Britain is debating reforms backed by the anti-abortion lobby

Today, parliament will debate an amendment on abortion counseling. Supported by pro-life Christian groups, the amendment has provoked controversy, forcing the government to withdraw support

Today the House of Commons will debate the Health and Social Care Bill.  Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Frank Field have lobbied for and won a free vote on an amendment regarding abortion counseling.  The amendment has caused a storm of controversy, forcing the government, who initially said they would support it, to back down and remove their support. 


Still from an awareness campaign by Marie Stopes

The amendment requires that women seeking a termination receive advice or counseling from an independent service.  ‘Independent’ is defined as, ‘a private body that does not itself provide for the termination or pregnancies’, or a statutory body.

After some elementary scrutiny it has become apparent that the amendment is illogical.  I will bullet point the reasons why (you can read more detailed explanations by following the links), and then analyze the political ramifications of the fiasco.  I argue that this time the Conservatives have simply gone too far.

Why the amendment is illogical

Dorries claims that it is in the interests of abortion providers to encourage women to have abortions because they profit from it.  This is simply not true.  The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes, the largest abortion providers in the UK, are registered not-for-profit charities.  It is true that they are paid around £60million per year to provide abortions; but unless Dorries wants abortions to be carried out for free by volunteers, there is no way around this.  The BPAS has stated that, ‘Any small surplus that we make is ploughed back into providing services’.  The claim that BPAS and Marie Stopes encourage women to have abortions is also false.  There is no evidence for this whatsoever.  It misunderstands the nature of counseling, which is about choice not coercion.  Marie Stopes have said that around 20-25% of women that come to them for advice decide to continue with the pregnancy. At BPAS that figure was 15.3%.

• The idea that counseling should be provided independently is also illogical.  With any other medical procedure a person would ask for advice from the provider.  Consider transplant surgery: the patient would ask for advice about the pros and cons of the procedure and the ethics of transplantation from the providers, not from an organization that is ‘independent’ of the process.  We would think it wrong for the person to be forced to get their advice and information on the procedure from an organization that does not carry it out.  Why should this be any different in the case of abortion?  Moreover, BPAS and Marie Stopes do extensive research on abortion.  These experienced providers and researchers are best placed to provide the relevant informed and up-to-date advice.  In fact, ‘independent’ counseling services have been uncovered as partisan and unprofessional.  In this Guardian investigation independent abortion advisory services were found to give false and misleading information, and to cajole and guilt-trip women into continuing with their pregnancy by, amongst other things, showing them baby clothes.

• Forcing women to have counseling independent of the provider prolongs the waiting time for an abortion.  After 24 weeks an abortion is no longer legal, unless the woman’s life is in danger, so this delay could prove decisive.  It prolongs the psychological anxiety that some women suffer waiting for the abortion, as Suzanne Moore puts it, ‘This is nothing short of cruelty dressed up in the language of concern.’  The procedure is also more intrusive the further into the pregnancy it is performed. 

• There is little support for the amendment.  The Conservative Women’s Organisation has come out against it.  Niki Molnar wrote on her blog, ‘I urge every MP, woman or man, on whatever bench, to allow women to choose for themselves. I urge every constituent to contact your MP to get your voice heard.’  Other Tory MPs have publically spoken out against the amendment.

• In her Daily mail article, Dorries claims she is pro-choice.  However, forcing women to have counseling separately from seeking advice from an abortion provider is patently anti-choice.  As the Guardian investigation exposed, some ‘independent’ counseling services are anti-abortion and some are faith-based.  If women are forced to use these services before having an abortion, being subjected to guilt tactics and false or inaccurate information about procedures, they could be put off.  In fact, Dorries argues that 60,000 terminations could be prevented per year under this scheme, exposing her real motive – cutting the number of abortions.

Why Now?

There are several theories as to why this is happening now.  Blogger Richard Bartholomew argues it is a ploy to deflect attention from Dorries’ dodgy expenses.  However, I’m not convinced.  If one wants to deflect attention, attacking abortion rights is not an advisable approach.  It is a perpetually incendiary issue.  Dorries has put herself right in the firing line.

Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy argues that it is ideologically driven - Dorries is really pro-life.  He links her to Dr Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship, who has previously argued that to achieve a ban on abortion it should be chipped away at slowly.  The fact that Dorries is attacking abortion procedure, rather than abortion itself, ties in with this argument.  Furthermore, Hundal uncovers Dorries’ fundamentalist Christian beliefs.  She converted at a Christian Alpha course and has said that, ‘I am not an MP for any reason other than because God wants me to be.’  Dorries is refusing to reveal who is backing her campaign, despite calls from other MPs to do so.

Perhaps Dorries’ motives are clear then; she is simply anti-abortion, despite her protestations to the contrary.  As forFrank Field, who knows?  He continues to claim on his blog that independent counseling provision is pro-women and a good idea.  Maybe he’s just naïve.

The government’s reaction is more interesting.  As George Eaton points out in the New Statesman, the fact that Cameron has been so slow to denounce the amendment suggests that he might quite like to lower the number of abortions.  Cameron has since stated that he is “personally sympathetic” to the amendment, but will vote against. The Guardian claims that senior Lib Dems are ‘furious’ about the amendment, but they’re not being publically vocal; the exceptions being Evan Harris, who is no longer an MP, and former Liberal leader David Steel.  If there is anything the Lib Dems should be standing up for, it is the most sacred of liberal principles – choice.  Their silence speaks volumes about intra-Coalition politics, especially the silence of Equalities Minister, and self-defined feminist, Lynne Featherstone.

I would suggest that there are two reasons why the government has allowed this fiasco to carry on for so long.  The first is that it is a serious distraction from the main event – the Health and Social Care Bill itself.  They thought that if they could deflect attention from the dismantling of the NHS, with a topic that has distracted the US polity for decades - abortion - that they could push the bill through with little media or public attention.

The second reason is that there has never been a better time to vote on a socially conservative policy.  After the recent riots, there has been a distinct turn to the right on the part of the general public.  The Tories were hoping to ride the wave of the reactionary backlash, pushing through policies that would be unthinkable at any other time.

Why it’s backfired

The government has made an enormous miscalculation.  Yes, we are living through a reactionary moment.  Yes, the amendment has distracted the media from the privatization of the NHS.  However, the Tories completely underestimated the strength of pro-choice feeling in this country.

Women have been incensed by the amendment because it is utterly patronizing.  As an anonymous Conservative MP had the foresight to point out in the Financial Times, ‘The majority of women looking for an abortion are already clear that is what they want when they approach a clinic.’  Women who go to abortion clinics are intelligent, thinking, rational human beings who decide, for whatever reasons, that they do not want to have a child.  They are not encouraged at these clinics to have an abortion, but can walk away at any point in time.  The government should not interfere with their decision-making process.  The underlying paternalism of the amendment – to prevent hopeless, impressionable women who really want to be mothers from being exploited by evil abortionists – grates painfully at all thinking women.

Furthermore, feminists have fought and died so that women can have control over their own bodies.  In the House of Commons, there are 648 MPs, 144 or 21% of whom, are women.  This is unrepresentative of the UK population, where51% of the population are women.  Allowing a group with an overwhelming male-bias to decide what women can do with their bodies would be a return to the pre-women’s liberation era.  79% of MPs will never be pregnant or need to have an abortion.  They should not be dictating to women that they must have a certain form of counselling before choosing to terminate a pregnancy.  Again, women can decide for themselves; they can decide whether they want counselling at Marie Stopes, BPAS or a faith-based organisation.  This should not be legislated.

Moreover, Nadine Dorries and Frank Field have essentially fabricated an argument based on the false assumption that abortion providers make a profit.  Dorries at least, thought that this ruse would be enough to push through policy that favours faith-based and anti-choice abortion advisory services; which begs the question – just how stupid does she think civil society and the general population is?  As highlighted above, a cursory knowledge of current abortion practice reveals the amendment to be illogical.  She has rightly assessed that MPs are woefully ill-informed about abortion (as already pointed out, they are nearly all men so have most likely not had to think about abortion); but according to Liberal Conspiracy, 6,000 people have written to their local MPs through the Abortion Rights website, to make sure they get their facts straight.

The government’s error was in backing an amendment from a pro-life religious fundamentalist, which is patronising, arrogant and frankly stupid.  Proposing legislation that is so badly researched and lacking in evidence has deeply scarred the government’s already irreparably tarnished reputation.

After some initial concern that the amendment could still pass because of the unknown quantity of newly electedbackbench Tories and religious MPs, it is now looking very unlikely.  The Department of Health has made the unprecedented move of emailing all MPs to denounce the amendment, angering backbench Tories who perceive it as underhand “whipping” on a vote of conscience.  Two other competing amendments have been tabled: one by Conservative MP Louise Mensch, giving women the choice of independent counselling or counselling by abortion providers; the other by Lib Dem Julian Huppert supporting the status quo and stressing the need for evidence-based guidelines, which is supported by a range of women’s organisations.   

Whatever the motives for initially backing the abortion amendment, the outcomes are overwhelmingly negative for the government.  Paternalism, body-control and poorly-concealed anti-abortion tactics do not sit well with a female population who know their rights.  Such a policy was never going to slip through the net in the UK.  The debacle has revealed that there is one thing this government is definitely not going to get away with – interfering with women’s bodies.  Abortion does not distract the public; it galvanises us.  And no matter how reactionary UK politics has become, women are not going to relinquish their hard-won rights.  This time, they pushed us too far.

This piece was originally published on New Left Project.

About the author

Maeve McKeown is a Political Theory PhD student and activist at University College London (UCL).  She is also a theatre practitioner and co-author of 'Page to Stage: Our Country's Good'.