Anti-abortion campaigners trying to change the law to cut the number of terminated pregnancies in Britain came under scathing attack yesterday from the former head of the Government's fertility watchdog.
Baroness Deech, who served for eight years as head of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, said that plans to offer all women thinking of have an abortion independent counselling were merely a smokescreen to limit a woman's right to choose.
And she warned that the measure would have the effect of reducing funding for charities which offer abortions by removing the right for them to provide counselling themselves.
Pro-choice campaigners are fearful that the new tactic by the anti-abortion lobby of replacing a general ethical debate around terminations with a step-by-step attempt to tighten up service provision could be effective.
They are also worried that the new intake of socially conservative Tory MPs could tip the vote against abortion and see the first step back from the current system for a generation.
Lady Deech, who sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords, said that the argument put forward by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries in favour of the amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill was illogical and most likely hid another agenda.
"Ms Dorries has a Parliamentary history of trying to limit the availability of abortion by lowering the upper limit, and also of trying to legislate to ensure that schools promote abstinence in sex education offered to teenage girls," she said.
"One might well surmise that the real aim behind the counselling amendment is therefore to limit access to abortion by delaying its provision.
"In such a situation, women are more likely to feel that their privacy is being invaded and that they are being scolded for seeking their right to abortion, where the existing legal requirements are fulfilled."
Lady Deech said such restrictions to a "legal and well-run service" were "quite unacceptable". "Women are quite capable of making up their own minds on their own or with the counselling offered by the existing clinics, of which there has been no substantiated criticism.
"Who are the trained counsellors who would staff the new service, but are unwilling to work in the existing ones? Might they be selected, or think that they would be selected, if they hold anti-abortion views? There are many serious events in life where counselling might come in handy -giving birth, taking drugs, whether medicinal or recreational, getting married or moving in with someone – are we going to have independent counselling for them too, with a view to deterrence?"
Clare Gerada, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners, warned that the change would set the system back 25 years. "There is no agenda in abortion services, there is no pressure at all to encourage women to have an abortion," she said.
"Why fix what's not broken? It's worked well for 25 years."