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Laurie Penny on Nadine Dorries, abortion and newspeak on the right

Dorries's propaganda reveals ugly truths about the coalition's version of "choice".

On the Guardian's Comment Is Free today, Nadine Dorries attempts to justify proposals she is spearheading to restrict women's access to legal abortion and deny proper sex education to young girls.

I have already written about the venal, illiberal campaign in Westmister to force women who wish to terminate pregnancies to go through counselling with an "independent provider" -- likely, in practice, to mean "biased and illiberal" religious counsellors, according to a spokesperson for Abortion Rights UK.

I have also written about how Dorries and some lobbyists are seeking to force these changes through without a vote,and the further hurdles that this will place on the already demeaning and unecessary process of accessing legal abortion in this country. However, one sentence in particular jumps out in Dorries' article, which we will assume was written by Dorries herself and not drafted on her behalf by Christian lobbyists:

At present, the only place a woman can receive pre- or post-abortion counselling paid for by the state is from an abortion provider - who has a clear financial interest in the ultimate decision the woman makes.

Two thoughts immediately occur:

1. If profit is an unacceptable vested interest when private companies are involved in abortion provision, why is it acceptable when it comes to the provision of any other healthcare service?

2. Why does it never, ever occur to Conservatives and other free-market fundamentalists that doctors and other public servants might have other reasons for offering the services they provide besides financial gain? In fact, of all the private companies who currently offer healthcare services in this country, abortion providers are perhaps the most necessary and humane, as their independence offers a crucial lifeline for women too desperate or traumatised by an NHS service in which doctors are allowed to withhold treatment for "moral" reasons.

The government's determination to increase competition in public services automatically assumes that profit is the overriding motive for anyone who works in healthcare, social care or education. It assumes that human beings are naturally selfish, and must be threatened and goaded into doing their jobs properly. That is no way to run a country.

In her article, Dorries speaks of "increasing choice" for women -- by giving them no choice but to go through counselling if they need an abortion. This, too, points to something really venal in coalition newspeak that should worry all of us, whether or not we support a woman's right to safe, legal abortion.

Whether they are discussing cutting public services or obstructing abortion access, the language of "choice" is always employed when confiscating people's most basic rights. We're not restricting access to higher education -- we're letting you choose whether you want to pay £8,000 or £18,000 a year!

The left, too, is guilty of equivocating, of parroting the neo-liberal language of "choice" when we really mean to speak of "rights".

The language of rights and freedoms has corroded over the past three decades, in part because centre-left governments have been quick to adopt managerial rhetoric, to speak of "outcomes" and "choices" whenever it seemed that social justice and human dignity might not play well to the Murdoch press. (Adam Curtis' excellent documentary The Trap is a great explanation of the history and ideology behind this managerial discourse of 'choice'.)

The "pro-choice" campaign is as good a flashpoint as any. Speaking of protecting women's "choices" is a mitigated way, toothless way of discussing what's really at stake -- every woman's right to have control over what happens to her body, every woman's right not to be forced to undergo pregnancy and labour against her will when there are medical alternatives.

Speaking of the "right to choose" is a reasonable and decent compromise, but a compromise nonetheless.

Across the left, we must not allow ourselves to capitulate to the managerial language of the right, because they will always be better at it than us, by virtue of really meaning it. We need to stop talking about choice, and start talking about rights -- whether that's the right to healthcare, housing and a decent standard of living, or the right to access abortion services without being forced to undergo counselling, as if we were unable to cope with the responsibility of freedom.

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

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The High Court is right to rule the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with small children

The idea this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work has been exposed as a myth. 

Thursday’s High Court decision that the benefit cap is "unlawful" for lone parents with children under the age of two is another blow to the Tories failing austerity agenda. It is failing on its own terms, it's failing our communities, and it’s failing the most vulnerable in our country – including the victims of domestic violence and those facing homelessness.

The judgment handed down by Mr Justice Collins was damning. Upon considering the impact of the benefit cap, he concluded that “real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

The government’s claims that this ill-judged policy helps people transition from the social security system into paid work have been exposed as a myth. Seven out of eight households hit by the cap have very young children, are too ill to work or have a work-limiting disability. The spiralling cost of childcare has left many unable to find or afford good quality childcare in order to allow them to work. In some cases, families lose up to £115 a week, pushing them into deeper into poverty.

Labour warned the government of the impact this policy would have on lone parents with very young children during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act. We tabled amendments to exempt lone parents with young children. They refused to listen and thousands of families have been pushed into poverty as a result, including survivors of domestic violence.

Many parents are perpetually stuck in insecure, poorly paid work on a zero hours contract, with the majority of their earnings spent on childcare. Alternatively they are unable to find work which fits around their childcare responsibilities and are then subjected to the benefit cap resulting in families struggling to make ends meet. Just under 320,000 children now live in households likely to be affected by the new lower cap, which was introduced last November. This is at a time when one in four of our children are growing up in poverty.

Despite these obvious barriers facing families with young children, particularly lone parents, it has taken a brave group of campaigners to challenge a government which lacked the foresight to see the real damage they are inflicting with another one of their disastrous austerity cuts. The Government’s own evaluations show that only 16 per cent of families impacted by the benefit cap move into paid work compared to 11 per cent who would have moved into work anyway.

For too long, this government has pushed our children into a lifetime of poverty, as punishment for parental circumstances, whilst continuing to give hand-outs to the privileged few.

What a difference a year makes. Only last July, the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street pledged to “fight the burning injustices” facing our society. Not only has she failed spectacularly, her government continue to pursue policies that are further entrenching these injustices.

It is clear that the benefit cap hits the poorest in our society the hardest. This judgment is a further blow to Theresa May’s unstable minority government and I implore the Prime Minister to accept the High Court's judgement and end this discriminatory policy against lone parent families.

This is the latest in a series of judgments found against the government in relation to their austerity programme. After rulings on the bedroom tax, Personal Independence Payments and now the benefit cap, the government should now accept the ruling instead of spending yet more taxpayers’ money on an appeal. 

Labour has proudly stood against the benefit cap, its discrimination against parents with young children and the government’s cruel austerity programme which has caused too many people real misery.

A Labour government would immediately implement the High Court ruling and only a future Labour government will transform the social security system so that, like the NHS, it is there for the many in our time of need.

 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.

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