Pro-choice and counting

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As some readers are already well aware, this time next week, MPs will have debated – and voted on – a series of amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill that could undermine women’s right to choose whether to proceed with or terminate an unplanned pregnancy in Great Britain.*

Skip to the end for actions you can take.

The three amendments as tabled by Nadine Dorries MP can be read here. You can follow the progress of the Bill here.

Basically, the amendments propose ensuring that organizations providing abortion services are not in a position to provide women counselling about abortions. According to Nadine Dorries, abortion providers have a financial interest in whether a woman has an abortion and so cannot be said to be independent, and therefore, by extension, cannot be assumed to be serving the best interests of individual women. On her blog, for example, she writes (referring to a Newsnight programme on the issue):

Did they just forget to mention the thousands of women who were not offered any counselling at private abortion providers such as Bpas? Or the many thousands who feel they were put on a conveyor belt to the operating theatre the minute they stepped through the clinic door? Nothing to do of course with the fact that the clinic is paid per abortion.

For starters, counselling certainly is available via BPAS if a woman wants it. But there’s no reason she necessarily should. The persistent claim that a woman *ought* to be offered counselling for this medical procedure, when she already speaks to two doctors before getting it, speaks more to a problematic idea that women are not capable of making decisions about their bodies without getting their heads examined, than a factual reality of what women actually need and are demanding.

Second, Philippa Willitts has already explained in this excellent piece on the blog earlier this week why this notion of ‘independence’ doesn’t make sense as it is being framed in the debate by those supporting the amendment, so that settles that I think.

Third, the comment about a ‘conveyor belt’ is quite revealing. Explaining her concerns to the Guardian, Nadine Dorries says:

The abortion process is so fast – seven to 14 days. Women who do have doubts or niggles are on the other side before they have a chance to think it through. The majority may feel it’s fine but there are a growing number thinking it wasn’t what I wanted to do. As it gets faster and faster more women are falling off the edge. This is a women’s rights issue.

This tells us quite a bit about the underlying motivations to the amendments. It harks back to the debates on (a) restricting the time limits on abortion and (b) wanting to compel women to have counselling before they have an abortion that Nadine Dorries spearheaded. Both aimed to restrict access by creating delays and shortening the time frame available for women to have choices.

Also, it’s worth noting that the idea that the abortion process is ‘so fast’ is a myth: as mentioned, women still need to get the permission of two separate doctors before they can be allowed to have an abortion. There’s nothing particularly speedy about that.

Some commentators have been worried that the amendments risk allowing anti-choice religious organizations to exercise pressure on women to proceed with unwanted pregnancies. To this, Nadine Dorries has replied, interestingly:

I’ll say it again, no organisation which is paid for carrying out abortions and 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.

For those familiar with Nadine Dorries’ previous attempts to restrict women’s access to abortion and her alleged links to anti-choice Christian groups as part of this effort, as well as the Government’s alarming decision to appoint anti-choice organization Life to two of its advisory groups, the above statement may not appear that reassuring.

Most worrying in all of this, however, is the fact that the Government indicated on the weekend that it was prepared to support the thrust of the amendments, regardless of the outcome of the debate in Parliament. According to a story in Sunday’s Guardian:

The government has caved in to calls from anti-abortionists to overhaul existing protocols and strip charities and medics of their exclusive responsibility for counselling women seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

The Department of Health confirmed that it would change the rules to ensure that women are also offered counselling “independently” of existing abortion services. Its announcement was made in advance of an attempt next week led by the Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries to amend the health and social care bill to force such a requirement.

The Guardian today reported that this decision has been reversed, that the Government hopes to undermine the amendments, but noted that the outcome of the Parliamentary debate is not at all assured:

The government has reversed its position on moves to strip charities and medics of their exclusive responsibility for counselling women seeking an abortion, saying it will now advise MPs to vote against proposals from a Conservative backbencher if they are put before the Commons next week.


But a combination of the unpredictable intake of new Tory MPs, split between social conservatives and modernisers, the number of Roman Catholic Labour MPs, and the high degree of nuance of the amendment make it extremely unclear which way the vote will go.

On a more positive note, the Conservative Women’s Organisation has come out against the amendments and is urging MPs and constituents to oppose them.

It is therefore really vital that we get on to our MPs and let them know our views. Both Abortion Rights and the Family Planning Association are coordinating campaigns via their websites. You can take action with them here and here, respectively.

Information on which MPs are pro and anti-choice is quite limited – maybe we could help do some research while we’re at it by posting intel as we get it from our MPs (e.g. responses to our lobby letters and actions) in the comments below?

*This post does not deal with the situation in Northern Ireland.

Photo of square black and white sign saying ‘Pro Choice’ with the a fist and a woman symbol, by Floyd Brown, shared under a Creative Commons license