Why is an anti-abortion group advising the government on sexual health?

Life’s inclusion on an advisory panel is the latest move to increase pro-life groups’ influence on t

Life, a group that is opposed to abortion in all circumstances and promotes an abstinence-based approach to sex education, has been appointed to a government advisory group on sexual health.

The forum, set up to replaced the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, excludes the British Pregnancy Health Service (BPAS), which had a long-term position on the previous advisory group. The exclusion is on the grounds that its stance is similar to that of Marie Stopes International.

"We find it puzzling that the Department of Health would want a group that is opposed to abortion and provides no sexual health services on its sexual health forum," said Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS.

Meanwhile, Stuart Cowie, Life's head of education, said he was delighted that the group would have the chance to "represent views that have not always been around on similar tables in the past".

So why did Anne Milton, who had been invited as public health minister, invite a group that opposes the very existence of an abortion law to sit on this panel?

It is difficult not to see this latest move as part of a mission creep of government opening itself up to faith-based or pro-life groups.

Into the breach

For a start, this is not Life's first foray into government. Last week, the group became a founding member of a new Sex and Relationships Council, launched in parliament with the endorsement of Michael Gove.

Other founding members of the panel – which will participate in policy discussions about sex education in schools – include Right to Life and the Christian pro-abstinence group the Silver Ring Thing.

Perhaps this is unsurprising: the Tory MP Nadine Dorries tabled a motion in parliament this month calling for the introduction of abstinence-based sex education for girls (not boys, note). It was narrowly passed by MPs.

Dorries and Frank Field MP have put forward amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill to tighten the rules on abortion. They suggest that any woman having an abortion must receive counselling from an "independent" organisation (though it is not clear what exactly is meant by this).

In addition to these legislative steps by MPs and the steadily increasing number of advisory roles for faith-based groups, there are some local examples of these organisations benefiting from the government's "big society" agenda and actually providing services in certain areas. The Guardian notes that:

In Richmond, south-west London, the Catholic Children's Society has taken over the £89,000 contract to provide advice to schoolchildren on matters including contraception and pregnancies. Another Christian-run charity, Care Confidential, is involved in providing crisis pregnancy advice under the auspices of Newham PCT in east London.

"Pushing abortion"

This gives serious cause for concern. It is crucial that women considering abortion receive objective advice. The state should facilitate that – not thrust them into the hands of interest groups.

About 20 per cent of women seeking an abortion at a BPAS clinic decide not to proceed with a termination following the counselling they receive, indicating that they are by no means pushing abortions to their clients.

It is vital that pro-choice and sexual health campaigners stay alert to this thread in government: both legislative changes pushed by Tory MPs such as Dorries and Field, and the increasing influence of faith-based groups. Otherwise there is a very real risk of severely retrograde steps being taken on the crucial issue of sexual health.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don't we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.