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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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital