Abortion: as the shouting grows louder, is anyone listening to pregnant women?

Ros Wynne-Jones investigates the 'counselling' offered at clinics by pros and antis and finds both sides wanting
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The Independent Online
A young mother is struggling with pushchair, shopping and wriggling infant on a London Underground escalator. Behind her are a series of posters advertising free pregnancy tests and advice at a drop-in centre close by. Scrawled on one in lipstick are the words: "BIASED, Don't Go." The posters belong to Life, the anti-abortion charity.

As the spin doctors grapple for votes in the last weeks before the general election, another, more bloody, propaganda war is being waged over the familiar territory of the womb. Last night the newly-formed Prolife Alliance party accused the National Abortion Campaign of a "dirty-tricks initiative" aimed at discrediting both the Alliance and Life, the anti-abortion charity, by alleging that the two have links that violate Life's charitable status.

In the past week, with the pledge of Cardinal Thomas Winning, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, to halt the "slaughter of the innocents" still ringing in their ears, the pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbies have both launched new offensives aimed at capturing the moral and political high ground.

The Prolife Alliance has unveiled its manifesto for the election and will announce its first 50 candidates on Wednesday. In a counter-offensive, the National Abortion Campaign has begun a two-pronged attack on the anti-abortionists, organising a "Speak Out" on 12 April to show how "women have been empowered by taking control of their reproductive lives", and the campaign aimed at losing Life its charitable status.

The Alliance calls the NAC despicable; the NAC say the Catholic church is attempting to bribe women not to have abortions; the Catholic church talks of slaughter and genocide and the murder of unborn infants; abortion clinics talk of women's rights over their own bodies.

The propaganda battle is being fought in earnest over the airwaves, on poster hoardings and on the Internet. But, as in any conflict, there are inevitable casualties. In this one they are the women whom the pro- choice and anti-abortion lobbies are trying to save from each other, the pregnant women who for whatever reason are unsure about whether they want to be mothers.

Nowhere is the propaganda itself more chillingly blatant than on the frontline, in the advice centres where vulnerable women go for counselling. Last week I followed the directions on one of the Underground posters offering free pregnancy tests and advice to a central London backstreet. The heavy door to Life is protected by a wire grille, grim testimony to the potential violence of the abortion war.Inside there are no hints that you have walked into a charity which is fundamentally opposed to abortion, just as there is none on the poster.

I decline a free pregnancy test, saying I've already had one and I just want to talk. I say my name's Jo, I'm 20 years old and eight weeks pregnant. I'm a student at a nearby university living on pounds 2,000 a year, the baby is the product of a one-night stand, I don't want to tell the father and I can't tell my parents. Despite its anti-abortion agenda, Life is bound by law to give me non-directional counselling.

My counsellor is an anxious, earnest woman who unlocks another door to a standard-issue counselling room with comfy chairs, nondescript prints on the walls and a strategic box of tissues next to the seat I'm ushered into.

She starts off in a non-direction: "It really depends how you feel about abortion..." but the end of her first sentence gives the lie to its beginning. Within five minutes I'm told that at eight weeks my baby's got eyes, its heart has started to beat and it's about the size of the palm of the counsellor's hand. I remember from biology lessons at school that the latter simply isn't true.

I hear about the guilt of "post-abortion syndrome", the scarring that "many women" suffer, leaving them unable to conceive again, how I will have to bear the secret of my abortion alone for the rest of my life. She looks pained as she tells me how they don't always get all the foetus out and sometimes leave a little hand behind and that can lead to trouble in later life.

Life can't give me any money "because we rely on jumble sales and we don't have much", but they may be able to offer a second-hand pram, some baby clothes and a "Moses basket". They may even have room in one of their safe houses where I could stay until at least a year after the little one is born.

I'm handed a bunch of leaflets. One shows me exactly what the "little one" looks like now, inside my womb. Another tells me in dubious language exactly how abortions are performed. The last, entitled A Woman's Right To Choose, tells me how "abortion violates women".

Since there are casualties on both sides in any conflict, I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the fence, at the abortion clinic; but there was the obstacle of the compulsory pregnancy test. So this story belongs to Sam, who recently went to an abortion clinic a short walk and a whole world away from the Life advice centre.

"The first thing you do is give a urine sample to confirm that you actually are pregnant," she says. "Then you go into a little room with a counsellor and they tell you: 'This is just a formality which we have to follow by law. We can confirm that you are pregnant - is there definitely no way that you can have this baby?' You say no and then the doctor examines you, they tell you how the operation will be performed and you pick the nearest clinic to you.

"There is no mention of adoption or how you might manage should you decide to keep the child. That suited me because my mind was made up - but what about people who aren't entirely sure? It's not counselling - more a set speech that's quickly over. It was as if by admitting that abortion wasn't an everyday experience for most women the clinic's whole philosophy would be shattered. Is there nobody that's neutral that you can go and see?"

Franca Tranza at Marie Stopes, which runs several abortion clinics, says: "As far as the individual woman is concerned, it doesn't matter what the different pressure groups are saying.

"This week you couldn't get away from abortion on the news, but these are real women with real-life dilemmas. Women come in all the time saying they've always been pro-life or pro-choice but now it's happening to them it's different."

Ironically, it seems the targets of the abortion propaganda war, pregnant and vulnerable women, are the ones left out in the cold while the pressure groups fight on.

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