Here's some abortion science for Maria Miller

Abortion "turnaways" three times more likely to fall below poverty line.

The debate over abortion limits drags on, Maria Miller has enraged Women's Hour listeners by suggesting that the limit should be set by "people's opinions rather than science", according to the Huffington Post.

If I was being nice, I'd say Maria Miller is suggesting that the cold hard anatomical data doesn't cover important social factors that can only be gathered by talking to people. But science also includes social science,  and these controlled studies can give a much better idea of the social factors than mere "opinion". Here's one recent example.

New research from the University of California, the "Turnaway Project", studied women who had turned up at the abortion clinic a few days too late - looking at how they fared compared to their contempories who had got there in time. Here's a summary of what they found, taken from their statement on their Facebook group:

We have found that there are no mental health consequences of abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. There are other interesting findings: even later abortion is safer than childbirth and women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term are three times more likely than women who receive an abortion to be below the poverty level two years later.

The study chose two groups with similar demographics - two thirds lived below the poverty line, and 45 per cent was recieving state assistance. A year later, the groups had dramatic differences. 76 per cent of those who were refused abortions were now recieving state help, against 44 per cent from the other group.

The new mothers were also more likely to live below the poverty line, and more likely to be out of work - 48 per cent were working, against 58 per cent of those who got abortions.

Differences also appeared in vulnerability to domestic violence: Turnaways were much more likely to stay with an abusive partner. Reports of incidents of domestic violence for this group in the last 6 months were at 7 per cent, compared to 3 per cent for those who got abortions. The researchers commented that this was completely down to the difficulty of getting out of an abusive relationship when a young child was involved.

The blog io9 spoke to the researchers about the emotional health of the study participants:

As the researchers said at the American Public Health Association Meeting, “One week after seeking abortion, 97% of women who obtained an abortion felt that abortion was the right decision; 65% of turnaways still wished they had been able to obtain an abortion.” Also one week after being denied an abortion, turnaways told the researchers that they had more feelings of anxiety than the women who had abortions.

Women who had abortions overwhelmingly reported feeling relieved (90%), though many also felt sad and guilty afterwards. All of these feelings faded naturally over time in both groups, however. A year later, there were no differences in anxiety or depression between the two groups.

Controlled studies like this one provides meaningful information that mere "public pressure" can't. It's time they were taken seriously by policy makers.

Maria Miller talks to Grant Shapps. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.