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3 April 2011

The shame is all theirs: Laurie Penny on a new anti-choice wave

Nadine Dorries and Frank Field's proposal for pre-abortion counselling is scientifically unsound and morally untenable.

By Laurie Penny

The NHS is not a moral arbiter. Addicts, alcoholics and those who acquire injuries in gang fights and bar brawls are not required to justify their need for treatment before receiving it. The only patients who are obliged to make a moral case for referral to a doctor are women seeking abortions. Now, right-wing politicians want to go further and force women with crisis pregnancies to undergo counselling.

Let’s not dignify this proposal with the term “cross-party”, since it’s harder to get a spaniel to jump for a sausage than it is to persuade the Labour MP Frank Field to cross the floor. Pre-abortion counselling is already mandatory in many US states that have some of the most repressive restrictions on a woman’s right to choose in the western world. The proposal by Field and Nadine Dorries would put the UK on a legal par with South Dakota, where abortion providers and the women they treat live in fear of murderous reprisals from Christian extremists, and which signed in a similar policy on 22 March.

The notion that abortion makes women mad has long been used to justify the withdrawal of termination services from desperate women “for their own good”. The same argument has been used, within living memory, to excuse the imprisonment and institutional abuse of lesbians, prostitutes and “promiscuous” females: it pathologises deviance from “respectable” female behaviour as mental illness.

There remains, however, no scientific basis for a causative relationship between abortion and emotional breakdown. While there is nothing wrong with offering optional counselling to those who want it, telling women that they are “bewildered” and risking their sanity, as Field and Dorries
have done, is demeaning to the one in three adult women who do make that decision. Carrying a planned pregnancy to term can also be risky to a woman’s mental health but this hasn’t stopped the coalition government from slashing funding for palliative services for postnatal depression.

Sexual choices

Some women do experience distress after terminating a pregnancy. That deserves to be acknowledged but so do the experiences of the many thousands of women who end pregnancies every year without regret. I have spoken to many women for whom the most distressing part of the process was waiting for the doctors’ decision. Many felt ashamed to express the relief they felt after it was all over.

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Forcing women to receive counselling before they can terminate their pregnancies would inscribe into law the notion that they are not mentally robust enough to have control over their bodies. The proposal adds to the already fraught process of accessing abortion services. It undermines the notion that women’s sexual choices are valid.

Until we live in a country where sex education is fit for purpose and contraception is 100 per cent reliable, some women will need abortion services. Shaming women and girls who choose to terminate pregnancies – and enshrining their supposed mental incapacity in law – is both scientifically unsound and morally untenable.