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In point of fact, ABC

By Joanna Howe and Suzanne Le Mire - posted Thursday, 26 September 2019

We wrote an op-ed in The SMH arguing that doctors should be permitted to conscientiously object to abortion. In that op-ed we said, parenthetically, that in Victoria late-term abortions have increased by 39% since 2008. The SMH fact-checked the op-ed prior to publication. They appointed a second journalist, in addition to the opinion editor, to fact-check each claim made in the op-ed. Although this seemed unusual to us (in publishing over 30 op-eds in Australian newspapers over the years this had neverhappened), we welcomed the opportunity to have each of our claims thoroughly examined.

To arrive at our figure of a 39% increase in late-term abortions, we compared two time periods. We took the number of late-term abortions in a nine year period (2000 until 2008) and compared this with the number of late-term abortions in an eight year period (2009 until 2016). There is an average increase of 39% when comparing these two periods.

Competent statisticians will admit that the same set of numbers can tell very different stories depending on how you read them. So, the question that should be asked is whether the method applied is suitable to what is being examined. Looking at average or median increases (where there are likely to be outliers) is a valid statistical method used in a range of fields to show the difference between two time periods. For example, these are used to discover whether property values are increasing or decreasing over time (including by the ABC itself), to examine whether wages are going up or down (by the ABS).


ABC Fact Check can give any number of verdicts when checking out an alleged fact. These verdicts range from "baseless" to "checks out" to "not the full story".

Despite ABC Fact Check themselves agreeing that there had in fact been a 39% increase in late-term abortions since decriminalisation in Victoria (They wrote: "Comparing eight year averages pre and post-decriminalisation does indeed show a 39 per cent increase"), our statistic was branded in harsh and black and white terms as "wrong".

This is plainly untrue. A look at the raw numbers (see Table) demonstrates that there have been more late-term abortions in the period after Victoria decriminalised its abortion laws than before. In fact, in every year since 2009 the number of late-term abortions have been over 300, whereas in the equivalent period before 2009, there were only four years (out of a possible nine), where the number of late-term abortions was over 300. The 2017 figures have just been released and abortions after 20 weeks have risen from the previous year to 323.

The ABC's Fact Check might have disagreed with the way we used these statistics. They might have said that we could, or even should, have asked a different question, perhaps about the most recent trend, or the proportion of late-term abortions relative to live births or population. But our argument was simple, that there have, on the Victorian government's own numbers, been more late-term abortions since the Victorian reforms were instituted. This means, we thought, that doctors who conscientiously object to abortion are likely to find life pretty difficult if the NSW proposal becomes law. For this, our statistic was both accurate (as the ABC, somewhat inconveniently, acknowledged) and appropriate.

The verdict that we were objectively "wrong" is clearly an overreach. And it exposes the ABC's bias.


Although ABC Fact Check claims to be neutral and objective, it is revealing what they have chosen not to fact check in the debate over abortion law reform. The choice of whose statements and what topics to check, can all introduce bias into an endeavour that's meant to counter it.

For example, there was no fact check on the claim in The Sydney Morning Herald article that claimed 'late-term abortions in the NT had fallen as women were able to access safe terminations earlier' since the NT decriminalised abortion. This claim is 'wrong' because late-term abortions are only allowed in the NT to save a women's life. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the number of late-term abortions in the NT have been in decline given there is a strict threshold which has to be met. The ABC has also chosen not to fact check the claim that late-term abortions only occur because the foetus has a lethal congenital abnormality. This is untrue: in Victoria, for example, between 2009 and 2016 there were 1277 foetuses who were aborted for a reason other than a lethal congenital abnormality.

The other revealing aspect of the ABC Fact Check is its conclusion. It devotes its final seven paragraphs to reporting the findings of a 2017 qualitative study arguing that there are still barriers to accessing abortion in Victoria. This study draws entirely on the views of 19 'experts' in abortion service provision. Thus, the claim that there needs to be still greater access to abortion in Victoria is being substantiated by interviews with the very people who have a vested interest in an increase in access to abortions– hardly an objective measure of anything.

It is disappointing when an ABC Fact Check seems more like a stitch up than a genuine fact-finding endeavour.It is particularly so when the issue is one where the debate is politically charged. The ABC should not use a so-called "Fact Check" to push an agenda.

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About the Authors

Dr Joanna Howe is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Adelaide.

Dr Suzanne Le Mire is Professor of Law at the University of Adelaide.

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

Photo of Joanna HoweJoanna HowePhoto of Suzanne Le MireSuzanne Le Mire
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