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

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. 

Amy Hawkins is a student at the University of Cambridge and deputy editor of Varsity, the student newspaper. Follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.