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Defending life from the moment of conception

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SPUC challenges claims of BBC Panorama Programme in open letter to Greg Dyke

27 October 2003

SPUC challenges claims of BBC Panorama Programme in open letter to Greg Dyke LONDON 27 October: SPUC has sent an open letter to BBC Director General Greg Dyke, challenging the BBC to back up claims made about the Catholic Church's pro-life teaching in its recent Panorama programme Sex and the Holy City. The 'investigation', which was screened to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II pontificate, made a one-sided and unsubstantiated attack on Church teaching, claiming that the Pope's personal views on issues such as abortion and contraception are causing misery and death in the developing world. In a letter which detailed specific concerns, SPUC national director John Smeaton stated: "Not only did Sex and the Holy City fail to support such serious charges with objective, verifiable evidence, but there were also many other claims made in support of the general thesis of the programme which fly in the face of statistical, medical and scientific evidence from recognised and authoritative sources." Full text of this letter can be found below. For further information, contact John Smeaton on: 020 7222 5845 or 07785 325808 SPUC open letter to Greg Dyke regarding the BBC Panorama programme Sex and the Holy City Mr G Dyke Director General BBC Broadcasting House London W1A 1AA 27 October 2003 Dear Mr Dyke, I write to raise serious concerns and to pose a number of questions about the BBC Panorama programme, Sex and the Holy City, broadcast on Sunday 12th October. Under the guise of serious reporting, the programme purported to show that Catholic Church teaching on abortion and contraception was costing the lives of thousands of women worldwide and condemning families to lives of poverty. However, not only did Sex and the Holy City fail to support such serious charges with objective, verifiable, evidence, but there were also many other claims made in support of the general thesis of the programme which fly in the face of statistical, medical and scientific evidence from recognised authoritative sources. My letter is divided into three sections covering the three main countries covered by the programme. Nicaragua 1) "... where official estimates suggest one in three women has been physically or sexually abused, and where age and close relationships are sometimes no barrier to abuse." What is the precise source for this figure? Its use in the introduction to a rape pregnancy case is misleading, as 'physical or sexual abuse' is a broad term used to cover everything from smacking to penetrative rape. As any child protection expert could have pointed out, 'age and close relationships' virtually never form a barrier to abuse as the majority of abuse cases occur within families. 2) "We met the girls [incest victims with babies] in a woman's health clinic run by Dorothy Granada. She says such cases are not unusual." This is an extremely dubious claim that flies in the face of both statistical and medical evidence. Firstly, conception following rape is rare. Secondly, a sustained pregnancy [viz., a pregnancy that does not end in natural miscarriage] as the result of rape is in itself rare and there are sound biological reasons for this, e.g. the trauma of rape causing natural miscarriage. A sustained pregnancy as the result of the rape of a 12-to-14-year-old is therefore a fortiori extremely uncommon. However, Dr Granada's claim went entirely unchallenged by Mr Bradshaw. The Church's offer of pastoral support to such women who have been harmed by rape was barely mentioned. 3) "Although they can apply for legal abortions if their lives are in danger, few succeed." It is regrettable that this received wisdom was endorsed rather than questioned. As early as 1992, Ireland's foremost gynaecologists and obstetricians stated unequivocally: "As obstetricians and gynaecologists, we affirm that there are no medical circumstances justifying direct abortion, that is, no circumstances in which the life of a mother may only be saved by directly terminating the life of her unborn child." (Ireland's medical profession has a first-class record in caring for mothers and their unborn children: see point 12 below). 4) The case of Rosa: "She wasn't like someone whose body is capable of surviving pregnancy when they become pregnant ... so we had the pregnancy terminated because she didn't want to die." Where is the medical evidence to back up such a serious claim? Furthermore, why did the programme-makers omit the gynaecological evidence put forward by Dr Rafael Cabrera on the case, having taken the trouble to interview him? Why also were attempts by the Church and the Ministry of Health to help the child in question ignored by the programme? 5) "It is thought there could be as many as 60,000 illegal abortions in Nicaragua every year." Where is the reference for this figure, or indeed, the figures quoted in 6) and 7) below? Estimated figures surrounding illegal abortion have often been shown, in the course of serious objective research, to have been wildly exaggerated. For example, in 1982 it was claimed that 2,000 women died in Portugal every year as a result of illegal abortion. The figure was published in serious news reports including the BBC, even though the UN Demographic Yearbook found that only 2,099 women in their main childbearing years died from all causes in Portugal during the year for which statistics were most recently available. Either Portugal had an extraordinary absence of fatal accidents and disease amongst younger women or the 2,000 figure was a pure fantasy. In Britain, it was suggested that, before the passing of the Abortion Act, there were as many as 100,000 or even 250,000 illegal abortions carried out every year. However, in 1966, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists stated that "these, and an earlier figure of 50,000, are without any secure factual foundation of which we are aware." Former abortionist and abortion campaigner Bernard Nathanson has admitted that he deliberately deceived people about the number of abortion deaths in the United States. The inflated figures he cited continued to be used by abortion campaigners in spite of his admission. 6) "Up to one in four pregnancies in Latin America end in illegal abortion" Further to the comment on the previous point, it is worth mentioning that, as the rate is lower in Britain, a country where abortion is far more widely available than anywhere in Latin America, this figure is extremely suspect. 7) "Worldwide over 70,000 women die from illegal abortions every year." See point 5) 8) Nafis Sadik: "He [the Pope] said: 'Don't you think that the irresponsible behaviour of men is caused by women?' Is it likely that a man who has spoken and written on the dignity of women would make such a remark? However, instead of rigorous questioning, Mr Bradshaw chose to ask leading questions to predictable answers. Never, during this programme, did a single interviewee who toed the BBC line on this subject have their claims and opinions subjected to even the mildest of scrutiny. The Philippines 9) "The no choice clinic" This derogatory comment cast the clinic in an immediately negative light before its work or ethos had been examined. Where was the report's investigation into the alternatives being offered at this clinic? A brief glimpse of a natural family planning chart is symptomatic of the tokenism inherent in this programme's approach to the other side of the argument. The fact that modern natural family planning is as effective as the Pill, educates women about their fertility and provides drug-free family planning (surely a bonus in a poor country) was entirely ignored. 10) "With contraception under threat, thousands live from scavenging on rubbish tips" This general theme of the report, that there is a direct link between lack of contraception and poverty is made repeatedly without ever being queried or proven. Giving a brief mention to the understanding of poverty given by the Church (and others for that matter) is not sufficient for an investigation of this nature. Where are the interviews with religious and lay organisations working to alleviate poverty in this region? 11) Dr Junice Melgar: "I think personally that John Paul's teachings are taking a toll on people's lives here, that his admonition against reproductive health care is actually causing deaths of women here from unwanted pregnancy and even from pregnancy that's complicated." This 'opinion' is entirely specious, though yet again Mr Bradshaw did not see fit to question it. Neither the Pope nor the Church in general have any problem with women receiving the antenatal and postnatal care they need. Its objection is to the destruction of innocent life. Furthermore, the experience of the Republic of Ireland has demonstrated that a complete ban on abortion is entirely compatible with excellent maternal health care, including care of women with complications in pregnancy. There were no maternal deaths at all in Ireland in 1993, 1995 or 1997. 12) Frances Kissling: When I go to the United Nations and watch the Vatican representatives operate right on the floor, I see them going up to Libya, to the Sudan, to Oman, to very often to Muslim countries that have similar conservative views on women and reproductive and wheeling and dealing just like every other government official in the world." If these are intended as criticisms, what is the point exactly? Why was she not challenged to clarify herself? Is it the fact that the Holy See has representatives that upsets Ms Kissling? As a point of information, it is not the Vatican city state that is represented at the United Nations, but the Holy See, which is the government of the Catholic Church, representing 1.6 billion Catholics worldwide. Or is it the fact that the Holy See talks to Muslims? Mr Bradshaw failed to question this offensive implication that Catholics and Muslims should not work together. Kenya, the Church and Condoms The programme's comments in this section of the report were particularly offensive and dishonest. The Church was accused of 'peddling rumour and superstition', preaching 'scientific nonsense', 'ignoring widely agreed scientific evidence on AIDS', 'peddling superstition and ignorance' and making 'extraordinary claims'. Mr Bradshaw comes within an inch of accusing the Church of mass murder, yet none of these claims that there is a link between Church teaching and deaths from AIDS is backed up by a single scientific study. Anecdotal evidence and opinion constitutes seriously inadequate support for an allegation of this nature. The interview tactics used on Catholic bishops were aggressive, offensive and patronising. The use of words such as 'peddling' and 'superstition' panders to old-fashioned anti-Catholic stereotypes. Most seriously, however, the report failed to make any mention of scientific studies that back up concerns about condom use and went as far as to misrepresent other studies: 13) "The most authoritative recent report is by the US National Institute of Health which concluded: 'Intact condoms are essentially impermeable to the smallest sexually transmitted virus' and 'that the consistent use of male condoms protects against HIV/AIDS transmissions.'" This quote does not come from the conclusion of the report and is not a single, condensed reference at all. It is spliced from two different sections of the report, p. 7 and p. 27. Furthermore, Panorama omitted to mention other key aspects of this authoritative report: i) Even though condom use was quoted as having 'significantly reduced the risk of HIV infection in men and women' it concluded in the introduction to the report (p. ii) that 'because of limitations in study designs there was insufficient evidence from the epidemiological studies on these diseases to draw definite conclusions about the effectiveness of the latex male condom in reducing the transmission of these diseases.' ii) It recorded the fallibility of any study on condom use because 'all studies must rely on self-reported use, a potential source of error due to recall bias' (p. 5) iii) It recorded that 'the combined method failure (slippage plus breakage) is estimated at 1.6% - 3.6% (p. 9) and iv) 'approximately 3% of couples who reported using condoms consistently and correctly (considered "perfect use") are estimated to experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use' and 'in a recent well-controlled randomized clinical trial of monogamous couples using latex male condoms for contraception over six months, the pregnancy rate during "typical use" was reported at 6.3% (p. 10). v) Finally, 'from the two incidence estimates, consistent condom use decreased the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission by approximately 85%. These data provide strong evidence for the effectiveness of condoms for reducing sexually transmitted HIV.' Note 'reducing' not 'preventing'. The programme's major source of scientific information for its premise that condoms prevent AIDS transmission admits itself that condoms decrease risk by only 85% and goes on in its conclusion to state: "it is important that robust research be pursued to ascertain the true benefits and limitations of an available risk reduction technology". Not only does this source emphasise (through that 85% figure) that condoms are not 100% effective, Panorama accused the archbishop of Nairobi of promoting 'scientific nonsense' simply for making the same point. Mr Bradshaw would have been prudent to point out that there is not a single scientific study that states that condoms are 100% effective in preventing the spread of HIV. Furthermore, condom manufacturers themselves do not dare to make such a claim when the consequences in human and legal terms are so serious. Durex state on their website: "Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly are a highly effective barrier to the sexual transmission of HIV and other STIs." Unfortunately, as the makers of Sex and the Holy City appear not to have been aware, 'correct and consistent use' is the ideal more often than the reality. More interestingly, Durex goes on to point out that the only 100% effective way of preventing HIV infection is a method wholeheartedly endorsed and encouraged by the Church: "However, for complete protection from HIV and other STIs, the only totally effective measure is sexual abstinence or limiting sexual intercourse to mutually faithful, uninfected partners." The statement made by the Archbishop of Nairobi which Mr Bradshaw appeared to find so difficult to believe - that condom use encourages the spread of HIV - is backed up by a study in leading British medical journal The Lancet: "Increased condom use will increase the number of [HIV/AIDS] transmissions that result from condom failure" and "a vigorous condom promotion policy could increase rather than decrease unprotected sexual exposure if it has the unintended effect of encouraging a greater overall level of sexual activity." 'Condoms and seat belts: the parallels and the lessons' The Lancet, 29 Jan 2000. Even the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has indicated in the past that 'the risk of contracting AIDS during so-called "protected sex" approaches 100 percent as the number of episodes of sexual intercourse increases.' Cates Medical Bulletin, IPPF 1997. I look forward to your early response. Yours faithfully, John Smeaton SPUC National director

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