On Simon Thornley exploiting miscarriages to save his ego

On Simon Thornley exploiting miscarriages to save his ego

Stop me if this sounds like a broken record – or don’t.

If you’re pregnant/hapū or breastfeeding, one of the best things you can do to keep your baby safe from COVID 19 is get vaccinated. The antibodies your immune system makes get passed to baby through your placenta and breastmilk, and give them protection while they’re too little to be vaccinated themselves.

Babies can get COVID. And it can get really serious. But there’s been a lot of disinformation spread around about the vaccine, and especially how it (DOES NOT) impact pregnancy, miscarriage, and fertility.

On the fertility side of things: here’s an excellent article from the Herald about the vaccine being safe for fertility, IVF and pregnancy. Please share it widely to counter the disinformation.

On the miscarriage side of things, and to get to the point of this post: I am so, incredibly, angry at Dr Simon Thornley.

Thornley, who is somehow still a senior lecturer in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland, has been a critic of New Zealand’s response to the COVID pandemic and a member of Plan B, the weirdo lobby group who declared (I’m not linking to their website) “New Zealand’s attempt in 2020-21 to eliminate Sars-Cov2 was unnecessary, and would cause more health, social and economic harm than the virus itself.”

If anyone needs me I’ll be over here looking at NZ having some of the strongest economic stats in the world AND not thousands of people dead.

After been proven wrong on every point for a year and a half, Thornley (and others) decided to stage a defence of their position by “reanalysing” a study published by the US CDC on the safety of mRNA vaccines in pregnancy.

Stuff have an excellent piece outlining all the different ways in which this “reanalysis” is complete bunkum. This is the big one:

Many of its promoters focused on one specific aspect. The paper recalculated the reported miscarriage rate to only include people who were pregnant in their first or second trimester when they were vaccinated. Doing so increased the miscarriage rate to between 82 and 91 per cent, a shockingly high figure.

Doing so, however, makes no mathematical sense. Because the study lasted three months, the only way for a person to complete pregnancy in that timeframe is to have a miscarriage (unless they were late in their second trimester).

This is like studying the safety of the vaccine in Formula 1 drivers and coming to the conclusion it’s dangerous because, of the drivers who finished the race after only 20 laps, 91% had a crash.

No shit. The race wasn’t finished yet. There aren’t many other ways to retire in the first 20 laps!

In very weaselly style, the authors of the paper claim they only did this math to prove that the CDC study was insufficient. Except you don’t need to do the math to explain that – you just say “the study was only three months long so we don’t have full data on all the pregnancies recorded.” And Thornley has gone on to say things like “vaccination early in pregnancy “indicates a substantially increased risk from background””. The paper itself recommends withdrawing the vaccine not just from pregnant people, but also children and people of “child bearing age”.

(I have a whole other post or two in me about the sexist smugness of people who want to treat everyone with a uterus between the ages of 16 and 50 as though we’re automatically pregnant at all times. Another day!)

This whole situation made me deeply angry. Miscarriage is an incredibly traumatic experience. When it occurs there’s a huge question hanging in the air: what did I do wrong? There is so much pressure and anxiety on pregnant people to make the right medical choices for themselves and their baby, so much risk and so many unknowns, and as I wrote in my last post, it’s impossible not to hold yourself responsible if something goes wrong.

And Simon Thornley et al, in a desperate, cynical attempt to scrape back a bit of credibility, seem to have deliberately exploited that anxiety by essentially telling all those people who had miscarriages after getting the COVID vaccine: it was your fault. You made the wrong choice. You harmed your baby. And by telling everyone who is pregnant and has had the vaccine: your baby’s going to die and it’s your fault.

That is simply unforgiveable to me.

(It’s been suggested that of course we cannot know for certain if Simon Thornley did all this on purpose. The alternative is that he’s completely incompetent, so it’s still baffling he can hold a senior academic position.)

I thought my rage was subsiding a bit over the past day, and then yesterday afternoon I was driving home listening to Checkpoint’s story on the new community cases in Rotorua. And I heard a young woman say she was going to get the vaccine – after her baby is born. Why? “I’ve just heard too much things, ay.”

“Things” like a senior lecturer in epidemiology insisting that pregnant people (in fact, anyone “of child-bearing age”) shouldn’t be allowed to get the vaccine because it increases the risk of miscarriage, maybe?

This isn’t some high-minded, good-faith academic debate. This is people – scientists – manipulating data to create fear and anxiety and to dissuade people from getting vaccinated. Which, again, is the single best thing you can do to protect your baby in pregnancy or infancy. This kind of disinformation directly contributes to low vaccination rates and they’re using the credibility of their doctorates and institutions to do it.

These unscientific thought experiments are having serious, real-world impacts, affecting pregnant people and their babies and making it even more difficult to persuade hesitant people. I don’t know what to say except how appalling it all is.

And please, get vaccinated.

Photo by Sebastian Pociecha on Unsplash

Please. Get vaccinated.

Please. Get vaccinated.

This week, a parent with a baby in the NICU at Auckland City Hospital tested positive for COVID 19. The next day, a newborn tested positive at North Shore hospital after being visited by their father, who then tested positive.

It’s pretty much every family’s nightmare.

I don’t think I have to tell anyone what COVID 19 is. It’s serious. It’s killed over four and a half million people across the world – and that’s likely to be an undercount – and caused ongoing health issues even for people who survive. It impacts everyone who needs healthcare because if the hospitals are full of COVID patients, other people aren’t able to get care.

Our littlest ones can’t get vaccinated against COVID 19 (and a lot of adults either can’t, because of severe allergic reactions, or if they can, aren’t able to build as strong an immune response). That’s one reason it’s our responsibility as parents to get vaccinated: for them. The more people in their community who are vaccinated, the less likely it is COVID can get a foothold and break out in that community.

If you’re pregnant, or breastfeeding baby (or feeding them your expressed milk via bottle) the other reasons are really practical: there’s evidence that getting vaccinated means your immune system creates antibodies which pass on to baby either in the womb or through breastmilk. It’s not going to be as strong as vaccination, but every little bit helps.

And circling back to the first reason: getting immunized, in turn, makes it safer for babies whose parents aren’t able to breastfeed.

Vaccines are the reason we don’t have smallpox any more. We’ve all but eradicated polio in most countries, because of vaccination. In Aotearoa, we already immunise our babies against a lot of things like measles, whooping cough and pneumococcal disease, to stop them getting sick and to stop those diseases spreading in our communities and whānau. We’ve been really, really good at locking down and staying home and washing our hands to stop COVID running rampant through our neighbourhoods; getting vaccinated is another sensible, important step, to take care of each other and to be able to relax our public health measures.

Please. Get vaccinated.


After I drafted this post, Marama Davidson (queen, icon, wahine toa) made a really important Twitter thread about convincing members of her whānau to get vaccinated. If you think that thread, or even this post, might help convince someone – share it far and wide.

Photo by Marisol Benitez on Unsplash