The Care Quality Commission (CQC), ordered to perform spot-checks at abortion clinics, revealed yesterday that up to one fifth of clinics have been breaking the law by allegedly allowing doctors to pre-sign consent forms, presumably before they are assigned to a specific patient. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is reportedly "shocked and appalled" by the findings.
I am shocked and appalled that in 2012 we still require two doctors to testify not to the physical fitness and consent of the woman in question but to the indomitable risk a continued pregnancy poses to her physical and mental health.
Assessed from that perspective, being pro-choice is actually nothing of the sort. Presuming you are bodily healthy, what you are actually consenting to is the notion that to be refused an abortion would make you just a baby away from barmy.
Thankfully, the medical profession is more pragmatic than the law; it's not too often you meet a glassy-eyed new mother lugging a child about, lamenting, "Oh, you know, there just wasn't enough chance of me having a breakdown so they wouldn't let me not have her." And doctors have had to be -- they are working with a piece of legislation that has only been updated once since 1967, an era where women couldn't get a mortgage without a male guarantor. Is it any wonder then that some doctors may think the double-signing about as anachronistic and inappropriate? And what about the thousands of women, myself included, that have ever had an abortion? It's time the law acknowledged that women can safely -- and sanely -- consent to abortion, with full awareness of the implications as they do so, and that one informed medical opinion is enough to guide that.
For a government that claims to want to give people more control over their own lives, the coalition has done a neat job of allowing the paternalist, Conservative backbenchers the steer of the abortion debate. The CQC investigation, the circumstances of which are politically suspect according to BPAS chief executive Ann Furedi, comes just a little too soon after Nadine Dorries' failed Bill proposing independent abortion counselling. It also conveniently distracts from the berating Lansley has faced over NHS reforms. Nothing like an abortion brouhaha to make people forget about the mismanagement of the health service -- except perhaps setting the already overstretched CQC to investigating procedural signatures rather than the abuse of old people or children isn't the slickest way of doing it.
The recent furore relating to illegal sex selective abortion has made the matter of women's "choice" even more inflammatory. But neither doing away with the need for the two-doctor signature rule nor changing the emphasis of the law to give women the right to opt out of motherhood rather than out of madness would automatically legitimise the right to sex selection. (Surely not revealing the sex of the foetus, except in circumstances where disability necessitated it, would circumvent that pretty easily?) Nor would it see the number of abortions rise exponentially. What anti-abortionists never seem to grasp is that, whatever the circumstances, nobody seeks a termination lightly. While not necessarily traumatic, it is a grave decision you do not forget making. And neither one, nor two, nor a thousand doctors' signatures can affect that -- unless the government makes it harder to seek abortion in the first place.
Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.