Journalism and science

One of the problems journalists have with scientists is that scientists are very bad at providing good illustrative quotes for the story the journalist’s employer wants to sell. One of the problems scientists have with journalists is that instead of reporting accurately on the exciting results of years of research, journalists want to tell a human interest story.

If you listen to the very end of the webcast from CERN the morning they announced they had found a Higgs boson, you hear journalists who need a nice short quote to illustrate their story, questioning scientists who are happily conscious that, just for once, they don’t have to cooperate: they’re not dependent on the journalists reporting this piece of research to get publicity.

This morning, the Guardian reported on research from Finland suggesting that:

Multiple abortions ‘increase chance of premature or underweight births
Finnish research suggests slightly increased risk of problems for women who have had three or more terminations

You know, of course, the kind of use the prolife movement will make of this sort of reportage. They are still trying to claim a link between breast cancer and abortion despite years of research showing there isn’t one. SPUC has an entire presentation for schools consisting of pseudo-scientific lies about how abortion is bad for your health.

And this study is actually probably sound as far as it goes:

published in the journal Human Reproduction, looked at the outcomes from the pregnancies of more than 300,800 women between 1996 and 2008. More than 10% had undergone one abortion, 1.5% had experienced two and 0.5% (942 women) had undergone three before a first birth.

The researchers weren’t therefore going on a self-selected group of women who had low birthweight babies and abortions and had agreed to participate in a study, but on large numbers of women whose public health data was available to Helsinki’s National Institute for Health and Welfare. (This is the kind of Scandinavian study that showed conclusively that abortion is not linked to breast cancer: by looking at a whole population of adult women.)

The researchers allowed for other factors which are a known risk for premature births/underweight babies and which are linked to first-time mothers who have had previous abortions (“smokers, single, from urban areas and from a lower socioeconomic position, and had had miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies before their first birth”).

But when they allowed for these factors, it became apparent that there was still a small increased risk linked to multiple abortions. Those who had undergone three or more were slightly more likely to have a baby of very low birth weight (less than 1500g), low birth weight (less than 2500g), preterm (before 37 weeks) or very preterm (before 28 weeks) compared to those who had never had an abortion. There was a slight increased risk of a very preterm birth also for women who had undergone two abortions.

Now, fairly obviously to anyone except a prolife campaigner, a woman has multiple abortions because she doesn’t have proper access to birth control. No one decides to have an abortion for fun: Dr Klemetti, the lead researcher, herself notes

“However, the increased risk is very small, particularly after only one or even two abortions, and women should not be alarmed by our findings.”

Dr Reija Klemetti adds

“To put these risks into perspective, for every 1,000 women, three who have had no abortion will have a baby born under 28 weeks. This rises to four women among those who have had one abortion, six women who have had two abortions, and 11 women who have had three or more.”

She added that there might still be social factors that they had not allowed for, related to some women’s way of life, life habits, and sexual and reproductive health. She said also that the study could show a link, but not prove that abortion was the cause.

This is the kind of unhelpful quote that doesn’t make a story. Scientific research is often not very interesting to a journalist who needs a good directive quote and a proper headline. Scientific stories about abortion that say “Tiny increased risk of underweight foetus if you have an abortion, nothing worth worrying about” – after all, if you need to have an abortion, you need it, there’s no point worrying about a tiny increased risk: to use this research, as prolifers will, as an argument for making abortion is illegal and thus far more dangerous to public health, will be the usual prolife travesty of science.

But it will happen. Bets on how soon one of the prolife “news” sites runs the story? I’d say the first one later today, but prolifers will keep harking back to this research for years or decades – even if a later study shows there was correlation but not causation.

As a woman in science, Dr Klemetti may have been aware of this: or she may just not have felt she needed to be helpful to journalists to get publicity/funding for her work in research on public health.

Andrew Whitelaw is the Professor of Neonatal Medicine at Bristol University and Consultant Neonatologist at Southmead and St Michael’s Hospitals, and who worked in Norway for eight years, said the “study was of high quality” and

the results should be shared with women seeking abortions.

I don’t know Andrew Whitelaw‘s personal beliefs about abortion, nor his political views. (And I checked online as far as I could before writing this, so if he has a personal view against abortion, he’s never been a prolife spokesman.) Nor, I think, is he doing so now. Andrew Whitelaw is a medical expert on premature babies. After working in Colombia for UNICEF in 1985-86, he did the original scientific research on “Kangaroo baby care” for premature infants. He was President of the Neonatal Society. And he’s had funding from multiple trusts and charities.

Andrew Whitelaw was quoted directly:

“Birth before 28 weeks exposes the infant to a hugely increased risk of death, brain injury and permanent disability. Thus an increase (after three or more abortions) of nearly threefold in the odds of having an infant born before 28 weeks is worrying.”

Indirectly, which suggests he spoke at more length and the journalist had already got the “scare quote” they needed for the story:

He noted also that most women in the study had undergone surgical abortions and that there could possibly be less risk in medical abortion, where drugs are used to induce it.

In other words: the information a woman who’s seeking an abortion might want to be aware of, is that if you are possibly at risk of having an underweight foetus, it may be an additional good reason to have your abortion early (medical abortions can’t be had after 9 weeks) and induced by a pill, instead of having a D&C abortion.

But as Dr Patricia Lohr, BPAS Medical Director, notes

“For most women the foremost consideration when faced with an unplanned pregnancy is whether they feel in the position to carry that pregnancy to term and become a parent, or add to their existing family.”

Worldwide, one of the most common reasons for having an abortion is that the woman has already had all the children she intends to have: but the most likely people to have later elective abortions – too late to have a medical abortion – are teenagers kept ignorant and too ashamed to ask for help.

Eight years ago Eleanor Cooney wrote:

If we truly wish to protect the young and vulnerable, promote a “culture of life,” … then we must make teenage girls a top priority. Make sure they don’t get pregnant in the first place, and not just by preaching “abstinence only.” If they do get pregnant, don’t throw a net of fear, confusion, and complication over them that will only cause them to hide their conditions for as long as they can. Because that’s exactly what they’ll do.

But headlining a news story with “Finnish research shows abortion continues to be very safe and medical abortion may be even safer than surgical abortion” and subtitling it “So, teenage girls with unwanted pregnancies should be encouraged to have their abortion early!”


Not even Sarah Boseley writing in Guardian Health is going to tell that story. It’s just not journalism. It’s science.

1 Comment

Filed under Healthcare, In The Media, Women

One response to “Journalism and science

  1. Pingback: Pregnant women! Have you really considered the risks? « glosswatch

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