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 freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era