2016 News Round-Up

Teenage pregnancy falling

Ellie Lee commented on a recent story reported on the BBC news web site on the reduction in proportion of teenage mothers in the UK. Ellie said “Teenage births were already at historically low levels, and the trajectory before the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy was already in a downwards direction,” She added that the strategy “should be much more controversial than it is”, she said, because “there was a push, through the strategy, of long-term contraceptives such as implants and injections. It was presented as improving the sexual and reproductive health of children but a teen needs to be able to have a choice-based discussion about what’s right for her. There are still negative attitudes towards teenage mothers and it is unwarranted. It is seen as a disaster, but there is no reason to suggest that they are any worse than any other mother.”


“Egg nobbles”

Darren Griffin was quoted in a recent story “Egg ‘nobbles’ can be used to create embryos, say scientists in fertility breakthrough.” “The authors have pulled off an impressive technical feat of getting preimplantation embryos from polar bodies rather than oocytes” he said. “The community will watch with interest how the work progresses. However, the current low success rate of generating embryos from polar bodies compared to the usual way using oocytes potentially could indicate underlying problems with the approach.”



Tensions in Abortion law

At a Knowledge Exchange Seminar on the 16 November 2016 concerning Abortion Policy and Law. Dr Lesley Hoggart, (Open University) and Prof Sally Sheldon presented a paper on Tensions in Abortion law and policy, and effects on women. This presentation focused on the tensions between the legal and policy framework for abortion, and women’s abortion experiences, throughout the UK. They reported on a mixed methods study into different aspects of young women’s experiences (aged 16-24) of one or more unintended pregnancies ending in abortion in England and Wales. They then drew on a recently completed study of the home use of abortion pills in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere), highlighting some of the ways in which the current law fails either to prevent abortion or to protect women’s health.  At a time when it is possible to end a pregnancy using pills that are readily available on line, the study assessed some of the challenges for effective regulation and posed some fundamental questions regarding the need for legal reform. Some of the results of Sally’s study appear in the most recent issue of Reproductive Health Matters (http://www.rhm-elsevier.com/article/S0968-8080(16)30034-9/fulltext)’


Objectification of women

Rachel Calogero (along with James Tyler and Catherine Adams from the US) recently published an article in the British Journal of Social Psychology on the objectification of women. They reported that women are sexually objectified when viewed and treated by others as mere objects. Previous research has examined the negative consequences of being the target of sexual objectification; however, limited attention has focused on the person doing the objectification. The focus of this study was thus is on the agent and how self-regulatory resources influence sexual objectification. Consistent with past evidence, they reasoned that people have a well-learned automatic response to objectify sexualized women, and as such, they expected objectifying a sexualized (vs. personalized) woman would deplete fewer regulatory resources than not objectifying her. Findings across three studies confirmed their expectations, demonstrating the extent to which people objectify a sexualized woman or not is influenced by the availability of regulatory resources, a case that until now has been absent from the literature. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjso.12157/abstract


“Three parent” babies and binge drinking

Darren Griffin commented on a story on the “First “three parent baby” born. He said: “This study heralds a new era in preimplantation genetics and represents a novel means for the treatment of families at risk of transmitting genetic disease. “With radical new treatments like this there are always challenging ethical issues, however, any concerns need to be balanced against the ramifications of not implementing such a technology when families are in need of it. The diseases to which this treatment is relevant are devastating and thus this treatment brings new hope to many families.”

Remarking on a recent study about drinking during pregnancy Darren, said: “The overwhelming message of this study is “steady as she goes. If you do drink while trying to have children, do it in moderation and don’t binge drink.”


Inaugural lecture double act in the Douglas-Sutton household

On 22nd January 2016 our very own Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton (both Professors of Social Psychology) gave their inaugural lectures.  Being partners in both academia and in life Robbie and Karen entertained a packed KLT1 lecture theatre with essentially a double act punctuated by a “modest” amount of drinking and good cheer.

Karen kicked off proceedings with her work on the psychology of conspiracy theories.  Highlighting the area in general and its importance to society, she pointed out the key contributions of her work including research on the psychological processes associated with conspiracy belief, and the consequences of conspiracy theories for people’s political, health, and environmental decisions.

After a short refreshment break, Robbie’s talk addressed why we don’t live in a post-sexist age.  Robbie explored some the ultimate and timeless sources of sexism, such as women’s relatively scarce reproductive capacity (they can’t have as many children as men).  He then presented his studies on how benevolent sexism – the popular and apparently benign belief that women are morally superior – paradoxically restricts women’s autonomy and worsens their disadvantage.

In the Q&A, in true reciprocal style, Karen was asked whether sexism came into conspiracy theories at all and Robbie whether conspiracy theories impacted on attitudes to sexism.



The Brexit conspiracy

The Brexit campaign was marked by many things, but one of them was conspiracy theories.  In one YouGov poll, 46 per cent of Leave voters agreed the referendum would be rigged; 28 per cent thought MI5 was already working on it. In another, the government had deliberately crashed the voter registration system to allow more time for Remain supporters to register. Yet another was that any Leave votes made in pencil would be erased, and converted to Remain votes. Daniel Jolley (Staffordshire University), Karen Douglas, Robbie Sutton and Aleksandra Cichocka recently conducted an study asking 400 people to what degree they subscribed to such theories, including one stating that major broadcasters were colluding with Remain by placing its propaganda on their websites. They discovered that the degree to which people accepted such theories outstripped almost all other factors as a predictor of their voting intentions. “Conspiracy theories can have potentially powerful consequences,” said Karen, noting that they tended to gain currency among people who feel disillusioned and powerless. “People turn to conspiracy theories to attempt to make sense of uncertain political and social events”, she said.


Neurobabble and Neuroparenting

Jan MacVarish in “Spiked Online” recently attacked Andrea Leadsom’s assertions about parenting. One of the many things Leadsom said that attracted the scorn of social media was her contention that tackling the issue of infant brain development, ‘from conception to age two’, would boost social mobility and create an economically dynamic Britain. She reportedly talked about how important it was to massage a baby’s brain. Jan asserts that, “despite the ridicule that came Leadsom’s way, such neurobabble is in fact already a routine part of English and Welsh maternity and early years care, and has been so for over 10 years The idea that the first three years of a child’s life represent a ‘window of opportunity’ for life-changing intervention is now very influential among policymakers. What she calls ‘neuroparenting’ – the idea that parents are architects of their children’s brains – now dominates the outlook of parent trainers. Talking about ‘the brain’ allows those involved in monitoring and instructing parents to position themselves less as bossy experts or, worse still, moralists, and more as neutral conveyors of scientific ‘facts’. They can therefore tell parents how to love and care for their babies using the pseudo-scientific language of evidence bases, synapses and oxytocin.”

Check out Jan’s book. Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life (Palgrave Macmillan) http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137547323 and blog DrJanMacvarish.com


Nonsensical surrogacy laws

Kirsty Horsey has demonstrated how UK surrogacy laws are out of date and have become’ nonsensical’. In an article in the Medical Law Review, she analysed cases that show current surrogacy law in the UK is ‘fraying at the edges’. Dr Horsey, a senior lecturer at the University’s Kent Law School, says the says the existing law fails to protect the best interests of children born to surrogates, the families created this way, and surrogates themselves. In the article, she examines a series of high-profile surrogacy cases decided in 2015 that serve to illustrate how the UK’s law on surrogacy – in particular its provisions regarding eligibility for Parental Orders – are no longer fit for purpose. Without a Parental Order, which the law says must be applied for within six months of birth, the intended parents cannot have legal parenthood transferred to them, and the surrogate remains the legal mother (usually with her spouse or partner being the child’s second legal parent). Consequences include the intended parents technically not having rights to decide on the life, education or medical care needs of the child and problems with succession and inheritance. She cites cases where the courts have circumvented what the law actually says should happen, including: payments to surrogates authorized despite the law suggesting they should not be; a same sex couple awarded care of a 15 month old despite the wishes of the legal mother; couples granted a Parental Order despite their children having been born years earlier, and single people being unable to apply for Parental Orders (though this specific point has since been declared incompatible with human rights legislation and the Government has promised to change it). These problems culminate in an evident inability of the law to protect the best interests of children born through surrogacy and indicate strongly a need for reform. Kirsty held a conference in London on Friday 6 May 2016 entitled Surrogacy in the 21st Century: Rethinking assumptions, reforming law, at the Friends House, Euston Road, where the architects of the existing law agreed reform of the law, which is more than 30 years old, is essential. In December 2016, papers from this conference – including by Baroness Mary Warnock and Professor Margot Brazier, the chairs of two previous government inquiries into surrogacy – were published in a special edition of the Journal of Medical Law and Ethics. Kirsty also worked with Peers to secure a House of Lords debate on surrogacy law reform, led by Baroness Liz Barker, on 14 December 2016.


Abortion is illegal

Sally Sheldon was recently quoted in the media highlighting a broad issue in UK law: The pint is that abortion isn’t actually legal in any part of the UK. The abortions performed every year are happening because they fall under specific criteria that have been decriminalized. This status quo means that many women beyond Northern Ireland are faced with difficult and often distressing circumstances when they seek to have a pregnancy terminated.  “Abortion is illegal in this country and it’s not just a technicality,” said Sally. She went on “most people living in England, Wales and Scotland – where women can terminate pregnancies up to the 24th week – are unaware of the legal ambiguity.”


“Too posh to push?”

In a Daily Mail article about caesarean sections Ellie Lee was quoted as saying: ‘Pregnant women are increasingly portrayed as posing a risk to their foetus as a result of their behaviour, age, diet and lifestyle.‘ It results in a form of sexism in which women are viewed in terms of their capacity to produce a baby rather than a person in her own right.’  The NICE guidelines that all women can have a caesarean were controversial when they were issued in 2011, with some experts criticising them for allowing the procedure for mothers deemed to be ‘too posh to push’.


Alien parakeets

Parakeets are listed among the top 100 worst alien species and this issue is now being taken more seriously in the UK. Some observers however think it is already too late, like grey squirrels, their beachhead has become too strong and too widespread. The latest initiative is an 18 country parrot monitoring scheme, run by Jim Groombridge. According to Jim, rose-ringed parakeets are now listed among the top 100 worst alien species in Europe. Since the 1970s, they have rapidly established in over 100 cities across the continent and beyond. They pose problems in both urban and rural areas including potential to transmit diseases to livestock and humans, competition with native wildlife and, increasingly, as an agricultural pest.


Gene editing

Darren Griffin Weighed into the debate on gene editing, welcoming the go-ahead from the fertility regulator the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), for UK scientists to genetically modify human embryos. He said: ‘The ruling by the HFEA is a triumph for common sense. While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner. ‘It is clear that the potential benefits of the work proposed far outweigh the foreseen risks. It is an example how the UK leads the world not only in the science behind research into early human development but also the social science used to regulate and monitor it.’