The real abortion scandal? That two doctors must testify a woman's sanity

Andrew Lansley is "shocked and appalled" at doctors pre-signing consent forms -- but the medical pro

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.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.