On the Guardian’s Comment Is Free today, Nadine Dorries attempts to justify proposals she is spearheading to restrict women’s access to legal abortion and deny proper sex education to young girls.
I have already written about the venal, illiberal campaign in Westmister to force women who wish to terminate pregnancies to go through counselling with an “independent provider” — likely, in practice, to mean “biased and illiberal” religious counsellors, according to a spokesperson for Abortion Rights UK.
I have also written about how Dorries and some lobbyists are seeking to force these changes through without a vote,and the further hurdles that this will place on the already demeaning and unecessary process of accessing legal abortion in this country. However, one sentence in particular jumps out in Dorries’ article, which we will assume was written by Dorries herself and not drafted on her behalf by Christian lobbyists:
At present, the only place a woman can receive pre- or post-abortion counselling paid for by the state is from an abortion provider – who has a clear financial interest in the ultimate decision the woman makes.
Two thoughts immediately occur:
1. If profit is an unacceptable vested interest when private companies are involved in abortion provision, why is it acceptable when it comes to the provision of any other healthcare service?
2. Why does it never, ever occur to Conservatives and other free-market fundamentalists that doctors and other public servants might have other reasons for offering the services they provide besides financial gain? In fact, of all the private companies who currently offer healthcare services in this country, abortion providers are perhaps the most necessary and humane, as their independence offers a crucial lifeline for women too desperate or traumatised by an NHS service in which doctors are allowed to withhold treatment for “moral” reasons.
The government’s determination to increase competition in public services automatically assumes that profit is the overriding motive for anyone who works in healthcare, social care or education. It assumes that human beings are naturally selfish, and must be threatened and goaded into doing their jobs properly. That is no way to run a country.
In her article, Dorries speaks of “increasing choice” for women — by giving them no choice but to go through counselling if they need an abortion. This, too, points to something really venal in coalition newspeak that should worry all of us, whether or not we support a woman’s right to safe, legal abortion.
Whether they are discussing cutting public services or obstructing abortion access, the language of “choice” is always employed when confiscating people’s most basic rights. We’re not restricting access to higher education — we’re letting you choose whether you want to pay £8,000 or £18,000 a year!
The left, too, is guilty of equivocating, of parroting the neo-liberal language of “choice” when we really mean to speak of “rights”.
The language of rights and freedoms has corroded over the past three decades, in part because centre-left governments have been quick to adopt managerial rhetoric, to speak of “outcomes” and “choices” whenever it seemed that social justice and human dignity might not play well to the Murdoch press. (Adam Curtis’ excellent documentary The Trap is a great explanation of the history and ideology behind this managerial discourse of ‘choice’.)
The “pro-choice” campaign is as good a flashpoint as any. Speaking of protecting women’s “choices” is a mitigated way, toothless way of discussing what’s really at stake — every woman’s right to have control over what happens to her body, every woman’s right not to be forced to undergo pregnancy and labour against her will when there are medical alternatives.
Speaking of the “right to choose” is a reasonable and decent compromise, but a compromise nonetheless.
Across the left, we must not allow ourselves to capitulate to the managerial language of the right, because they will always be better at it than us, by virtue of really meaning it. We need to stop talking about choice, and start talking about rights — whether that’s the right to healthcare, housing and a decent standard of living, or the right to access abortion services without being forced to undergo counselling, as if we were unable to cope with the responsibility of freedom.