Abortion in Britain: past, present and future

Date: Wednesday 21st March

Venue: Moot Chamber, Widoger Building, Kent Law School, University of Kent


1.30pm Coffee and Welcome

2-3.15pm ‘The future of abortion: the case for decriminalisation’

Discussion with opening comments from Professor Sally Sheldon (Kent Law School) and Ann Furedi, CEO, British Pregnancy Advisory Service and author “The Moral Case for Abortion”

5-6pm Drinks Reception and meet the author with Ann Furedi


All welcome. Please register for a free ticket at eventbrite or contact Verity Pooke at vp238@kent.ac.uk for more information.


New Member of CISoR

Aino Petterson is a first-year PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of Kent, whose multidisciplinary thesis examines people’s attitudes towards reproductive technologies such as gene-editing, in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Her supervisory team is Professor of Social Psychology Robbie Sutton, Professor of Genetics Darren Griffin and Professor of Family and Parenting Research Ellie Lee.

About her research project Aino said: ‘I think it is very interesting how our minds often go straight to dystopian, science-fiction visions of the future à la “Gattaca” or newspaper headlines like “Three parent babies” and “Designer babies” when advancements are made in the field of reproductive technology. What is it that make some people concerned about these technologies? Why are others not concerned at all? These are some of the questions I hope to address in my thesis, and I think a multidisciplinary approach is the ideal way to do so.’

Aino is not new to the topic of reproduction; as a postgraduate at Kent she examined how sexist ideology, and particularly hostile sexism, is related to the view that it is OK for men to exert control over women’s decisions in pregnancy, childbirth and abortion – including both the right to veto a spouse’s decision to have an abortion and to withdraw financial support for the child if she chooses not to terminate her pregnancy.   Aino had this idea when she was second year undergraduate attending a talk Robbie held on sexism, and has now been published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.  She also had a book chapter accepted on censorial and punitive attitudes to science with Robbie together with Dr. Bastiaan Rutjens from the University of Amsterdam.



Surrogacy Law Reform Project Event Update

On 19 November 2017, Dr Kirsty Horsey of Kent Law School (KLS), who runs the Surrogacy Law Reform Project, hosted an afternoon workshop looking at the possibilities for the regulation of surrogacy. The workshop was co-sponsored by CISoR and the KLS Centre for Law Gender and Sexuality. ‘REGULATING SURROGACY: PROBLEMS AND POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS’ saw 35 attendees from many different institutions – not all academic – come to hear perspectives on the problems presented by the existing law on surrogacy in three different nations: the UK, Canada and Spain, as well as potential solutions in the form of ideas for reform.

Visiting scholar Dr Noelia Igareda from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain spoke on ‘Socio-legal arguments to legitimize surrogacy and obstacles and criticisms to its regulation: different national laws but common problems’. Surrogacy is currently prohibited in Spain but, as with many nations in the same situation (or where it is difficult to access surrogacy), couples travel overseas to enter surrogacy arrangements. Thus, even with prohibition, Spain has some of the same problems as other nations, and there are calls within Spain for surrogacy to be permitted and regulated. Dr Pamela White, from Kent Law School, spoke on ‘“Desperately seeking surrogates”: Thoughts on Canada’s emergence as an international surrogacy destination’. Canada faces a different problem from Spain, with its relatively liberal stance on surrogacy making it a destination of choice for people from other nations seeking to become parents through surrogacy. Pamela looked at the ethical and legal problems this creates and how legal reform might help.

Three other speakers addressed the situation in the UK, where there have been many and increasing calls for legal reform in recent years, and which may in fact occur, with the Government having given its support to the Law Commission’s review of the existing law, announced in December 2017. Natalie Smith, trustee of the non-profit surrogacy organisation Surrogacy UK and herself a parent via surrogacy, spoke about ‘The view from the ground: surrogacy in the UK and the need for legal reform’. Natalie presented findings from a working group on surrogacy law reform, which she is part of alongside Dr Horsey and others, and which published a report called ‘Surrogacy in the UK: myth busting and legal reform’ in late 2015, examining the realities of surrogacy practice and making recommendations for law reform. Since then, the working group has continued to campaign for change, including working with MPs and peers to secure debates in parliament and, more recently, becoming the secretariat for an All Party Parliamentary Group on Surrogacy. Andrew Powell, a barrister from 4 Paper Buildings, Temple, London, presented ‘The view from the Bar: surrogacy in the English courtroom’. Andrew has represented parties in numerous surrogacy cases before the courts, and has first-hand experience of the shortcomings of the existing law, making his a very interesting perspective. Lastly, Dr Julie McCandless, at the time from the London School of Economics, but now a Senior Lecturer in Kent Law School, presented an alternative option for lawmakers thinking about reform. In her paper ‘De-ciphering parenthood law for surrogacy: moving beyond two?’ she questioned why the law has remained so wedded to a child only having two ‘real’ or legal parents, especially when there is collaborative effort between more than two parties (each with a potentially legitimate claim to parenthood) in the means of its creation.

What all the presentations – along with the lively discussion from the audience – showed was that there is lots to consider when looking at how to reform the law on surrogacy – in all three countries!

Fundraising efforts supports attendance at two international genetics conferences

Researchers from the University of Kent studying the genetic basis of disease, reproductive issues and evolution were able to attend two international conferences this year thanks to funds raised from Prof Darren Griffin’s crowdfunding effort.

Dr Becky O’Connor, Prof Griffin and PhD students Becca Jennings and Lucas Kiazim attended the European Cytogenetics Association Meeting in Florence in July 2017 thanks to generous donations made to Darren’s 50th Birthday fund.

The team presented their recently published work on fertility screening in agricultural species along with their newly developed methods of genome mapping and assembly in avian and mammal species.

In addition, the birthday donations supported their attendance at the prestigious Genome 10K/Genome Science conference held at the Earlham Institute in Norfolk where both Becky O’Connor and Becca Jennings gave talks on their genome mapping research as captured by the fantastic artwork shown below of Dr Alex Cagan (@AJTCagan).

Increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence in robots will cause massive issues

As technology has expanded sex robots have become increasingly lifelike, bringing about a need for a revolution in how we think about sex, morals and the legal status of these sex robots, according to Kent Law School’s Professor Robin Mackenzie. …

Robin said: “Humans having sex with other humans who are unable to consent to sex, like children and adults lacking decision-making capacity, is seen as unlawful and unethical. So is human/animal sex. Such groups are recognised as sentient beings who cannot consent to sex with interests in need of protection. “Sentient, self-aware sex robots created to engage in emotional/sexual intimacy with humans disrupt this tidy model. “They are not humans, though they will look like us, feel like us to touch and act as our intimate and sexual partners. While they will be manufactured, potentially from biological components, their sentience, self-awareness and capacity for relationships with humans mean that they cannot simply be categorised as things or animals. “Ethicists, lawmakers and manufacturers treat robots as things, but future sex robots are more than things.

“Robotic animated sex-dolls, able to simulate human appearance, assume sexual positions and mimic human conversation and emotions are on sale now. These are things, neither sentient nor self-aware, incapable of relationships or intimacy, as described in the Foundation for Responsible Robotics report just released.” … The report stated: “On the one hand, if a sex robot is designed to resist sexual advances such that their use constitutes a simulated act of rape, then building them puts the user in relationship with the act of raping a woman. It exhorts and endorses rape. On the other hand, building a robot that is passive or elicits sex is ethically problematic for what it communicates to the broader public about women’s sexuality.”


Your Beliefs and Science Denial

A study by researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam, the VU University in Amsterdam and pour own Robbie Sutton has found that that “religiosity, political orientation, morality, and science understanding” are the main predictors of whether or not someone accepts a scientific consensus.

There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical. There is, however, a difference between skeptical claims without substantial evidence to back them up, and being a skeptic on vaccines or human-driven climate change. Both are backed up by a gigantic mountain of facts, so why are certain groups of people still keen to rally against them? This new study gives a clue, linking pre-existing beliefs in spirituality, religion, and political ideas with such forms of science denial. Importantly, however, different ideologies are correlated with the acceptance of different types of consensus. If you’re a climate change skeptic, for example, you’re more likely than not to be a political conservative. If you wonder if vaccines are safe or not, you probably have concerns about moral purity. If you’re a skeptic about GM crops, it’s most likely because you don’t have much trust in science, or you lack a scientific literacy. As expected, those that are staunch religious conservatives “consistently display a low faith in science and an unwillingness to support science” across the board.

This research highlights that scientific knowledge is not always directly correlated with acceptance of it. Thanks to plenty of other “ideological antecedents” – those pre-existing belief systems – it’s a little more complicated than that. This suggests that, for example, if you want to convince your anti-vaxxer friend that vaccines are nothing to be afraid of, it may take a little more than factual information to succeed.


Conspiracy Theorists and a Mental Disorder?

A study recent by a of scientists from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the NCSR in The Netherlands and Professor Karen Douglas here The University of Kent in the UK have discovered a link between conspiracy belief and “illusory pattern perception,” the tendency of the mind to see order where none exists. The group used a series of randomly simulated coin tosses and asked respondents to rate whether those tosses were actually random or in a sequence. The respondents who saw patterns in the coin tosses were also the ones who scored highest on belief in existing conspiracy theories and belief in the supernatural.

Because science isn’t done with just one experiment, they then followed up with a second run to investigate whether being prompted to look for patterns skews the results, as well as a third using abstract art instead of coin flips for the subjects to find patterns in. In addition, they “primed the pump” with one group by having them read a little conspiracy literature beforehand, which also increased credulity.

Here’s the thesis on what’s going on. The human brain is a pattern-making machine. We learn from experience and store memories together to influence our future behaviour. That gift for connection and correlation has enabled our ballistic advance as a society. But for most of human history our brains existed in a comparatively information-poor environment. It’s only in the last century or so that the rise of mass media has come to dominate our lives. Four generations simply aren’t enough time for the complex biology of our brains to adapt to that.

Subconsciously, we are desperately trying to find connections in the chaos, and many minds aren’t capable of realizing which of those connections are valuable and which aren’t. And it’s also hard for people to comprehend “true” randomness, because random sequences can create patterns and connections purely by accident. We don’t like to admit that existence is a vast and careless web of chance. Building a narrative allows us to comfortably process random events in a way that we feel control over.

The increased availability of conspiracy literature and videos has also made them more potent. As evidenced by the study, being exposed to materials that lend credence to “alternative facts” raised susceptibility in the subjects. Now that conspiracy theories are on everybody’s Facebook wall as opposed to lamp posts and crank phone calls to Art Bell, exposure is a given. What used to be fringe beliefs are now widespread, and the more they spread the more power they have.

Interestingly enough, a 2008 study might shed some additional light on the subject. It also tackled illusory pattern perception, but from the angle of the agency. In it, they found that if people had little or no control over their current situation, they were more likely to see patterns in random images like TV static, as well as more likely to believe in the supernatural. And who out there doesn’t feel like they’re losing control of their lives? We’re subconsciously reaching out for some method of ordering this chaos, even if the connections are bogus.

What’s the solution for this plague of lies? Peddlers of conspiracy theories aren’t going anywhere, especially now that they’re making money out of it. What our world really needs is more focus on critical thinking and media literacy. Rewiring the biology of our brains is a tough order, but training ourselves to ignore specious connections and focus on what can be factually proven is a good start. Check out the Foundation for Critical Thinking website for a good place to start.



Lifespan Prolonged by Inhibiting Common Enzyme

An enzyme called RNA polymerase III (Pol III) that is present in most cells across all animal species, including ourselves has previously been known to be essential for making proteins and for cell growth. Its involvement in ageing however was under-explored until now.

The study involved Dr Jennifer Tullet of the University’s School of Biosciences. Led by a team from University College London (UCL) and also involving the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Jenny and colleagues found that the survival of yeast cells and the lifespans of flies and worms were extended by an average of 10% following a modest reduction in Pol III activity in adulthood.

The effects of inhibiting Pol III were found to be comparable to the action of the immune-suppressing drug rapamycin, which has previously been shown to extend the lifespans of mice and many other animals. This discovery will help scientists understand the mechanism of action of drugs, such as rapamycin, that show promise for extending the lifespans of mammals.

Jenny said that it was ‘amazing’ that one small genetic adjustment can impact so positively on lifespan and intestinal health. Understanding more about the underlying molecules at work promises new strategies for anti-ageing therapies.

The team now plan to continue their work on Pol III to understand its function in an adult organism and hence shed light on how a reduction in its activity can extend lifespan.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the EU’s Horizon 2020 and UCL.

The paper, entitled Longevity by RNA polymerase III inhibition downstream of TORC1 (Danny Filer, Maximillian Thompson, Vakil Takhaveev, Adam Dobson, Ilektra Kotronaki, James Green, Matthias Heinemann, Jennifer Tullet and Nazif Alic) was published in Nature.



Abortion, Booze and Father’s day

Professor Ellie Lee has been active in the press over the summer – commenting on a number of controversial stories.

In “Why, 50 years after the Abortion Act, it’s time to abolish the law altogether” she said There have been 50 or 60 abortion bills put to the house since 1967, and they’ve all tried to restrict access to abortion. I think this is the first time there has been a genuinely liberalising reform bill.”


She commented in the story “BABY BOOZE How much alcohol units can you drink when pregnant, how much is safe and what is foetal alcohol syndrome?”


And in “Can we just keep the politics out of Father’s Day?” – The mother-child interaction has become a laboratory, where politicians, professionals and experts of all kinds ­experiment about an expanding range of problems, real or imagined



University Scientists’ Role in Canterbury Arts Festival

Scientists Dr Alessia BuscainoProfessor Darren GriffinDr Neil Kad and Dr Gary Robinson – alongside Professor Charlotte Sleigh of the School of History – explored their scientific passions with poets in the science-poetry slam Experimental Words on 1st  November, 20.00 at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge).

Biology met balladry, physics encountered pentameter, and chemistry confronted cadence as Kent’s leading scientists were paired with Canterbury’s finest spokenword artists – and challenged to create new microperformances.

The result? A diverse display of rhyme, rhythm and reason, which celebrated the creative similarities between science and the performing arts.

Hosted by scientific poet and former Canterbury Laureate Dan Simpson and poetry slam-winning scientist Dr. Sam Illingworth, this was an evening of precise delights and unexpected insights.