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The shame is all theirs: Laurie Penny on a new anti-choice wave

Nadine Dorries and Frank Field's proposal for pre-abortion counselling is scientifically unsound and morally untenable.

The NHS is not a moral arbiter. Addicts, alcoholics and those who acquire injuries in gang fights and bar brawls are not required to justify their need for treatment before receiving it. The only patients who are obliged to make a moral case for referral to a doctor are women seeking abortions. Now, right-wing politicians want to go further and force women with crisis pregnancies to undergo counselling.

Let's not dignify this proposal with the term "cross-party", since it's harder to get a spaniel to jump for a sausage than it is to persuade the Labour MP Frank Field to cross the floor. Pre-abortion counselling is already mandatory in many US states that have some of the most repressive restrictions on a woman's right to choose in the western world. The proposal by Field and Nadine Dorries would put the UK on a legal par with South Dakota, where abortion providers and the women they treat live in fear of murderous reprisals from Christian extremists, and which signed in a similar policy on 22 March.

The notion that abortion makes women mad has long been used to justify the withdrawal of termination services from desperate women "for their own good". The same argument has been used, within living memory, to excuse the imprisonment and institutional abuse of lesbians, prostitutes and "promiscuous" females: it pathologises deviance from "respectable" female behaviour as mental illness.

There remains, however, no scientific basis for a causative relationship between abortion and emotional breakdown. While there is nothing wrong with offering optional counselling to those who want it, telling women that they are "bewildered" and risking their sanity, as Field and Dorries
have done, is demeaning to the one in three adult women who do make that decision. Carrying a planned pregnancy to term can also be risky to a woman's mental health but this hasn't stopped the coalition government from slashing funding for palliative services for postnatal depression.

Sexual choices

Some women do experience distress after terminating a pregnancy. That deserves to be acknowledged but so do the experiences of the many thousands of women who end pregnancies every year without regret. I have spoken to many women for whom the most distressing part of the process was waiting for the doctors' decision. Many felt ashamed to express the relief they felt after it was all over.

Forcing women to receive counselling before they can terminate their pregnancies would inscribe into law the notion that they are not mentally robust enough to have control over their bodies. The proposal adds to the already fraught process of accessing abortion services. It undermines the notion that women's sexual choices are valid.

Until we live in a country where sex education is fit for purpose and contraception is 100 per cent reliable, some women will need abortion services. Shaming women and girls who choose to terminate pregnancies - and enshrining their supposed mental incapacity in law - is both scientifically unsound and morally untenable.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.