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The BBC, abortion and religious 'experts'

I've been reading William Crawley's blog over at the BBC blogs site. He writes about politics, religion and Northern Ireland mostly. It's an interesting blog.

While reading through it, it reminded me of a little bugbear of mine that I've been meaning to write about for a while. That is the prominence given to religious leaders in the debate over abortion time limits.

I'd like to write about it properly, but one of the really exciting things that the BBC have done to make it so that us plebs can actually hold them accountable (the BBC Infax catalogue) has been withdrawn while it is "reviewed". This actually allowed researchers to keep track of what the BBC were putting out. What exactly there is to review I'm not sure - it's one of a small handful of BBC projects that has been an absolute success. If I had access to this catalogue, I could give you actual data, but I'll have to work off memory.

When the BBC have people on to discuss abortion on the radio, they seem to always have the same setup. Cardinal O'Connor or one of his underlings, a tame scientist and a waffly politician of some variety. How is this a fair discussion? Why not get a bioethicist or philosopher on the show? These people's arguments seem to be based on so many unquestioned presuppositions that having a philosopher on the show to rigorously and logically analyse the arugments would, frankly, be a good idea.

In support of this, I briefly queried Google with professor abortion site:news.bbc.co.uk and cardinal abortion site:news.bbc.co.uk. The latter query brings up ~58,000 results while the former ~14,600. Of course, this figure includes professors in all areas of academia (most of them medical). If one searches for philosopher abortion site:news.bbc.co.uk, you get 61 results. If one switches to philosophy abortion..., the figure goes up to 249 results.

The Catholic Church estimates the UK Catholic population for 2003 as 4.1m with attendance at Sunday Mass at just over 950,000. According to Google, Cardinal O'Connor and friends get three to four times as much coverage as academics. Is this representative?

Let's compare with other sources. A similar search using Google and The Guardian brings up very different results. A search for professor abortion site:guardian.co.uk brings up 646 results while cardinal abortion... 676 results - a statistically insignificant difference. A brief survey of the first ten reveal a mixture of both medical and ethical/philosophical stories for the professor search.

The Telegraph has 170 results for the professor search and 213 results for the cardinal search. This phenomena seems limited to BBC News.

I have no problem with the BBC covering the views of the Church, nor of religious people or people in the pro-life movement. What I am concerned about is that academic experts - from both the philosophical and ethical disciplines as well as the medical disciplines - do not have their expertise and views promulgated in the same way that the Church has it's views pushed.

As I have said - and it may be special pleading - I think that philosophers are in a unique position to bring to light both the ethical underpinnings and logical fallacies in the arguments of people on all sides of the debate. There is a lot of equivocation and fuzziness in the use of rights-language with regard to the foetus, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of the opinions held by people in the debate. This would lead to a more informed and critical public.

That said, it is not all bad. The BBC have a section on their Religion & Ethics site which covers a variety of different medical, legal, philosophical, ethical and religious issues regarding abortion. What they don't seem to have is any critical reflection on the religious views presented. For instance, if one clicks through to the Jewish views on abortion, they have an interesting statement about how abortion is permitted only if there is a 'serious reason', and states that a rabbi should give advice on the matter. It gives some detailed information about this, and has some scriptural support for the matter: "Whoever destroys one life is as if he destroyed a whole world, and whoever preserves a life is as if he preserved the whole world."

This stuff cries out for moral reflection and criticism by ethicists. The BBC doesn't seem to want to either online (as Google attests) or on the radio airwaves (as the Today programme podcasts attest). It's not like finding philosophers and ethicists is particularly hard. They tend to work in these big places called universities, and I'm sure they wouldn't mind getting called away from marking essays to enjoy the Radio 4 jet-set lifestyle for a day.

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