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Laurie Penny on abortion: the anti-choice minority are being allowed to dictate policy

The coming changes to abortion provision have nothing do with caring, and everything to do with prejudice.

The battle for abortion rights in Britain has begun in earnest. This week, the small, vocal, venal group of Christian conservative lobbyists working in Westminster to roll back women's right to reproductive choice has won a victory. The Department of Health has confirmed that abortion clinics will no longer be allowed to offer counselling to women presenting with crisis pregnancies, who may instead have to go to biased religious counsellors if they wish to receive advice and information on abortion. This has been done without any debate, circumventing the parliamentary process ahead of next week's discussions on this and other anti-choice amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill.

The majority of British people - 76 per cent - are pro-choice. It is the anti-choice minority, however, who are being permitted to write and dictate policy specifically designed to prevent abortions from happening. Nadine Dorries MP, every Christian lobbyist's favourite Tory, who is spearheading the anti-choice campaign in parliament on behalf of groups like Care UK, tried to claim on Sky News that the new rules were not designed to reduce the number of abortions, despite having proudly declared elsewhere that the changes would mean "60,000" fewer pregnancies terminated. She then admitted that:

"It's quite probable that those who are having doubts will accept that offer [of 'independent' counselling'] and as a result of that we may see less women going through abortion and coming out the other side traumatised, and less abortions, and that may be a consequence, and that can only be a good thing."

There is, of course, no evidence that any of these changes to the abortion rules are necessary, wanted or based on actual medical science. British Medical Association member and former Liberal Democrat shadow health secretary Dr Evan Harris told Sky News:

"As far as I'm aware, despite there being many many abortions every year, there's not been a single complaint that someone has been misinformed by the current professional counselling that exists."

Harris, who campaigns for evidence-based provision of abortion services, pointed out that the new arrangements to strip abortion providers of their counselling role will delay the abortion process and may prevent many thousands of women from receiving any counselling at all. "I wonder why it is that an avowed anti-abortion campaigner should want to change arrangements that are currently working well when there's no evidence of harm, " he said.

Just as there is no research showing that the abortion process is any more "traumatising" for a woman than, say, being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against her will, there is absolutely no evidence of women complaining en masse about being "rushed through" the abortion process. There is far more evidence, in fact, of the distressing effects of existing delays in the service, of the "postcode lottery" of abortion provision in the UK, of the indignity of a system which requires two doctors' signatures for a procedure to take place, and where GPs are permitted to refuse to refer a woman for abortion services without handing her case on to another doctor.

There is ample evidence, moreover, that the supposedly "independent" counselling services to whom provision of pre-abortion counselling will now be handed are distributing misinformation, anti-choice propaganda and lies to vulnerable women. A recent investigation by campaign group Education For Choice found religious counselling centres telling women that having an abortion was "taking an innocent life" and would cause lifelong guilt and shame, breast cancer and infertility.

According to the Guardian report on the survey, at one Christian counselling centre, Life in Covent Garden: "...the undercover researcher was given a leaflet entitled Abortions - How they're Done, which said incorrectly that 85% of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration. It stated that "the unborn child is sucked down the tube" and that "the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse [in the case of chemically induced abortion].

"The counsellor was said to have focused on mental health issues that she associated with abortion, telling the researcher she was of a good age to have a child, showing her baby clothes and using terms such as "baby" and "grandchild" when referring to the pregnancy."

In America, a remarkably similar strategy to restrict abortion access via the back door has been in place for some years, with cuts in federal funding for abortion clinics forcing women to seek help from publicly-funded Christian anti-choice groups masquerading as "objective" crisis pregnancy centres. "As one arm of the anti-choice movement tries to eviscerate [Planned Parenthood], another is helping boost a version that offers severely limited services stacked with an anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-sex, aggressively Christian worldview," writes Tana Ganeva at Alternet. "But that's not the only boost they're getting from states. Recently South Dakota legislators passed a bill that would have forced women not only to wait 72 hours before getting an abortion, but to pay a visit to an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centre as well [for counselling]." Sound familiar?

The coming changes to abortion provision in Britain are being phrased as a caring move, offering women a "right to know", protecting them from the profit motive in the provision of abortion services (it should be noted that the profit motive is not considered a potential cause of harm or conflict of interest in the provision of other public health services, which may be opened up to competition from the private sector as part of the same bill). It has nothing to do with caring, and everything to do with prejudice.

If we truly believe that women are free human beings whose right to decide what happens to their own bodies is more important than individual superstitions about the spiritual status of the foetus, we need to oppose these changes. If we truly believe that nobody should be bullied or forced into carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, it is vital that the changes be seen for what they are.

They are a biased and badly-evidenced pander to the anti-choice, anti-sex, anti-woman moral agenda of the Christian conservative lobby which, far from giving anyone more 'rights', will damage women's ability to make informed decisions about their health choices and delay the already distressingly drawn-out process of accessing pregnancy termination services in the UK. And this is just the opening sally in the coming attack on British women's right to choose.

To make your voice heard on this issue, please join Abortion Rights' campaign, and email your MP to make sure he or she knows why the changes to abortion counselling are damaging and unecessary. It takes two minutes. Thank you.

Clarification: the GMC advises doctors, on the subject of conscientious refusal to treat: "If the patient cannot readily make their own arrangements to see another doctor you must ensure that arrangements are made, without delay, for another doctor to take over their care." There is, however, no legal obligation for them to do so, and this is to what the above blogpost was referring.

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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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.