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When academics donít like the results of good research

By John Fleming and Selena Ewing - posted Wednesday, 25 May 2005


It is fascinating to read the panicked responses of political activist academics to research they find threatening. (See Eva Cox’s article here in On Line Opinion.)

The approach of these academics to research which challenges their long-held positions has been to slay the messenger. First, there is the attempt to attack the researchers. But that failed when it was realised, as the report, Give women choice: Australia speaks on Abortion, (pdf file 1.76 MB) makes clear, we subcontracted the conduct of the polling to an independent social research company which works to the standards laid down by the Australian Market and Social Research Society of Australia.

The second stage of the project was carried out by yet another independent social research company to test the validity of the first set of results and to assist in interpreting them. The second stage did in fact validate the first stage and produced sensible interpretations of what appeared on the face of it to be conflicting data.

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In any case, it is obvious in reading the report that the kinds of questions we asked are identified sufficiently in the detailed discussion of the data.

Next, these activist academics attacked the sponsors. But the private donors who provided the resources for the research to be undertaken did so altruistically and have taken no part whatsoever in the research per se. There is no conflict of interest to be identified.

They have even gone so far as to appeal to religious prejudice implying, for example, that any research carried out by “Catholics” is not to be regarded as fair, honest and objective. It is precisely these kinds of attitudes that have made the abortion debate in Australia so unnecessarily bitter and personal.

In our report, Giving Women Choice, we state that the broad aim of the research was to generate a statistically reliable database of attitudes to abortion, with sufficient depth of analysis of public opinion to allow informed commentary on the issue. So far we have released only the first of four stages of the research.

Our research clearly shows that most Australians (at least 62 per cent) are pro-choice. But it also shows that much of this support is “soft”. Why? The research shows that Australians are morally very uncomfortable with abortion.

Apart from the cases of severe and mild fetal disability, majority support could not be found for the legal provision of abortion in 11 other sets of circumstances. The interviewer then said he or she would go over the circumstances again. When the same circumstances were again put, but this time in terms of personal moral approval of abortion, majority support could only be found in the case of severe fetal disability. In all other 12 circumstances the level of moral support (always a minority) was very much lower than support for legal provision.

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Therefore, it was no surprise when Australians were asked this question: “If ways could be found to reduce the number of abortions in Australia but still giving women the right to freely choose an abortion, do you think that would be a good thing or not?”, 87 per cent of Australians said yes.

What we all have to come to terms with is that the old debate of pro-choice versus pro-life is not where Australians are. Australians appear to have accepted both messages from the pro-choice and pro-life lobbies and, as a result, are deeply conflicted on the matter of abortion. So consequently they want fewer abortions while maintaining the current level of choice.

The public supports looking at better provision of counselling services, more practical alternatives to abortion, and a far better disclosure of risks associated with abortion to enable truly informed consent.

Well, if you don’t want more counselling, better services and informed consent then you won’t want to be in the debate that Australians want. But most of us are better than that. So let’s put aside the old rhetoric based upon religious prejudices and attend to the new debate. The results of our work may be unsettling for Eva Cox and Leslie Cannold, but it has been unsettling for us too. The survey shows Australians do not believe they are well informed on abortion: They want more debate and they want men in the debate as well as women, but they do not want more bitter debate.

Our research shows the possibility of the way forward. Can we please have a discussion about that?

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About the Authors

Rev Dr John Fleming is an internationally renowned bioethicist and widely published author. Dr Fleming has served as Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide since 1987 and is President of Campion College.

Selena Ewing has a Bachelor of Health Sciences from Adelaide University. She has a special interest in women's health, aged care and public health, and has previously worked in health promotion and quantitative research.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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