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Luke de Pulford is studying philosophy in Rome

Screen shot 2011-12-01 at 07.38.58Hats off to Earl Howe, the Lords Health Minister, who admitted last week that his Department’s procedure for calculating the number and cost of publicly-funded independent sector abortions was wildly inaccurate and needed to change.

In an astonishing letter to Lord Alton, the crossbench peer, Howe provided revised figures for last year exposing the old estimate as 37,000 abortions and £30 million shy of the true numbers.

37,000 pregnancies and £30 million pounds of taxpayer’s money unaccounted for in a single year? That’s hardly an “oops” moment. Multiply those numbers by the years that the Department of Health has been using this staggeringly inaccurate system and we’re left hundreds of thousands of abortions and hundreds of millions of pounds that the DoH simply didn’t know about.

So how does a team of professional government accountants and statisticians go about getting such a seemingly simple calculation so badly wrong?


The more intrepid amongst you might seek a fuller explanation from Howe’s letter itself – a vintage example of the not-so-plain-and-simple language reserved for this topic – but, for the benefit of those not so-inclined: the previous system used Healthcare Resource Groups divided in to clinically equivalent procedures which came together to form the reference cost collection data, which was then combined with NHS tariffs to estimate the number of abortions undertaken in the independent sector.

Confused? Now perhaps you’ll join me in doffing your hat to Earl Howe. Having worked in this area, I can vouch for just how hard it is get information on non-NHS abortions from the Department and how persistent Howe has had to be to obtain these data. Even he, the Minister of State, was made to wait four months for the privilege!

That the DoH is apparently unable to monitor its service providers ought to worry us. In these asphyxiating economic circumstances, you’d expect its commissioners to demand a higher standard of accounting. I mean, how hard can it be to ask for a record of the cost and number of abortions undertaken by independent providers?  Failing that, wouldn’t it be easier for the DoH to change its inexplicable current policy and collect the data directly from the NHS who are known to have all the relevant details?

Or how about this for a suggestion: in the absence of a decent accountancy procedure, the providers themselves (typically either Marie Stopes of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service – by far the two biggest in the UK) might have approached the DoH in a spirit of commercial honesty to say something like: “Hey, there seems consistently to be a whacking great 40,000 pregnancy and multi-million pound disparity in the figures you keep giving to parliament and our records”.

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I can’t help but admit a twinge of cynicism. Pro-life campaigners were agitating for these figures long before Frank Field and Nadine Dorries’ abortion counselling proposals were defeated. They didn’t get them and consequently MPs taking part in the debate had to base their arguments on figures that were just plain wrong; figures that highlight clearly the commercial side of the abortion industry in precisely the moment it was under scrutiny. 

I should be careful. These recent revelations don't prove that the debate was deliberately subverted. What they prove is something that anyone who has been around this issue already knows: in the DoH there is a systemic unwillingness to apply the same standards of disclosure, accountability and transparency to abortion as other medical procedures.

Even worse than the poor stewardship, though, is what Howe’s letter reveals about the Department’s approach to life in the womb. The fact that we can’t even be bothered to keep an accurate count of how many abortions are undertaken in this country proves how little we value unborn life. Not content to snuff them out prematurely, we fail even to afford those lives the pithy dignity of becoming statistics.

The implicit message here is crystal clear and implemented with dogmatic certitude as if it were uncontested: human life is worthless until born. But far from being uncontested, the only thing that people on all sides of the debate actually know and have no choice but to agree on is that a new and unique human life is present from the moment of fertilisation. Despite what you may have been told, this isn't some crazy religious belief. It is quite simply the consensus of modern embryological science. The approach of the DoH is at odds with the science. Given that we're dealing with the most fundamental of all human rights, this fact alone ought to urge vigorous debate.

58 comments for: Luke de Pulford: We must demand greater accountability and deeper debate about the cost of abortion

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