A victory for abortion rights…for now

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On 7 September, the latest attack on abortion provision in Britain was defeated when MPs voted against amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill proposed by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries. These amendments, originally jointly proposed with Labour’s former welfare minister Frank Field, would have stripped organisations that provide abortion services of their role in offering impartial counselling to women.

Dorries argues that non-statutory organisations such as the British Pregancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes, non-profit charities that provide the majority of abortions in Britain – have a ‘vested interest’ in persuading women to have abortions as part of some wider, sinister ‘abortion industry’. This is nonsense. No one in her campaign has been able to present any evidence that BPAS and Marie Stopes have done anything other than provide impartial advice, as they are required to do.

As well as delaying women’s access to abortion services, the amendment would have paved the way for counselling to be provided by ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centres’ (CPCs), run by organisations such as Life, which opposes all abortions. Many of these CPCs peddle lies about mental and physical health risks which have no medical basis, use emotive language  and refuse to refer women who want a termination to an abortion provider.

However, despite initial support from the Department of Health (DoH), by August the government had too much resting on the Health Bill to allow its passage to be jeopardised by a maverick amendment. Health Minister Anne Milton took the unusual step of instructing Conservative MPs to vote against the amendment. However, she also made it clear that the DoH agrees with ‘the spirit’ of the proposals and will review counselling guidelines accordingly. There will be a new, free vote on the issue when that review is published.

The Dorries campaign was only a salvo in a renewed and more far-reaching assault on women’s right to abortion. One of Dorries’ many lies was that that she is ‘pro-choice’. In reality, she eventually would like to see the upper time limit for legal abortion slashed to nine weeks’ gestation and will campaign to have the limit reduced to 20 weeks in the lifetime of this parliament – a limit David Cameron is known to favour.

The amendment campaign was run by a group called Right to Know. Mysteriously, Dorries and Field deny knowing much about Right to Know, and would not reveal who is involved in the campaign and how it is funded. However, Dorries has admitted receiving ‘advice’ from Dr Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship, which runs the ‘Alive and Kicking’ anti-abortion network, as well as from ‘a number’ of other organisations, including one that runs CPCs. Among the campaign’s most vocal public supporters is the lobby group Christian Concern, which is linked to a wealthy US evangelical organisation, the Alliance Defence Fund.

Behind Dorries’ phoney concern for women stand some powerful forces determined to roll back women’s rights, little by little by little, chipping away at the time limit, fogging the issue with myths and religious guilt and introducing delay and distress. Abortion is a right, and we must resist all attempts to undermine existing provision or recast the argument in the language of moral choice.

Cat Wiener

FRFI 223 October/November 2011