Honi Soit is a proud campus tradition at the University of Sydney. Some would call its presence in student life institutional. Honi’s history is a long one of quality student journalism – ‘the only media outlet with the capacity and the will to cover student issues in depth’, as editor Hannah Ryan points out. Accordingly, Honi is synonymous with radical edge, iconoclasm, and a refusal to skirt the controversial.
However, Harry Stratton’s article ‘LifeChoice “educational” pamphlet debunked’, published in last week’s Honi, will not be remembered in this tradition.
The title of Stratton’s article alludes to What RU4?, a flyer published by the student society LifeChoice Sydney. LifeChoice is an USU-sponsored society, regulated by the Clubs and Societies Office. The flyer was distributed in select lecture theatres on May 13.
What RU4? outlines the physiological mechanism of the RU486 abortion drug and some of its documented medical risks and complications.
The flyer concludes with a call for a discussion about the place of medical abortions in our society. The content is not dramatic, emotive, or judgemental. It makes no political statements, nor is it in any way graphic. See for yourself – the full text of the flyer can be accessed on LifeChoice’s website.
Despite the mildness of the material presented in What RU4?, Stratton slammed the flyer and LifeChoice for its apparent agenda to ‘browbeat and bully women while claiming to offer them the “facts”.
Did What RU4? ‘brow-beat’ and ‘bully’ women? And did it parade fiction as fact? One would hope such accusations – published in the country’s premier student paper and funded by student cash via the SRC – were backed up with substantial evidence.
Unfortunately for the reputation of student journalism, Stratton’s article falls sorely short of expectations. Despite promising a rigorous ‘debunking’, Stratton addresses a bare third of the medical and ethical material presented in What RU4? The remainder is misquoted, smeared with half-baked research, before collapsing into a raw ideological, dissembling mess.
Stratton began in earnest by mislabelling RU486 as ‘emergency contraception’. If you are going to advocate for the consumption of a chemical compound to be potentially sold to underage girls cheaper than a pack of ciggies, at least understand its basic mechanism and purpose. ECP is taken within 72 hours of conception and its primary mechanism is contraceptive. RU486 is an abortion drug which is taken, on label, well into a pregnancy (before 7 weeks) and causes the abortion of an embryo (or foetus if used later in pregnancy).
What RU4? explicitly provides a contrast between the risks associated with surgical and medical abortions respectively. One of the main arguments in favour of RU486 is that the drug is safer than surgical abortion and therefore expedient to women’s health. This is not reflected in the medical literature. RU486 chemical abortion is more problematic than its proponents allow.
Stratton certainly does not address this central concern of What RU4?. He instead misquotes the flyer, jumping on and sensationalising how “women using RU486 will experience ‘the trauma of seeing the dead foetus”. In fact the proper context of the What RU4? reference to dead foetuses was that this was simply a possibility when contrasted with surgical abortions, which Stratton himself acknowledges, alongside a higher incidence of complications. Women’s experiences vary widely – reflecting the fact that RU486 can be used during a window in pregnancy when the development of the unborn entity might be such that it is either embryo or foetus.
In regards to the medical risks outlined in What RU4?, Stratton offers nothing new, except to trivialise the increased risks of haemorrhaging, infection, and death, associated with RU486. In the face of the legitimate concern of the high-rate of follow–up surgical abortions for botched chemical abortions, he responds with a strange addendum: “Ninety-four percent of those complications are just that the patient is still pregnant”. Here Stratton has stated the obvious while missing the vital issue. Apparently we’re silly for thinking that abortifacient pills are supposed to actually procure abortions. If the expediency of RU486 is such a key reason behind it being made more accessible to Australian women, then it wildly fails its own test. Given the saturation of abortion in our society, RU486 adds little to women’s pregnancy options and instead puts them at needless risk. As Australian academic Renate Klein points out:
A well-tried and simple abortion method exists: suction abortion. It is done in a doctor’s surgery, and is over in minutes. If complications occur, emergency treatment is at hand. Compared with this, RU486 is messy and unpredictable. RU486 tablets … can draw out the abortion process to two weeks or more, with bleeding, nausea, vomiting and painful contractions. One in ten women will then need a dilation and curettage to complete the abortion.
Renate Klein is an avowed pro-abortion feminist, and no ally of the pro-life movement. And yet she has this to say about RU486:
I am not a man. I am not a right-to-lifer. But I oppose the abortion drug RU486. I am a long-time feminist and health activist who is committed to women’s access to safe and legal abortion, and I am getting exasperated with the pro-choice movement’s simplistic message about RU486. It is not safe and it will not expand women’s choices.
It would likely shock Stratton and his ilk that there is actually a broad dissent against RU486 chemical abortions, provoked not least by the concerning number of international deaths linked to the drug. Students have been denied a discussion around this nuance of viewpoints – perhaps the most egregious aspect of the sulphurous reaction to What RU4? from elements of the campus. As LifeChoice Sydney president Jade McLaughlin wrote: ‘This is not about the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy, but a debate about medical health’.
Stratton, having turned a complex ethical and medical discussion into a polarised ideological mess, proceeds to completely stumble at the abortion/mental health quagmire. The relationship between mental health and abortion is certainly contentious. Causality is a fickle thing to establish, not least in the field of human psychology. Yet Stratton avoids this discussion by firstly tearing the What RU4? quote – ‘the same risk of up to 20%’ – from its comparative context. Secondly, he calls the kettle black and engages in some fantastic cherry-picking of publications.
From the broad literature on mental health and abortion, Stratton picked three surveys (not actual studies it should be noted) which agree with his conclusion and are far from being free of ideological bias.
The neutrality of the 2008 American Psychological Association Review, which Stratton cites with unflappable orthodoxy, has been widely questioned. Pro-choice and respected academic David Fergusson said of the Review:
‘By the admission of the [APA] report, studies in this area (including my own) have significant flaws relating to sampling, measurement and confounding. What this means is that “the best scientific evidence” to which they refer, is really not all that good. Given that this is true then it would be inappropriate to draw strong conclusions on the basis of such limited evidence. The APA report, in fact, does draw a very strong and dogmatic conclusion that cannot be defended on the basis of evidence since this evidence is lacking by the admission of the report. As I stated to the APA committee in my review [of an earlier draft], the only scientifically defensible position to take is that the evidence in the area is inconsistent and contested.’
Furthermore, the American Psychological Association has effectively endorsed abortion as a human right since 1977. It is not surprising that the APA would strongly oppose any studies showing a link between abortion and subsequent mental health or social problems – such studies would contradict their own well-entrenched ideological position. Anything the APA states about abortion needs to be considered in light of their strongly-held official pro-abortion policy – a particular irony considering Stratton’s accusation against ‘pro-life’ researchers having alleged pro-life biases in publishing on the negative link between abortion and mental health.
For all his commitment to empowering women and intellectual discourse, why has Stratton conveniently missed out the most relevant and recent reviews in this area, from local academics? In April this year, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry reiterated that “There is suggestive evidence that abortion may be associated with small to moderate increases in risks of some mental health problems.” Perhaps the most important study on the area of mental health and abortion to date is Fergusson, Horwood et al ‘Abortion and mental health disorders: evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study’, from which What RU4? draws its data. The full context of the study’s findings were that:
“… even following extensive control for prospectively and concurrently measured confounders, women who had had abortions had rates of mental health problems that were about 30% higher than rates of disorder in other women… Although exposure to abortion was associated with significant increases in risks of mental health problems, the overall effects of abortion on mental health proved to be small. Estimates of the attributable fraction suggested that exposure to abortion accounted for 1.5–5.5% of the overall rates of mental disorder in this cohort.”
The link between mental health and abortion is certainly not definitive, but there is a clear place for an informed discussion. Fergusson et al put it best, when they stated in the implications of their study, that:
The conclusions … have important implications for the ongoing debates between pro-life and pro-choice advocates about the mental health effects of abortion… In general, the results lead to a middle-of-the-road position that, for some women, abortion is likely to be a stressful and traumatic life event which places those exposed to it at modestly increased risk of a range of common mental health problems.
Stratton’s claim that ‘there is no increased risk’ with regard to abortion and women’s mental health is simply indefensible.
It also makes Stratton’s later accusation of poor research bare hypocrisy. ‘But it’s hardly a surprise that LifeChoice’s “facts” don’t reflect medical reality’, he writes from his house of glass. Only four references were listed on the bottom of What RU4? These were never intended to be an exhaustive resource list on RU486, nor the direct citations for all or even the majority of the points made in the flyer. Like the SRC pamphlet published last week defending the abortion drug, there is simply no room for two dozen footnotes and references. Of course, links to the full citations were included in the flyer, and readers encouraged to engage online. Either Stratton is a poor journalist and never followed the links or QR Code on the flyer he is purportedly debunking, or he’s a dissembling ideologue.
In light of the fact that the flyer’s content is fully contextualised online, there’s very little of substance in Stratton’s debunking of those four references. He makes an ad hominem attack against one author (The publically-stated institutional affiliations of an author do not detract from their data or their argumentation). Elsewhere, he’s absurdly vague about which references he’s actually addressing. He states authoritatively that ‘One isn’t actually about abortion, but naturally-occurring pregnancy complications’ while omitting any particular details. Which ‘one’ Harry? All of the references included in the flyer deal with termination of pregnancies in some way! Why does Stratton disregard a study undertaken before RU486 was legal in Australia? Does the legality of a drug affect its medical risks? And apparently because a study concludes overall that ‘RU486 is safe’, discussion of the risks associated with the drug can only be regarded as bullying and intimidation?
The express purpose of What RU4? was to build platform for an informed discussion among students, by providing the basic facts, along with the perspective of LifeChoice as a student society.
Students should see Stratton’s article as a very muddled contribution to that discussion, and a far cry from the definitive debunking that he would have us believe. Indeed, given the clear bias in Stratton’s reporting and his flimsy faux-intellectual crutch, the article amounts to nothing more than an ideological hack-job; written at the expense of women’s health awareness and student discourse.
It is incredibly disappointing that our Honi editors – an editorial team which claimed it would always deal if not in objectivity than at the very least in fairness – would think this the best report on the RU486 controversy they could present to the student body.
LifeChoice ‘Debunked’? Far from it.
 ‘David Fergusson reacts to the APA mental health and abortion task force report’, accessed May 25, 2013 – http://wthrockmorton.com/2008/08/david-fergusson-reacts-to-the-apa-mental-health-and-abortion-task-force-report/
 Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ, Boden JM. ‘Does abortion reduce the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy? A re-appraisal of the evidence’, Aust N Z J Psychiatry. April 3, 2013. [Epub ahead of print]. Accessed May 25 – http://anp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/04/02/0004867413484597
 Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ, Boden JM. ‘Abortion and mental health disorders: evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study’, BJPsych. 193: 444-451. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.108.056499