the event drawing closer, Lush would only say that they were close to releasing a statement, and that they wanted to get it right, and verify it with various internal groups before releasing it. On Thursday, a comment from Lush confirmed the outcome that many had hoped for. Lush would not be hosting or raising money to support the Girl Against Fluoride. However, as the saying goes, every silver lining has a cloud…


Lush may have cancelled the event, but not because they care about the bad science or scaremongering that characterises the anti-fluoridation campaigns, but because the homophobic comments made did not sit well with their commitment to gender equality and anti-homophobia stance. I commend Lush for standing up for LGBT rights and gender equality, two topics close to my heart, but this resolution leaves a lot to be desired. They may disagree with the homophobic comments, but they share the Girl Against Fluoride’s views on water fluoridation and apparently wish to have a reasoned debate about the issues surrounding it (without, to my knowledge, actually consulting any scientists about it). It’s good that Lush examined the homophobic comments made in the name of the Girl Against Fluoride, but the science matters too, and it should be just as important a reason to reconsider this event.

It’s becoming increasingly common to try and balance out scientific input with something fluffier but inaccurate, because people often perceive the “truths” of science as harsh. It seems cruel to tell someone “you’re wrong”, and easier and friendlier to tell someone “everyone will have time to express their equally valid opinion”. And if we were discussing fabric samples for the living room curtains, that would be lovely, but we’re not. We’re discussing a number of topics for which there is very well established information, and people who choose to ignore that information. The pill doesn’t cause women to have homosexual babies. Urine doesn’t cure cancer. Vaccines don’t cause autism. And water fluoridation is an important public health measure that is safe, effective, and considered one of the most important health measures of the 20th century. Maybe it’s not as sexy or interesting to discuss the facts like this, and perhaps it would be better received if I, too, posed in a bikini, but the really beautiful thing about facts is that they are true, whether or not you like them or believe in them.

I’ve discussed the problem with applying “balance” to these situations before, but it boils down to a very simple message: while everyone can have their own opinion, everyone can’t have their own facts, and when a group misrepresents facts (or just outright lies) and is given airtime the same as groups which actually represent the evidence for the sake of balance, it lends them a legitimacy that they do not deserve. The Girl Against Fluoride does not deserve this legitimacy. She believes a number of dangerous and damaging things, and actively spreads misinformation about fluoride (among other topics). Hosting her doesn’t encourage discussion of different points of view, it lends the support of a brand to her point of view and her point of view alone, especially when they host her alone (and not her in conjunction with any one of a number of qualified people who could provide the other side of that balance they seem eager to seek).

It might not be popular to stick up for science in a climate where words like “natural” are venerated, and words like “chemical” are decried (whatever their actual meanings!), but that doesn’t make the facts go away. When good, robust evidence shows me that it is better to remove fluoride from our water, I will support that change. Until then, I will continue to trust the overwhelming evidence in favour of water fluoridation, I will continue to be the Girl Not Against Fluoride*, and I will continue to promote science above populist scaremongering and misinformation.


*I still won’t pose in my bikini though.

Current Affairs Science

The time I believed in homoeopathy

I have a confession to make: once upon a time, I believed that a homoeopathic arnica cream magically cured my bruises.

By аз, via Wikimedia Commons

No, no, bear with me. Don’t leave yet, the story ends well…

Some years ago (don’t ask how many), I studied Biology and Computer Science in NUIM. I thought I understood how scientific research worked, and I thought that articles in scientific journals were infallible. I thought that, as long as there was a journal article about a topic, it must be true. When I realised that this wasn’t the case, that all studies were not created equal, that merely being published did not make a study truth, and that the quality of the study (and the journal) mattered, it fundamentally changed how I approached scientific evidence gathering, and how I cemented or debunked beliefs.

While I was in college, I also took up martial arts for the first time. As virtually any martial artist will tell you, it’s nearly impossible to study a martial art without picking up some bumps and bruises, and I was no exception. When I eventually did my first grading, it’s fair to say that I came away with more than a few bruises, particularly on my arms. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me, but in this particular case, I was due to be a maid of honour at a wedding only a short time afterwards, and my family weren’t too keen on the idea of my sashaying up the aisle looking like I’d been beating rocks with my forearms.

Lucky for me, then, that I had heard about the miraculous curative properties of arnica from a number of people. I went straight to my local health food store, picked up some cream without a second thought, and dutifully applied it like it was going out of fashion. And come the day of the wedding, why my bruises had faded faster than I thought possible, and I was 100% convinced that the arnica had helped me to do it. Naturally, because I was completely convinced that the arnica cream had made a difference, I told everyone. I extolled the virtues of the cream in my martial arts club, to friends and family, and even online. It was while browsing online that I came across a forum thread that started me down a slippery slope to critical thinking – a thread on a martial arts forum discussing arnica, and some commenters who were adamant that it was nonsense.

When I found this thread, of course, the first thing I thought about was my own experience – I had used arnica, and I was sure it had worked, so surely that was evidence? Of course, I summarised my story and posted it up online, and those commenters told me I was wrong. I googled, and I found a paper or two that posited an explanation for arnica’s effect (that it caused increased blood flow to an area, that it had an effect on capillaries), and posted that, sure that the evidence supported my anecdote. The commenters weren’t convinced, but then, neither was I. I had papers and my story, and they had some papers too, but whatever, it worked and that was that.

Looking back on this, I cringe at how silly I was. I didn’t understand so many of the basics about alternative medicine, so I didn’t understand that there was a fundamental difference between herbal medicine and homoeopathic medicine. I didn’t know that herbal medicines are often poorly regulated, with differing quantities of active ingredient, differing quality, and other similar issues. I didn’t know that homoeopathic medicine involved finding components that allegedly caused the symptoms (10ccs of forearm double block anyone?), and then diluting those components so much that they aren’t even present anymore (ironic, since I had been learning about the practicalities of serial dilution in the lab). I didn’t realise that the papers I presented discussed application of herbal medicine, not homoeopathic, and I didn’t realise that those papers were in poor quality journals, and not properly peer reviewed. I didn’t even know that the cream I was sold contained no active ingredients, and was just an expensive, smelly placebo. To those commenters who worked hard to convince me, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise how wrong I was.

Why am I telling this story now? Because I no longer believe these things, and if I came across my former self, posting her healing anecdote on that forum, I would pick apart the argument with one internet hand tied behind my back. I’m telling this story because I have changed my beliefs, and that is ok. Sometimes, when you believe something for a long time, it’s hard to change that. It’s much easier to ignore evidence than to acknowledge that you were wrong, possibly for months or years. Having egg on your face, realising that your declarations of the effectiveness of arnica were laughable, is really not much fun at all, but in time, instead of being an embarrassing memory, it can become a reminder of how easy it is to be fooled by people who are unscrupulous, a reminder that the information out there is sometimes confusing and conflicting.

But how on earth can anyone figure out what’s what when scientists seem to change their minds every day? People often joke that scientists (as a large, amorphous, faceless science-blob) can’t agree on anything – first red wine causes cancer, then it cures it, then it causes it but only if you drink it while eating or not eating dark chocolate. This notion is used to debunk assertions that climate change is real, that magical urine can’t cure cancer, and that infinitesimally small quantities of compounds are remembered by water but sewage is not. After all, if scientists can’t agree on red wine, how can we trust them about our climate/medicine/children?

The truth is somewhat different – sometimes press-releases present preliminary results as if they were final, verified findings, and then forget to also present the later study which disproves it. Scientists assert a theory, and then test it, and if they find it to be true, they celebrate. But other scientists might find out, after more independent testing, that this was just a freak result. Over time, enough of these results will prove or disprove a theory, and scientists may change their minds about something that they once believed to be true. This isn’t the equivalent of political flip-flopping, or being fickle – this is the scientific process in action. Believe a thing, test that thing, examine all of the evidence, and then, if necessary, believe the confirmed thing (even if it’s different to what you used to believe). Be sceptical of things that seem too good to be true, and be pleasantly surprised if they are.

Science doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes, papers will make it to journals when they never should have passed peer review. Sometimes, bad scientists will lie about results or manipulate data and deceive people. There are still a lot of things that we don’t fully understand, but this doesn’t mean that the scientific community is constantly at war over everything, or that every piece of established knowledge is tenuous, and liable to be disproved at a moment’s notice. On an awful lot of the big stuff, there is agreement. The human genome contains 23 chromosome pairs. Climate change is real. Water doesn’t remember the lavender that was in it 30 dilutions ago. There is no miracle cure for all cancers, being suppressed by big pharma. Some people believe some of these things to be untrue, but they are usually in the minority, however disproportionately loudly they may shout.

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, this scientist believed in homoeopathy. She hoped that it would work, and was amazed to find out that it did, which only made her believe all the more. Then, her alarm clock rang, and she awoke from her slumber to a world where belief doesn’t trump evidence (or lack thereof), and all was well.