Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Abortion: Leaving well enough alone

What possible point could there be to Nadine Dorries legislative amendment excluding abortion clinics from ever giving advice to pregnant women if it isn’t to limit abortions?

In what many commentators have called a dishonest article in the Mail last week, Ms Dorries MP asserted that the point of her proposed change to the Health and Social Care Bill is that she supports a woman’s right to choose. Her opening paragraphs disclose the real reason by graphically describing a late abortion she alleges she witnessed.

How is this personal horror story relevant to an amendment on who should give advice to women with an unwanted pregnancy?  It isn’t.  It is anti-abortion propaganda.

So called “pro life” campaigners know that they cannot turn the clock back far enough to reverse the 43 year old Abortion Act. Instead, they seize on every Health Bill as an opportunity to put an obstacle in its way.

Hence Dorries supported cutting the time limit from 24 to 20 weeks despite blanket medical opinion that no scientific advance required such a cut.

Similarly, all the evidence is that the current pregnancy advice system works well. Dorries allegation, in the Mail, that “thousands of women”are conveyor belted into abortions quotes no source and no basis in fact. Frank Field who supports her amendment for his own reasons, has made clear that he has no criticisms of advisers.

David Steel, the architect of the Abortion Act, told The Observer today

\”The Department of Health has complete power over licensing and de-licensing clinics. If there were any evidence of failure to carry out proper counselling of patients, they can close clinics. More positively there is nothing to stop them issuing guidelines on counselling if they think that necessary\”

Women who find they are pregnant go to their GP or to a sexual health clinic and simply register for ante-natal treatment unless they don’t want a pregnancy or have doubts. In either of those cases, their first discussion of other options will be with their own clinician.

Both women who are pleased to be pregnant and those who are not deserve expert advice.  Ms Dorries says that she wants this advice to be “independent” of those who offer abortion. That is a very odd idea. By definition, a woman who is looking for something other than ante-natal help is considering abortion.  Secondly, it is a strange stance for someone who supports “the right to choose”, unless that right to choose is the right to be advised to choose anything but an abortion.

The experts in this field are the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Marie Stopes, both of whose focus is rightly on preventing unwanted pregnancies. They both certainly provide abortions but both their websites make the case for other ways forward as well.

They offer a template to help women to think the issue through and to evaluate their emotions. Twenty per cent of women who go to them for face to face advice intent on an abortion, change their minds and continue their pregnancy to full term.

It is worth remembering that an abortion is only lawful in the UK if two medical practitioners certify that terminating a pregnancy will be less damaging to a woman’s physical or mental health than completing it.

Even David Cameron has now seen that there is no case for preventing these tried and tested organisations from advising. He will vote against the amendment and it is believed has written to his backbenchers encouraging them to do the same. Yet another somersault, though Ms Dorries said in the Mail that she expects him to change his mind again.

On Friday, Louise Mensch MP made a bid for a share of the limelight as an honest broker. She tabled a different  amendment which serves only to add a further layer of unnecessary muddle.  She wants an option for advice to be available that is “independent” both of abortion providers and of faith groups.

Firstly, that is an insult to some excellent faith groups, many of whom give welcome support to women who choose abortion.

Secondly, BPAS and Stopes are both prepared to counsel every option. They are not correctly seen as zealots on the other side of an ideological coin from groups like LIFE who reject abortion in all circumstances.

Thirdly, any woman already has the “option” of advice from all of these and an array of further pregnancy advice groups.  The problem with Dorries proposal is that it compels the exclusion of abortion providers and compels the taking of advice from others.

There is every need to prevent that and no need to put options already on offer into law.

This issue does not merit debate. It distracts from the need to fight, tooth and nail, the Health and Social Care Bill which will open our National Health Service to competition and ensure that the title \”National\” no longer applies.