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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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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad