New abortion survey looks more like activism than science

 

Last Friday various New Zealand media outlets were loudly trumpeting claims such as:

New Zealanders strongly support legal abortion, new study finds

And:

A survey of nearly 20,000 New Zealanders found most support legalised abortion, regardless of the situation.

And who can blame them when the very press release from Auckland University announcing this new survey was boldly asserting that:

Survey finds widespread support for legal abortion

Before we all accept these claims as fact though, we need to ask some important questions about exactly how these findings were arrived at.

We also need to be asking whether these survey findings are a truthful accounting, or a selective cherry picking of data to suit the personal ideological beliefs of the researchers involved in the survey.

So let’s do something that the NZ journalists covering this survey seem unwilling to do – ask some important questions.

Firstly, there is a glaring red flag contained in the Stuff article which should be raising some serious questions about these findings.

That red flag is the statement: “most [survey participants] were aged between 45-64.

Any person who knows how to think critically can see straight away this fact alone shows that this survey is not actually representative of the New Zealand community. In fact, it only captures a very narrow demographic.

Which raises another interesting question: why is there such an overrepresentation of such a narrow age range in this survey?

The data these researchers were using comes from the 19,973 people who took part in the 2016/17 New Zealand Attitudes and Values study.

Again, according to Stuff’s reporting, this is a longitudinal study of people aged over 18 years.

So where are all the younger and older participants, and why is this new survey made up mostly of participants in that particular 45 – 64 year old age range?

Is it because the 2016/17 survey didn’t actually survey a wide enough range of New Zealanders?

Or have the researchers been selective with their use of the data based on personal ideological beliefs about abortion law in New Zealand?

Now before you accuse us of being overly paranoid and conspiratorial, there are some glaring red flags regarding the researchers who conducted this survey.

Firstly, the way these findings are being publicly represented, by the researchers themselves, is clearly political and not scientific.

One of the survey authors, PhD researcher Yanshu Huang, who has been the most quoted in today’s media articles, told Stuff that: “the results suggested “the majority of New Zealanders are supportive of legalised abortion” and were “quite open” to legislative change.”

Does that sound like scientific commentary to you?

The reason it doesn’t is because it clearly isn’t.

She is making claims that are not scientific and WELL outside the reported findings of her own survey.

According to the official press release from Auckland University about this new survey, her research simply shows that, of the people (mostly 45 – 64 year old Kiwis) she surveyed:

  • 89.3% believe that abortion should be legal if the mother’s life is in danger
  • 65.6% “agreed or strongly agreed” that abortion should be legal “under any circumstance”

Notice how there is absolutely no mention at all of whether the survey participants supported the current New Zealand abortion laws or not? There is zero indication that such questions were even asked of them.

If that is the case, then clearly these findings (which are asking about general moral beliefs) are being misappropriated and misrepresented as support for change to our current abortion laws.

The general tone of the offical Auckland University press release about this new survey is clearly political, and even disingenuous in places.

Take this statement, for example:

“Abortion is currently only legal under specific circumstances in New Zealand including pregnancy that poses a serious risk to life or health, including mental health. In these instances, a woman must seek approval from two certifying consultants. Outside of these specific circumstances, abortion is considered a crime under the Crimes Act 1961.”

This is a bizarre statement for an official press release from an academic institution about a new survey regarding moral beliefs.

It clearly points to the fact that the researchers are trying to utilise their survey findings for political purposes, as a type of political lobbying tool attacking New Zealand’s current abortion laws.

More importantly though, this statement is disingenuous, as it is crafted in such a way as to imply that abortion is outlawed in this country except under the strictest of circumstances.

This is akin to suggesting that New Zealand’s driving laws are draconian and prohibitive of personal choice simply because it is illegal to drive a motor vehicle unless you meet all the necessary legal requirements before getting behind the wheel of a car.

The politicised tone of the official press release, and the overinflated claims being made about what these limited survey findings actually mean, got us wondering whether there was an ideological conflict-of-interest here on the part of the researchers.

So we did some basic fact-checking and discovered that the researchers who authored this new survey have a history of abortion activism in their academic endeavours.

Yanshu Huang, and her two co-authors Chris Sibley and Danny Osborne, have authored previous papers together on the topic of abortion.

The first one we found, published in 2014, was called The Precious Vessel: Ambivalent Sexism and Opposition to Elective and Traumatic Abortion.

That paper tried to argue that celebrating motherhood as a profoundly important aspect of femininity was a form of “benevolent sexism” (a postmodernist concept) that causes people to oppose abortion.

Here’s what they stated in the final part of their paper’s conclusion:

“These findings indicate that BS [benevolent sexism] is part of a broader set of ideals that seek to confine women to the roles of caregiver and mother— roles that covertly restrict the rights and opportunities of women in society. While believing that motherhood is a “girl’s highest calling” may place women who conform to traditional gender roles on a high pedestal, this sentiment also underlies punitive attitudes towards women who violate the benevolently sexist ideal of the female body as a precious vessel.”

Then in 2016 they revisited this exact same topic, publishing a new paper called Benevolent Sexism, Attitudes Toward Motherhood, and Reproductive Rights: A Multi-Study Longitudinal Examination of Abortion Attitudes.

Here’s what they said in the conclusion to that second paper:

“Together, these results [from the first and second paper] reflect the inherently political nature of gender role attitudes, and, perhaps more importantly, how the idealization of motherhood ultimately undermines women’s rights. Our results also help explain the persistence of opposition toward reproductive rights in society by demonstrating the insidious effects subjectively positive views of women (i.e., BS) have on women’s reproductive choices. Indeed, although BS promotes benevolent views towards women, it does so at the cost of their reproductive rights.”

Any thinking person can clearly see that this is the language of ideology, rather than the unbiased reporting of untainted scientific observation.

This all points to the fact that the latest survey was authored by people who have a very strong ideological commitment to the more extreme end of the abortion debate.

They have been steeped in a particular worldview, one that would go as far as to try and claim that abortion is supposedly a human right.

It’s hard to see how such strong ideological commitments should not, at the very least, be raising red flags about the legitimacy of what they are claiming today in the New Zealand media.

Especially in light of the fact that a research survey commissioned by Family First NZ and conducted by independent polling company Curia Market Research in 2016 found that 56% of women surveyed wanted shorter, not longer, time limits for abortion.

Only 9% believed that it should be the current legal limit of 20 weeks.

As the old maxim goes: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics – and as always, the devil is in the details, which is precisely why we desperately need our journalists to start asking the hard questions.

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