Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496