Abortion Rights and Democracy: The Nadine Dorries Update
When I wrote a piece for Bright Green a few weeks ago on the undemocratic nature of challenges to abortion rights, I didn’t expect to be writing a follow-up quite so soon. But the attack that I feared when I wrote that is now a very real risk, as the Liverpool Post recently discovered. Anti-abortion MPs Frank Field and Nadine Dorries are trying to force through an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill without a specific vote in the Commons, which, if passed, would ban any organisation which is involved in abortion provision from also providing information and advice on the procedure, on the grounds that they have a vested interest in persuading women to choose abortion.
What you may not realise is that abortion counselling is already strictly regulated to prevent any suggestion of the impropriety that Dorries describes. It is provided by non-profit organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advice Service (who have written this informative briefing about their work), whose counselling is funded as an entirely separate function from their other services. Regardless of the outcome, the NHS will pay the counselling service for the time they have spent helping each woman, so counsellors don’t have any incentive to promote or discourage abortions. BPAS report that 1 in 6 women who attend their counselling sessions decide to continue their pregnancy; if this sounds like a relatively small proportion, bear in mind that the women who are referred to their counsellors will already be seriously considering abortion.
In a detailed blog post, Dorries explicitly describes her intentions to prevent abortion providers like BPAS from setting up new organisations which only provide counselling, as she believes these would not be suitably independent. With the government determined to outsource as many NHS functions as possible, this is likely to transfer public funding from the current providers, who are truly neutral sexual health charities, and place it in the hands of organisations called crisis pregnancy centres. Many of these centres already exist, and although they are usually run by “pro-life” organisations, they disguise themselves as unbiased advice centres (one was recently forced to change its Yellow Pages listing after the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that it was misleading), in order to talk women out of abortions and distribute misinformation about the physical and psychological damage that women will suffer if they decide to proceed. In the absence of a new statutory body to provide abortion counselling, Dorries and Field would be channelling a much greater number of women through the doors of organisations with an anti-abortion bias.
By attempting to have this enforced by a bill which the Coalition government desperately want to rush through parliament, Dorries and Field are exploiting an ideal opportunity to avoid democratic scrutiny. When over three-quarters of the British population are pro-choice, the only way that anti-abortion campaigns can gain any ground is if sympathetic MPs are willing to abuse their position in this way. Since she was elected in 2005, Nadine Dorries has been on a mission to campaign against abortion, and even if the amendment is dropped, it won’t be a complete loss for her. By raising the issue on her own terms, Dorries has obtained a platform to broadcast the same misinformation that crisis pregnancy centres hand out. By making her accusations in such a high-profile way, she is planting the idea in the public consciousness that there is something untoward about the current provisions for counselling. She also frequently refers to the “abortion trauma”, despite the fact that its existence has repeatedly been disproved, but every time she mentions it, it adds credibility to the myth that abortion causes long-term damage.
Even The Guardian has published an opinion piece from Dorries, ostensibly to provide some balance after they published an article from one of their own writers which was critical of her. Without a trace of irony, she takes the opportunity to explain why placing restrictions on who can provide abortion counselling is really aimed at giving women more “choice”. At the moment, a woman who is unsure of whether to continue her pregnancy can choose to discuss it with whoever she wants – her partner, her family, friends, a member of her faith community, or even a non-judgemental counsellor – but this amendment would block access to one of those potential sources of support. It seems odd that this could be approved by Conservative MPs, who usually claim to value personal freedom so highly, and oppose state interference in the private lives of individual citizens.
Remember, you didn’t vote for this. None of us voted for this, because abortion is not considered to be a party political issue, so most parties don’t mention it in their election campaigns. “Politicians make crappy doctors” was the slogan on a placard photographed at the recent pro-choice demonstration in London, and in the context of the Health and Social Care Bill, this sentiment seems even more appropriate.