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Pro-life organisations are sneaking in to the lives of vulnerable women

Women with unwanted pregnancies need support, not biased misinformation.

Pro-life protesters in Washington, DC.
Pro-life protesters in Washington, DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Allow me to introduce you to Ella. Ella's pregnant, but she's scared about how her abusive partner, “who can be so sweet sometimes”, will react. “Instead of joy, she feels only terror,” says a video made by Life, a pro-life charity. “It’s all my fault. I’ve got no choice," she thinks, heading to an abortion clinic. “This time next week it will all be over,” says the anonymous doctor, as he hands over what seems to be red abortion ticket.

So begins the fundraising video released a three weeks ago by Life, an organisation that purports to offer non-directive counselling for pregnant women. The video highlights the very real link that sometimes exists between domestic abuse and abortion, and then asks for your money to help fund their help lines.

Women with unwanted pregnancies are in an extremely vulnerable position. Women who are also victims of domestic abuse, even more so. Supportive, unbiased advice and counselling is invaluable in these situations. Yet, a report released earlier this year by Brook, the sexual health charity, found that people working at Life were offering pregnant women with inaccurate and often emotive advice, such as telling women that there is “strong evidence [of an] increase in the possibility of breast cancer following termination of pregnancy”, and that “it is possible that you will be on your own when you abort your baby, you know, possibly in the toilet, that’s what usually happens”. Life have naturally criticised the report’s findings, saying that Brook has failed to differentiate between Life’s pro-life ethos, and the professional counselling they provide in the care room. Yet, on their own website, Life states that they “are open about our ideology instead of pretending we are neutral and don't have one”. Impartial indeed.

Abortions do not increase the risk of developing breast cancer, and Life themselves even lament the fact that they are missing “women in danger of going down the abortion road. In short, we are not saving lives on the scale that we used to do” (my italics). Crisis Pregnancy Centres (CPCs) have been around for a while, but they are on the rise in the UK. As Life has clearly realised, they are having to be evermore creative about the ways in which they target pregnant, often desperate, women.

Brook estimates that there are over 100 CPCs in the UK at the moment, but because they don’t refer women for abortions they are unregulated bodies. The real number may be higher. Some centres operate from GP practices, and Brook even found evidence of CPCs counselling women in prison. Access to medical advice in prison can often be stilted, but still these bodies act (in full knowledge of the NHS) to delay women’s access to abortion, with the risk to the women’s wellbeing increasing as they do so.

I said earlier that the link between domestic violence, or certainly emotional abuse, and forced terminations is real, and it is. As the Finding Hope video tells us, one in four women who seek abortion are victims of domestic abuse, and Life say that they merely hope to "raise awareness" of this fact, and to "reach out and empower women in this situation". Last month, the Independent published a heart-breaking interview with a woman who had been forced by her husband on two occasions to terminate a pregnancy against her will, because an ultrasound scan showed the gender of the unborn baby to be female. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) published a report earlier this year, confirming a link between domestic violence and terminations.

As real as the connection may be, it is only a fraction of the picture. There is also a well-documented trend of men using coerced pregnancies to control women, and of women wanting an abortion for any number of other reasons: failed contraception, poverty, rape, I could go on. Most importantly, a woman may choose to have an abortion because she chooses to have a say in what happens to her body. CPCs say that their work is based on respect for life, but the lives of women are apparently secondary.

Organisations like Life and Care Confidential, which is the other main CPC provider in the UK, do not seem interested in this. They claim to be non-directive, but invoke religious rhetoric to steer women away from abortion: “I do believe that God gives a gift of a baby,” said one Care Confidential counsellor in Reading.  Hiding behind unassuming premises and emotive campaigns, CPCs creep into the minds of vulnerable women, targeting them when they are at their most open to manipulation.

Three-quarters of Britons are pro-choice, and perhaps that is why these pro-life campaigns have had to become more veiled in their tactics. In some ways, perhaps we should be thankful; we haven’t yet had here the US trend for sending ‘Before I Formed You in the Womb’ cards to abortion providers and paediatricians, let alone physical attacks on doctors perform terminations. Still, the emotional manipulation is insidious, and many women may find more than hope in the rooms of these clinics. Women like Ella, pregnant, abused, need to have a better way out.