Responding to Tim Ireland

Two days ago I got into a twitter conversation with Tim Ireland, better known online as @bloggerheads. Tim is widely recognised as a search engine guru, but on the side he’s not a great fan of the Conservative, and in particular Nadine Dorries MP. That’s how we got into conversation, because I supported Nadine Dorries in response to another tweeting friend, and Tim jumped in to point towards one of his blog posts as an example of Nadine’s alleged deceit. I dismissed it “as not very substantive” and, naturally, Tim requested that I flesh that out a bit. Here’s his pound…

The post that Tim pointed me to was criticising Nadine on a number of counts. I found it not very substantive on the grounds that it was full of misrepresentations, inaccuracies and plain old ad hominem. This disappointed me, because Tim is capable of so much more. Let me jump straight in to show what I’m talking about.

It’s election time, and disappointingly, David Cameron has shot out of the gates seeking to rally his right-wing Christian base with a promise to lower the abortion limit to 20 or 22 weeks.

The Conservatives had their chance to make their scientific and political case on this in 2008 and they blew it.

They not only blew the vote, they exploded a dirty great hole in the side of their shiny new facade, as the following examples will show…

David Cameron allowed Nadine Dorries to run with the ball on her 2008 ‘Alive & Kicking’ campaign, and that MP used as her ‘evidence’ several dubious claims about events she claimed to witness as a nurse, including this one repeated today by Christian Concern for our Nation (1, 2):

At the time of the 2008 vote, former nurse Nadine Dorries, now MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, told fellow MPs how she had held a foetus that gasped for breath and took seven minutes to die after a botched abortion. Ms Dorries said: ‘What I thought we were committing that day was murder.’ (source)

Nadine Dorries has a long track record of relying on apocryphal evidence to elicit an emotional response in her favour (see suicide/expenses for her most famous example to date), so I have reason to doubt this event ever really happened as described to begin with. Further, my lead example not only shows Nadine Dorries using apocryphal evidence during the abortion debate, but reveals an alarming level of ignorance about maternal medicine and basic human biology that should cast doubt on the specifics of any medical procedure Dorries claims to have witnessed:

OK, Tim opens with an argument based not on fact but on emotion. His first point is that there is a “right-wing Christian base” in the Conservative Party. I hate to break it to Tim, but such a base doesn’t exist, or at least not this side of the Atlantic. I’m on good terms with members and senior officials of two constituency parties and trust me, there are very few Christians amongst them. That’s not to say that there isn’t a healthy Conservative Christian Fellowship, but the idea that the Tory Party is still the Church of England not at prayer is ridiculous. A large majority of Conservatives are nominally Christian at best and frankly don’t darken the door of their parish church even for Christmas and Easter. Trust me, I should know – I stand at the front of church week after week and they’re not coming here.

Tim argues that Nadine’s reports of what happened while she was a nurse are “dubious” or “apocryphal”. I’m not sure what he means by that. By “dubious”, does he mean that he doubts they actually happened. Does he think that these kind of things don’t go on in hospitals? Only this week, a report in Melbourne, Australia said that some children born as late-term abortions (i.e. into the third trimester) were being left to die or even dropped in formaldehyde to kill them. At the same time, children exactly the same age were being helped to live in neo-natal wards in the same hospital. What is that about?

Dr Mark Durie, minister of St Mary’s Caulfield, said staff were finding it hard to cope with a reported six-fold increase in late-term abortions at the Women’s since abortion was decriminalised in Victoria two years ago. He said because conscientious objection by medical staff was now illegal, the hospital could employ only people who endorsed late-term abortions.

He said in one case – not at the Women’s – a trainee was deeply traumatised when she was told to drop a living foetus in a bucket of formaldehyde. Dr Durie said even in 2007, 52 babies survived late-term abortions, according to government figures. In some clinics they had simply been put on a shelf and left to die, and the public deserved to know what was happening now. He said no figures had been officially released since abortion was decriminalised. ”Because of the deep ethical conflict involved, there will be pressure to suppress the reality of what is going on,” he said. ”I’m deeply concerned for the traumatising effect it has on doctors and nurses.”

Now let’s be clear – just because this is reported by an Anglican minister doesn’t mean it can be discounted. It joins reports up and down this country of similar events like the one that Nadine Dorries experienced, where aborted children who survived the procedure (and are therefore legally born alive) are left to die. A cursory search brings us stories here, here and here, run by significant media operations in the UK. These stories are not just rumours and whispers in the wind – they are hard facts compiled and collated and presented for digestion. They cannot be dismissed as “apocryphal”, the kind of thing that gets handed down from one person to the next. They are being reported by the eye witnesses who were there at the time – they are anecdotes but anecdotes are what make up a large volume of evidence in the legal system of this country. A judge does not dismiss evidence because it is only one person’s account of the events that they saw – no (s)he admits it into the record because we accept that people reporting things they have seen and experienced (unless they are perjuring themselves) is the way we build a picture of historical events in this day and age. If Tim wants to dismiss Nadine’s account of what she saw in a delivery room on the basis that he only accepts facts produced in a laboratory then I suggest he also goes down to his local book store and destroys most of the history books there are the same time, for the reporting of events in the past is what they do as well.

If Tim wants to continue suggesting that such evidence as Nadine’s personal story is “apocryphal”, I suggest he demonstrates it to be so. A court of law would demand nothing less.

In this post on her pretend-blog during the abortion debate (and on the main campaign website) Nadine Dorries presented this image of a foetus ‘reaching’ out of the womb as evidence that life begins earlier than science says it does. When it was put to her that the attending surgeon’s version of events completely contradicted those of her witness (the photographer who describes the event as “God’s message to the world”) Dorries, in a further post laughingly titled ‘Hand of Truth’, none-too-subtly implied that the doctor changed his story because feared violent pro-choice lobbyists (!), showed complete ignorance of how pregnancy works and what a placenta does, and claimed that the “jiggered edges” of what she described as a “tear in the uterus” most likely resulted from a “hand unexpectedly thrust out”… by a 21 week old foetus.

I’ve heard some MPs talk bullshit in my time, but the idea that a 21-week-old foetus could punch its way out of the womb (with or without a starting incision) reached new heights for me.

Full post: Bloggerheads – People of Mid Bedfordshire; your MP, Nadine Dorries, is a muppet

Much of this is simply ad hominem. While I’ll agree with Tim that the design qualities of Nadine’s blog leave much to be desired, and the lack of the ability to comment means it is oh so not Web 2.0, it is hardly “pretend”. That’s the kind of language that Section 28 used to label gay relationships – “pretend families”. Nadine doesn’t pretend to write a blog, she does write one.

As to the “hand of hope” – yes it is controversial and yes, some claims are made about it that are unsubstantiated. However, the actual photographer has written his account of the events (warning – graphic pictures of surgery if you follow that link) and they are a fascinating read.

The tension could be felt in the operating room as the surgery began. A typical C-section incision was made to access the uterus, which was then lifted out and laid at the junction of the mother’s thighs. The entire procedure would take place within the uterus, and no part of the child was to breach the surgical opening. During the procedure, the position of the fetus was adjusted by gently manipulating the outside of the uterus. The entire surgical procedure on the child was completed in 1 hour and thirteen minutes. When it was over, the surgical team breathed a sigh of relief, as did I.

As a doctor asked me what speed of film I was using, out of the corner of my eye I saw the uterus shake, but no one’s hands were near it. It was shaking from within. Suddenly, an entire arm thrust out of the opening, then pulled back until just a little hand was showing. The doctor reached over and lifted the hand, which reacted and squeezed the doctor’s finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shook the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. I took the picture! Wow! It happened so fast that the nurse standing next to me asked, “What happened?” “The child reached out,” I said. “Oh. They do that all the time,” she responded.

The surgical opening to the uterus was closed and the uterus was then put back into the mother and the C-section opening was closed.

It was ten days before I knew if the picture was even in focus. To ensure no digital manipulation of images before they see them, USA Today requires that film be submitted unprocessed. When the photo editor finally phoned me he said, “It’s the most incredible picture I’ve ever seen.”

I agree with Tim that the idea of a 21 week old child punching his way through a uteral wall is far-fetched, but if you read carefully that’s not actually what they photographer observed. He simply reports a hand thrusting out of the opening that was already present, the doctor lifting the hand and having a gentle tug of war with the baby. Nadine might be incorrect about “jagged edges”, but the photographic evidence is very clear, as the photographer himself points out.

Please study the three frames that were taken in sequence in the slide show. These frames were taken at 1/60th of a sec. as fast as my Canon 1N motor drive could shoot. The motion blur in the third frame explains what is happening. Watch Dr. Bruner’s fingers, compare the first two frames to the third frame. The doctor’s fingers are blurred because he is shaking them up and down in the third frame. The motion blur on Samuel’s hand transfers to the upper part of his wrist as he grasps the doctor’s finger. The only possibly way Samuel’s fingers are sharp, (in focus), are for Samuel to be winning in this exchange of human energy.

Notice in the third frame, the right side of the surgical opening. The edges are smooth. Now notice above Samuel’s hand. You can see the surgical edge was damaged as Samuel thrust his hand out.

The tear is very easy to see and so is the way that the incision flexes when Samuel’s hand moves. The photograph matches the eye witness report that the hand reached out to grab the surgeon’s finger. Now, elsewhere it is reported that the surgeon contradicts this account, but then that leaves us with one eye witness giving a different account to another. We are then working on the grounds of trying to decide who is nearer the truth, a matter of subjective judgement for there is no objective evidence to support that decision. We cannot reject the photographer’s account simply because we don’t like its conclusions.

It is also worth pointing out that some patients under general anaesthesia can remain awake and conscious of events around hem, and even able to respond. A fascinating article describes the medical causes of this and this one explores how some “paranormal experiences” during anaesthetic may be linked to the curious effects of the drugs used on some humans. The one thing that comes through both is that patients who are “asleep” under anaesthesia may still be capable of conscious activity. For example, I can go into my son’s bedroom while he is asleep and place my hand next to his fingers. Though he is completely in deep sleep he will still grab my finger and squeeze it. How very different is this from a child in a womb under anaesthetic responding in the manner described above? Whilst the surgeon is reported as saying that “The baby was anaesthetised”,  his follow up that “The Baby was not aware what was going on” is simply a subjective opinion, not an objective fact. There is too much evidence that shows that humans under anaesthesia can still respond to external stimuli to automatically discount the idea that the child’s hand movements were not intentional.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Tim Ireland is correct. Let’s assume, as the surgeon now claims, that the mother and child were actually both fully anaesthetised and, crucially, incapable of any conscious or reactive action at this point. That would then beg the question, why has the child been anaesthetized?  Because it feels pain is the obvious answer, but then that blows a massive hole (uterine incision?) in the argument that it is acceptable to abort children of a later age then 21 weeks in a manner that causes pain because their nervous system is not fully developed. Why anaesthetize if no pain is felt? Tim, what do you think?

One final thing at this point – when Tim writes that arguing for lowering the abortion limit using this evidence wants to suggest that “life begins earlier than science says it does”, he is himself scientifically incorrect. Any respectable doctor or biologist will tell you that “life” begins at conception. The debate in abortion is not whether human beings in the womb are alive in any sense, the debate is at what point do humans (a) become sentient, (b) develop a nervous system that means that due consideration must be taken for the affect of pain inducing procedures on the child, (c) become legally viewed as independent human beings due the same rights as other people and (d) become spiritually recognisable as a human (ensoulment). I recognise that for Tim the fourth of those points is irrelevant, but at the moment the abortion law only makes a (moral) statement on (c) (when a child legally becomes a human). Whilst (a) and (b) are factors that contribute to the discernment of (c) (and (d) in religious circles) they are not themselves given a specific answer in the abortion act.

No, the simple fact of the matter is that scientists agree that life begins at conception and certainly by the time the abortion limit is reached (24 weeks) there is no question that the child has been alive for several weeks. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

MPs really don’t like being called on this, but Nadine Dorries clearly misled the House when she made this claim:

“The public do not say that they want the limit to come down from 24 weeks; the public – including three quarters of women – say that they want 20 weeks. They specify what they want.” – Nadine Dorries (source)

“Three quarters of women” did no such thing. Nadine Dorries either completely misunderstood the data or (more likely in my experience) deliberately misrepresented it in order to give the false impression that she enjoyed a popular mandate. As the raw poll data showed, it wasn’t 75% of women specifying 20 weeks, but 15%, and then only because it was fed to them as an option. After literally inviting scrutiny of her assertions in the House, Dorries has never returned to this point.

Full post: Bloggerheads – Nadine Dorries: unbelievable

This is just semantics and Tim is making a ridiculous point. The data is from a ComRes survey in May 2008 and the data is shown below. The respondents were asked which of these upper limits they would approve for abortion.

All Male Female
Extended above 24 Weeks 3% 5% 2%
24 Weeks 32% 43% 21%
20 Weeks 11% 7% 15%
16 Weeks 13% 9% 17%
12 Weeks 21% 17% 24%
Less than 12 Weeks 10% 6% 14%
Banned 3% 3% 3%
Don’t Know 7% 10% 4%

Now, it’s clear from that there were a wide range of options presented, enough for everybody’s opinion to be accounted for fairly. Yes it’s perfectly true that only 15% of the women questioned responded with the 20 weeks answer, but it is stretching credulity as Tim suggests that all those who answered 16 weeks and below would not also support a reduction to 20 weeks. A total of 73% of female respondents obviously supported a lowering to 20 weeks, its just that some wanted it even lower.

To settle this I emailed Andy Hawkins, the boss of ComRes, the polling firm that undertook this research, and this is what he had to say.

Polling is remarkably consistent in showing that women are significantly keener than men to bring the upper limit down.  In studying our 2008 survey the most popular view among women was to bring the limit down to 12 weeks, although around three-quarters overall supported a reduction to 20 weeks or below.

That’s that settled I think, unless Tim wants to suggest that polling guru Hawkins is wrong on this front.

Recently Dorries insisted that religion should be kept out of Parliament… but only because she feared it might lead to sharia law:

While the votes may come from secular Tories, the ringleaders of any abortion-tightening attempt will be Christians. In 2008, when parliament was debating embryology, Nadine Dorries, a high-profile backbench Tory MP, led the charge against abortion – and says she is informed by her Christianity (though “if you mention God in an argument in the UK, you lose,” she says). One leading anti-abortion activist noted that behind the scenes the Christian Medical Fellowship and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship were “absolutely indispensable. They did most of the heavy lifting on research. But we could never acknowledge their role. Never. People would never take us seriously again.” (Dorries says another reason she avoids talking about faith in parliament is out of fear it will set a precedent by which Muslim MPs could express – and impose – theirs. “There is no place for sharia law in Britain and as politicians we have to be aware and vigilant to ensure that we don’t ease or facilitate its acceptance,” she says.) (source)

Obvious bias/bigotry aside, how does Nadine Dorries explain/justify her attempts to introduce into law legislation worded by Christian fundamentalists? Does she now think she was wrong* to do so, or does she think it’s OK when it’s ‘our’ fundamentalists?

This is a fundamental category error. Putting aside the continual use of “fundamentalist” as a pejorative in what Tim writes, the two issues are entirely separate. The issue around Sharia is the encompassing into British law of a fourth source of authority beyond the present ones of civil, common and canon law. By recognising Sharia as a source of law, the British State would allow authoritative judgements to be made by a judicial authority unaccountable to Parliament. For example, Islamic Sharia divorce law is dissimilar to English and Welsh common law on a number of crucial issues. There are some good summaries here and here. For example, Sharia does not recognise the right of a woman to ask for a “no fault” divorce, but a man can do so. But beyond these contradictions to English common law, there is the issue as to why the state should allow some people to have a different standard of law applied to the than others. Introducing Sharia would produce a second branch of common law in this country that would contradict in places the one established in this country for nearly 800 years. It would produce a situation where you could apply to the court of your choice for arbitration, the equivalent of picking the magistrate or judge that best suited your opinions.

The situation of lobby groups helping MPs to frame legislation is distinctly different. Here, lobbyists aim to alter the currently existing common or civil (or occasionally canon) law in a manner that would affect everybody. In practice the only objection that Tim Ireland has to the CLC and others supporting Nadine is that he doesn’t like what they propose. But that is the same with any number of lobbyists presenting any number of positions. Greenpeace versus the oil companies. Anti-Smoking campaigners versus British-American. If Tim Ireland was presenting a case to ban all lobbyists from interacting with MPs then he would have a point, but given that the issues of implementing Sharia and lobbying to work within the current legal parliamentary framework are so different, it appears to this reader at least that the simple fact of the matter is that Tim Ireland doesn’t like traditional Christianity. Now, he’s perfectly entitled to that view, but one cannot ban particular lobbyists just because you don’t like them.

As I wrote in my tweet to Tim, his criticism of Nadine Dorries has very little substance. The only point (ironically) where he is close to landing a punch is on the “hand of hope”, but even here the logical outcome of his argument is to undermine another part of his position (namely that foetuses do not feel pain so it is acceptable to abort them). Aside from this though, the piece is full of ad hominem, stretched credulity and ill-applied bias. That’s not to argue that Nadine Dorries is a saint, but it is to say that this attempt to demonise her fails miserably.

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