Abortion advice proposals: Long on abstinence, short on evidence
‘Considering Abortion? Free Pregnancy Testing Information & Advisory Service, Quick & Confidential.’
If you read this statement in an advert, for a service listed under ‘Abortion Clinics’, what would you think? If you were pregnant and needed advice, you might give them a ring.
Unfortunately, what the Albany Women’s Centre, who posted this advert at Yell.com, failed to mention is that they don’t offer any medical services and they are, in fact, opposed to abortion in principle. Today, following a complaint made by the charity Education for Choice, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the Albany ad was misleading and must not appear again in its current form.
This could be dismissed as a single rogue example, were it not for the fact that anti-choice groups operate networks of pregnancy advice centres around the country. Under proposals currently under consideration by the Department of Health, organisations like this one could be given NHS contracts to provide their own special brand of ‘independent advice and counselling’ to women seeking abortion.
This most recent anti-choice saga began in March, when Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries and former Labour minister Frank Field tabled amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill. Their proposals would require GPs to arrange pre-abortion advice and counselling, removing this responsibility from abortion providers on the grounds that they have a vested financial interest in withholding information about the health risks involved in abortion and encouraging women to proceed with terminations.
This ignores the fact that organisations like Marie Stopes and BPAS, which provide abortions under contract to the NHS, are charities: they have no profit motive here. It ignores evidence that around 20% of women decide not to have an abortion after receiving counselling from BPAS. And it ignores the fact that abortion providers are highly regulated, licensed by the Department of Health, and are required to follow clinical guidance on telling women exactly what the possible risks and complications of abortion are.
Instead, in the name of ‘informed consent’ and our Right to Know, women will be directed to unlicensed, unregulated counselling organisations, which are under no obligation to provide medically accurate information or offer unbiased advice, and which do not have to disclose an ideological opposition to abortion.
In the past week we have learned that the Department of Health is considering implementing the Dorries-Field proposals via statutory instrument, without legislation, debate or parliamentary oversight which, for such a significant and potentially damaging change, is definitely cause for alarm.
These calls for abortion counselling change have not come in isolation. In recent months we have seen a stream of measures signalling a distinct change of direction from the government on reproductive rights issues.
At the end of May it was announced that LIFE, an organisation which is opposed to abortion in all circumstances and which does not provide any sexual health services, had been appointed to the government’s newly formed Sexual Health Forum, and will now be advising on health policy. The Department of Health justifies the group’s appointment (and the exclusion of abortion-provider BPAS) in the name of providing ‘balance’ on the panel – although one would have thought that a commitment to scientific accuracy and contraceptive access would be a more appropriate criterion for selection.
Then there was Nadine Dorries’ high profile campaign for girls only abstinence-based sex education. While few of us will have missed her media blitz (cf the ‘paedophile pound’, padded bras for seven year olds, condoms on bananas etc.), the equally alarming news that Education Secretary Michael Gove is supporting the newly formed SRE Council may have passed you by.
While the Council’s stated purpose is “to promote the best possible sex and relationship education both at home and at school”, its membership raises some serious questions about the kind of information it plans to provide.
The group includes ‘Lovewise’ a charity which “seeks to help schools and youth groups by providing presentations on the subjects of marriage, sex and relationships from a Christian perspective”; it also includes ‘Evaluate’ which “supports [young people] in delaying sexual experience until a long-term committed exclusive relationship”. US Christian group the Silver Ring Thing is in there too, making sure that teens are aware that “abstinence until marriage is not only God’s plan for their lives, but also the best and only way to avoid the harmful physical and emotional effects of premarital sex.”
The ‘SRE Council’ then: long on abstinence and Christianity and short on evidence-based information and non-directive support. And yet it has the backing of the man in charge of the nation’s education system.
One final example: in April Conservative-run Richmond Council awarded the Catholic Children’s Society an £89,000 contract to provide support to young people on unplanned pregnancy, contraception, abortion and homophobic bullying. The award came at the expense of Off the Record, a small local charity which has been providing confidential counselling to teenagers in the borough for 20 years.
Just to be clear, the Catholic Children’s Society’s work is based on “Christian values derived from the Gospels and the teaching of the Catholic church”.
The award is entirely in keeping with the government’s localism agenda, which seeks greater involvement of voluntary and religious groups in the delivery of public services, such as… pre-abortion counselling.
Readers may see a pattern developing here. Again and again, organisations that rely on scientifically accurate, evidence-based information and provide non-judgemental services are being replaced with groups which are ideologically driven, religious and partisan.
In the past we have seen many outright attacks on the abortion time limit and on the right to choose as a whole. Today’s attacks are of a different nature. They seek to chip away at the edges of reproductive rights, with a series of small but far-reaching measures that can be publicly presented as eminently reasonable and even empowering to women. But they signal a change of approach and a change of climate – they tell us that our rights are not safe in this government’s hands.