As far as European politics go, the British right wing politicians (“Tories”) are considered to be a reasonable lot and not as socially conservative as a lot of their political chumps in other countries. For example, David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, is in favour of gay marriage (although this is not a view held by all of his party members). When you compare that to your average Republican presence in the media, you almost feel like hugging the guy, right? Well, hold your horses and don’t book that plane to London just yet. The coalition (Conservative Party + Liberal Democrats) government currently in power in the UK is trying to chip away hard won abortion rights. For now, they are having a go at pre-abortion counselling, but we really shouldn’t be fooled.
Gloria Feldt, among others, has shown how time and time again regressive baby steps in reproductive rights are the start of a flood of regressive laws. Believe me, I know what I’m saying – abortion was legal in Poland prior to 1993 and now it can be hard to get one even if you’re potentially going to die without it.
If you live in the UK life is pretty good in terms of access to abortion, for all those insured (the majority in the UK is). It’s not perfect (it’s the only medical procedure for which two doctors need to give written consent and that can be a problem if you live out in the sticks and there’s no one with medical training in your area) but it’s safe, high-quality and generally accessible.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Wrong – enter Nadine Dorries.
Nadine Dorries is a conservative MP, who according to her personal webpage dabbles in a number of issues ranging from metal theft in Churches to bashing the European Union, but what’s really important to her (or what she’s best known for anyway, outside of the Church metal fan community) is her zeal in fighting “abortionists”. She’s convinced that Marie Stopes Clinics and BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) are not actually providing women with unwanted pregnancies with the help they need, whether it be an abortion or a sympathetic ear, but are instead talking undecided potential future mothers into killing their unborn babies. Ms. Dorries knows that she can’t crusade to outright delegalize abortions because the British people simply won’t have it, so she’s after the next best thing – abortion counselling.
Currently, according to the UK Department of Health: ‘Counselling must be offered to women who request or who appear to need help in deciding on the management of pregnancy or who are having difficulty in coping emotionally’, and that it should also be offered ‘to women under 16 and to those with a history of psychiatric illness, who lack social or emotional support or whom their partner, family or employer is possibly coercing into having an abortion.’ At Marie Stopes for example, a woman normally first makes contact through a call centre, which is staffed by “health advisers” who are trained and follow a script to discuss a woman’s options. Women are also offered standalone counselling and around 11-12% of women opt for this. Ultimately a fifth of the women counselled by Marie Stopes decide not to go through with the abortion.
If Marie Stopes advisers were really there to convince women to have abortions, then 1/5 eventually deciding against one is a mighty high failure rate, considering the decision process which has already gone into picking up the phone in the first place. Ms. Dorries and her like aren’t satisfied though and want to make sure no woman wanting an abortion will be counselled by abortion-providers; instead they’ll get “objective” counsellors.
Although Ms. Dorries claims that “no organisation that thinks it’s appropriate to bring God into a counselling session with a vulnerable woman, should be allowed anywhere near the counselling room” there are no stipulations who the independent councillors would be. Ms. Dorries can talk about who she’s going to let near pregnant women and who not until the cows come home, but until it’s put into law it’s just that – talk.
Importantly, there seems to be no intention on part of the government to actually make sure religious groups will not be understood to be “independent” under the new law. Moreover, when the Department of Health issues statements that it “wants women who are thinking about having an abortion to be able to have access to independent counselling” it appears that they don’t quite understand the law of the land already in place.
This is bad folks, for two reasons – firstly it’s resulting in a lot of non-evidence-based discussions about non-facts and secondly, it’s bad legal practice. Bear with me, but I grew up in a house full of lawyers and am a little biased that way – if there’s a law already in place, which already has all the provisions of the new law minus the hassle of introducing new legislation, so why change it? Why make a legal mess? More worryingly even, there are reports that the public health minister Anne Milton has been working behind the scenes to achieve a political “fix”. This would make it possible to introduce the changes lobbied for by the anti-abortionists without parliamentary debate. The government had already made it clear that it believed it could simply change regulations and not the law per se. Scary stuff – bad for reproductive rights, bad for civil rights and bad for a parliamentary democracy.
A recovering scientist, healthcare analyst and junkie of all things gender and women's health