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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 .

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR