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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser