Cameron U-turns on abortion counselling

MPs will now be advised to vote against Nadine Dorries and Frank Field's amendment on "independent"

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When in doubt, U-turn. Having indicated at the start of the week that it would support Nadine Dorries and Frank Field's proposal to introduce "independent" counselling for women seeking an abortion, the government has now reversed course and will advise coalition MPs to vote against the amendment if it is put to a vote next week. The Department of Health, which previously said that new "independent" counselling, was a certainty, will continue to consult on the matter.

No.10's move reflects the fact that almost all of Dorries and Field's claims have collapsed under scrutiny. The amendment argues that medics and charities such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service [BPAS] and Marie Stopes should be stripped of their exclusive responsibility for counselling on the basis that they have a financial interest in advising women to have abortions. Dorries claimed for instance, that both are "paid millions by the NHS to carry out terminations - and so profit from the process".

Yet both the BPAS and Marie Stopes are not-for-profit registered charities that have no financial stake in encouraging abortions. As the BPAS states: "Any small surplus that we make is ploughed back into providing services." Moreover, as Marie Stopes points out, 20-25 per cent of women that speak to one of their counsellers choose to continue with their pregnancy. There is no evidence for Dorries's claim that "the abortion system and process is abusing women".

It is also clear that Dorries's primary motive is not to ensure that women receive better advice but to reduce the number of terminations. Contrary to what supporters of the amendment claim, there is nothing in the text to prevent religious organisations becoming involved in abortion counselling. The amendment states that "information, advice and counselling is independent where it is provided by either -- (i)a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies; or (ii) a statutory body." There is no prohibition against groups with a distinct moral agenda.

It is no surprise, therefore, that a number of Tory MPs have come out against the amendment. One of the party's MPs told the FT earlier this week:

The majority of women looking for an abortion are already clear that is what they want when they approach a clinic. We have to be careful not to go down the US-type model of allowing politicians who have a very different agenda to press their case.

This [debate] is about an individual who brought an amendment, whose agenda is to reduce abortions dressing it up as counselling. It is disingenuous.

That it took the government so long to realise this is further evidence of Cameron's lack of attention to detail and again prompts the question: what does he really think?

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.