BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Right to Life New Zealand Inc and The Radio Network Ltd - 2002-089

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Right to Life New Zealand Inc
Number
2002-089
Channel/Station
Newstalk ZB

Complaint
Newstalk ZB – doctor commented that human life begins at implantation, not conception – inaccurate – contrary to accepted medical practice – dangerous – undermined respect due to human embryo

Findings
Principle 4 – not relevant

Principle 5 – not relevant

Principle 6 – well-informed opinion – no uphold

Principle 8 – reminder

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The Medical Training Co-ordinator of the New Zealand Family Planning Association commented on Newstalk ZB on 27 February 2002 at around 8.30am along the lines that human life begins at the implantation of the human embryo into a woman’s womb and not at conception.

[2] Right to Life New Zealand Inc. complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster of Newstalk ZB, that the comments were inaccurate, contrary to accepted medical practice and dangerous. It also submitted that the comments undermined “the respect due to the human embryo from conception”.

[3] TRN declined to uphold the complaint, stating that the comments were made by a highly respected expert and were consistent with FPA policy. In addition, while acknowledging that there are different views on when conception takes place, TRN said it was satisfied that the doctor’s comments were well-founded.

[4] Dissatisfied with TRN’s response, RTL referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The broadcaster did not provide a tape of the broadcast. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.

The Broadcast

[6] Dr Sue Bagshaw, the Medical Training Co-ordinator for the New Zealand Family Planning Association, commented on Newstalk ZB on 27 February 2002 at around 8.30am along the lines that human life begins at the implantation of the human embryo into a woman’s womb and not at conception.

The Complaint

[7] Right to Life New Zealand Inc. complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster of Newstalk ZB, that the comments were inaccurate, contrary to accepted medical practice and dangerous. It wrote:

The Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion in its report to Parliament in 1977 stated: “From a biological point of view there is no argument as to when life begins. Evidence was given to us by eminent scientists from all over the world. None of them suggested that human life begins at any time other than conception.”

[8] It also submitted that the comments undermined “the respect due to the human embryo from conception”.

The Standards

[9] The complainant did not nominate any specific standards from the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice against which to assess the complaint. TRN assessed the complaint against Principle 6. Principle 6 and the relevant guideline to Principle 6 read:

Principle 6

In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

Guidelines

6c  Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, shall be clearly distinguished.

TRN’s Response to the Complaint

[10] TRN advised that there was no tape available of the broadcast because of the time lapse in receiving the complaint. It wrote:

However we have been back to Dr Bagshaw and she says categorically, “I am always extremely careful when discussing this issue and remember clearly stating, ‘there are some who believe that life begins when the sperm enters the egg but at present life begins when the fertilised egg attaches itself to the lining of the uterus’.”

In a wider discussion during the interview that morning (a story about the Ministry of Health making the morning after pill, Postinor, more readily available for women), Dr Bagshaw goes on to state “contraception is before implantation, abortion is after it.”

[11] TRN also submitted:

“Dr Bagshaw is the Medical Training Co-ordinator for the Family Planning Association and is highly respected nationally for her experience, knowledge and expertise in the area of women’s sexual health.”

Dr Bagshaw’s statements were consistent with FPA policy.

[12] TRN maintained that the issue for RTL appeared to be when conception took place. Acknowledging that there were varied opinions on this point, TRN submitted:

Family Planning is a recognised leader in reproductive health and we are satisfied that Dr Bagshaw’s comments were well founded.

[13] TRN declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of Principle 6.

The Complainant’s Referral to the Authority

[14] When RTL referred the complaint to the Authority, it wrote:

As a medical practitioner and spokesperson for the NZFPA [Dr Bagshaw’s] statements have a perceived authority that would seriously mislead those listening to the programme to believe that she was upholding internationally accepted biological knowledge.

[15] RTL disagreed with TRN that the issue was when conception took place, and said that the issue was when human life begins.

[16] RTL maintained that it was inappropriate for TRN to conclude that the statements made by Dr Bagshaw were correct solely because they conformed with FPA policy. It said it had no difficulty with FPA having policy which did not accept the “universally accepted scientific fact that life begins at conception”, but it did find difficulty in Dr Bagshaw “presenting to the public an opinion as scientific fact”.

[17] RTL referred to evidence which it considered supported its view that human life begins with conception.

[18] RTL then wrote:

Since the introduction of oral contraceptives in the 1960’s the IPPF [International Planned Parenthood Federation, with which FPA is affiliated] and others have been endeavouring to gain acceptance of the falsehood that human life begins at implantation and that contraception means the prevention of implantation.

The reason for this is that many oral contraceptives are abortifacient in nature and destroy a human embryo after conception and before implantation. The successful promotion of contraception among women depended on convincing women that human life did not begin until implantation and that therefore they were not responsible for destroying their own child before implantation by using an oral contraceptive.

This is a very important issue about the commencement of human life and the respect and protection we should afford the human embryo not a potential human being but a human being with great potential.

[19] In conclusion, RTL wrote:

It is of great concern to this Society that Dr Bagshaw is permitted to use the public broadcasting service to deliberately propagate dangerous untruths on important life issues to promote the policies of the NZFPA and the IPPF.

The Complainant’s Further Letter

[20] In a further letter, the complainant attached a letter from a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist which supported its formal complaint.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[21] In its response to the Authority, TRN made the following comment:

These points of view [of RTL and Dr Bagshaw] are never likely to be reconciled but there should be no argument over Dr Bagshaw’s right to express the position of New Zealand Family Planning Association.

[22] TRN submitted that the complaint was an attempt for acceptance of a point of view not universally accepted which was “political grandstanding”.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[23] In its final comment, RTL said it considered its complaint was not about a difference in point of view, but was about accuracy and the denial of a long established, universally accepted scientific truth.

The Authority’s Determination

[24] Principle 4 of the Radio Code requires balance in the discussion of controversial issues of public importance. The broadcast in question was a discussion about the availability of the morning after pill. In this context, the question of “when human life begins” was addressed by Dr Bagshaw. While this latter question is clearly a controversial issue of public importance, the Authority does not consider that the broadcast amounted to a specifoc discussion of that issue on this occasion but was, rather, mentioned in the context of the availability of a particular form of contraception. The Authority therefore concludes that Principle 4 is not relevant in the determination of this complaint.

[25] The Authority also considers that Principle 5 is not relevant on this occasion. This principle requires that broadcasters deal fairly with any person referred to in a broadcast. In this case, no “person” was referred to in the material complained about.

[26] Principle 6 of the Radio Code requires broadcasters to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. In the Authority’s view, the material complained about did not contain any statement of fact. Dr Bagshaw’s comments were, the Authority considers, clearly presented as well-informed opinion. Furthermore, the Authority considers that the two positions on when human life begins, those of the FPA and the complainant, cannot be reconciled. This is a situation in which the Authority cannot independently determine the truth of the matter. The Authority has no basis upon which to find a breach of the standard in these circumstances, where the material under focus is neither demonstrably untrue nor incorrect. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[27] As a final point, the Authority notes that Principle 8 of the Radio Code requires broadcasters to keep tapes, and be able to obtain a transcript, of all current affairs broadcasts such as the one complained about for a period of 35 days after broadcast. The broadcaster was not able to supply either a tape or a transcript of the broadcast to the Authority. Although the broadcaster’s failure to comply with Principle 8 did not substantially affect the Authority’s ability to determine this complaint, it reminds TRN of its obligations to keep tapes in accordance with the Radio Code and to ensure it has in place a proper procedure for dealing with complaints under s.5(a) of the Broadcasting Act.

Bill of Rights

[28] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
25 July 2002

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. Right to Life Association Inc.’s Formal Complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – 28 March 2002
  2. TRN’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 April 2002
  3. RTL’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 26 April 2002
  4. RTL’s Further Letter – 7 May 2002
  5. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 16 May 2002
  6. RTL’s Final Comment – 27 May 2002