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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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.