The battle for abortion rights in Britain has begun in earnest. This week, the small, vocal, venal group of Christian conservative lobbyists working in Westminster to roll back women's right to reproductive choice has won a victory. The Department of Health has confirmed that abortion clinics will no longer be allowed to offer counselling to women presenting with crisis pregnancies, who may instead have to go to biased religious counsellors if they wish to receive advice and information on abortion. This has been done without any debate, circumventing the parliamentary process ahead of next week's discussions on this and other anti-choice amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill.
The majority of British people – 76 per cent – are pro-choice. It is the anti-choice minority, however, who are being permitted to write and dictate policy specifically designed to prevent abortions from happening. Nadine Dorries MP, every Christian lobbyist's favourite Tory, who is spearheading the anti-choice campaign in parliament on behalf of groups like Care UK, tried to claim on Sky News that the new rules were not designed to reduce the number of abortions, despite having proudly declared elsewhere that the changes would mean "60,000" fewer pregnancies terminated. She then admitted that:
"It's quite probable that those who are having doubts will accept that offer [of 'independent' counselling'] and as a result of that we may see less women going through abortion and coming out the other side traumatised, and less abortions, and that may be a consequence, and that can only be a good thing."
There is, of course, no evidence that any of these changes to the abortion rules are necessary, wanted or based on actual medical science. British Medical Association member and former Liberal Democrat shadow health secretary Dr Evan Harris told Sky News:
"As far as I'm aware, despite there being many many abortions every year, there's not been a single complaint that someone has been misinformed by the current professional counselling that exists."
Harris, who campaigns for evidence-based provision of abortion services, pointed out that the new arrangements to strip abortion providers of their counselling role will delay the abortion process and may prevent many thousands of women from receiving any counselling at all. "I wonder why it is that an avowed anti-abortion campaigner should want to change arrangements that are currently working well when there's no evidence of harm," he said.
Just as there is no research showing that the abortion process is any more "traumatising" for a woman than, say, being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against her will, there is absolutely no evidence of women complaining en masse about being "rushed through" the abortion process. There is far more evidence, in fact, of the distressing effects of existing delays in the service, of the "postcode lottery" of abortion provision in the UK, of the indignity of a system which requires two doctors' signatures for a procedure to take place, and where GPs are permitted to refuse to refer a woman for abortion services without handing her case on to another doctor.
There is ample evidence, moreover, that the supposedly "independent" counselling services to whom provision of pre-abortion counselling will now be handed are distributing misinformation, anti-choice propaganda and lies to vulnerable women. A recent investigation by campaign group Education For Choice found religious counselling centres telling women that having an abortion was "taking an innocent life" and would cause lifelong guilt and shame, breast cancer and infertility.
According to the Guardian report on the survey, at one Christian counselling centre, Life in Covent Garden: "…the undercover researcher was given a leaflet entitled Abortions – How they're Done, which said incorrectly that 85% of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration. It stated that "the unborn child is sucked down the tube" and that "the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse [in the case of chemically induced abortion].
"The counsellor was said to have focused on mental health issues that she associated with abortion, telling the researcher she was of a good age to have a child, showing her baby clothes and using terms such as "baby" and "grandchild" when referring to the pregnancy."
In America, a remarkably similar strategy to restrict abortion access via the back door has been in place for some years, with cuts in federal funding for abortion clinics forcing women to seek help from publicly-funded Christian anti-choice groups masquerading as "objective" crisis pregnancy centres. "As one arm of the anti-choice movement tries to eviscerate [Planned Parenthood], another is helping boost a version that offers severely limited services stacked with an anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-sex, aggressively Christian worldview," writes Tana Ganeva at Alternet. "But that's not the only boost they're getting from states. Recently South Dakota legislators passed a bill that would have forced women not only to wait 72 hours before getting an abortion, but to pay a visit to an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centre as well [for counselling]." Sound familiar?
The coming changes to abortion provision in Britain are being phrased as a caring move, offering women a "right to know", protecting them from the profit motive in the provision of abortion services (it should be noted that the profit motive is not considered a potential cause of harm or conflict of interest in the provision of other public health services, which may be opened up to competition from the private sector as part of the same bill). It has nothing to do with caring, and everything to do with prejudice.
If we truly believe that women are free human beings whose right to decide what happens to their own bodies is more important than individual superstitions about the spiritual status of the foetus, we need to oppose these changes. If we truly believe that nobody should be bullied or forced into carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, it is vital that the changes be seen for what they are.
They are a biased and badly-evidenced pander to the anti-choice, anti-sex, anti-woman moral agenda of the Christian conservative lobby which, far from giving anyone more 'rights', will damage women's ability to make informed decisions about their health choices and delay the already distressingly drawn-out process of accessing pregnancy termination services in the UK. And this is just the opening sally in the coming attack on British women's right to choose.
To make your voice heard on this issue, please join Abortion Rights' campaign, and email your MP to make sure he or she knows why the changes to abortion counselling are damaging and unecessary. It takes two minutes. Thank you.
Clarification: the GMC advises doctors, on the subject of conscientious refusal to treat: "If the patient cannot readily make their own arrangements to see another doctor you must ensure that arrangements are made, without delay, for another doctor to take over their care." There is, however, no legal obligation for them to do so, and this is to what the above blog post was referring.