Anti-abortion campaigners are pressing ahead with a controversial amendment to the Government’s new health bill designed to cut the number of pregnancies which are terminated each year in the UK.
The Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who is proposing the amendment, said yesterday she would not be “bought off” by the promise of a Government consultation on whether or not to offer independent counselling to all women considering an abortion.
Instead she said she wanted to change the law to strip abortion charities and doctors of their exclusive responsibility for counselling women seeking to terminate a pregnancy, and hand it to specially trained professionals.
But while she ruled out allowing anti-abortion groups the chance to bid to offer counselling services, she did not explain how the amendment would ensure that individual counsellors could be free of bias on such an emotive subject.
The move has also led to fears that anti-abortion campaigners in the UK are adopting US style tactics of trying to influence the way abortion services are delivered rather than fight on the ethical issues surrounding the principle of abortion itself.
If the ammendment is debated in the Commons the Goverment may allow its MPs a free vote on the issue. There is now a strong socially conservative bent within the Tory Party which is supported by the Prime Minister. In 2008, Andrew Lansley, William Hague and Liam Fox joined Mr Cameron in supporting a cut to the legal limit for "social" abortions from 24 weeks to 22 weeks.
Ms Dorries said that charity-run abortion services – including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes – had a financial conflict of interest in advising women seeking terminations since they are paid for the procedures they carry out.
But the charities strongly dispute this and say that her proposal would add another layer of bureaucracy which could cause distress by delaying access to abortions.
They added that the counselling they offer is already independent and entirely separate from the other services they provide.
In addition they said any suggestion that women would have to discuss an abortion with their GP before being referred to them could deter or delay them from seeking help.
At the weekend the Government attempted to head off the amendment by proposing a consultation to examine whether independent counselling was practical.
But speaking yesterday Ms Dorries rejected the compromise and insisted it should go to a vote in the House of Commons. “The amendments won’t be withdrawn whatever the Government says,” she told the World at One.
“If they believe they are going to buy me off by making soothing noises and they are going to look at this and go into consultation… that isn’t going to buy anybody off. This will go to Parliament on 6 September. It will be debated.”
Ms Dorries said that the process and procedure of abortion was “so factory efficient” and “speedy” that she wanted to give people a chance to “talk through their own situation”.
“I don’t have the figures in front of me but I can guarantee you that 15 years ago the incidence of abortion was far, far fewer than it is today. Today we have 200,000 abortions carried out per year and we have more abortions than any other country in Western Europe.
“We don’t think it is right that the people who are giving the advice for the product procedure process should be the same people who are carrying out that process.
“So all we are saying is that Marie Stopes and BPAS are run as businesses, they are paid £60m per year of taxpayers money and what we would just like to see is that when a woman presents a GPs practice with a crisis pregnancy that she is offered counselling, not compulsory, just offered counselling.
Ms Dorries said she would be just as opposed to anti-abortion groups offering advise as she was to those charities which carried out terminations and suggested that the work could be carried out by counsellors registered with the British Association of Counsellors and psychotherapy.
“Counselling would be offered by someone who is totally independent and impartial,” she said.
“It means somebody who isn’t an abortion provider, who isn’t of a religious organisation. I can ensure you that if a catholic group said they were going to set up and offer advice I would be as against them offering advice as I am the abortion advisor.”
But BPAS Chief Executive Ann Furedi said she believed the amendment might be the start of a slippery slope restricting an individual woman’s right to choose. “BPAS is always happy to engage in debate around the ethics of abortion,” she said.
“But, as has happened in the USA over recent years, we are increasingly seeing those with a opposition to abortion trying to influence the way services are delivered rather than engage in ethical debate. Abortion care, just as any other area of healthcare, must be based on the needs of patients and clinical evidence.”
Dorries launched her campaign for the change alongside the Labour MP Frank Field. They are backed by the campaign group Right to Know, which has set up a website and Facebook page to promote the idea.
Dorries, a former nurse who says she is campaigning on the issue after witnessing botched terminations, says she does not oppose abortion. However, she has previously campaigned to reduce the abortion time limit and said that her explicit aim was to reduce the number of terminations, claiming that 60,000 could be prevented each year if women were given independent advice.
'I was completely unprepared': Anonymous, 26, operations manager
“I have had two abortions; the first when I was 17 and then again when I was 24.
"During my first experience, like many women I opted for a medical termination which I was assured was the simplest method. I felt reassured but the process began far earlier than anticipated and as a result I was completely unprepared for what I witnessed and for the physical and emotional pain afterwards.
“I do not remember being offered any counselling, only being given wads of leaflets detailing the benefits of contraception. I chose to deal with it in secrecy and it wasn’t until a few months later when all aspects of my life: academic, social and personal began to suffer did I actively go and seek help.
“Seven years later I found myself in the same position again. The same contraceptive advice was administered but on this occasion before I underwent the process and not during, as it was the last time. It was a well known private clinic and the members of staff were indeed more attentive but the experience nevertheless was impersonal.
“Whilst ideally the process should be as quick and as pain-free as possible, the real care should be invested into women’s mental health following the termination and for as long as is necessary. On that first occasion, I remember feeling so angry towards the other girls on the ward who were laughing and joking. I now realise that it was probably because they hadn’t been able to face up to it yet and more importantly, they hadn’t been warned. You are discharged as being physically well but the emotional toil has yet to kick in.
“There is definitely a need for a separate charity with women who have shared experiences, shared ways of dealing with the fragile emotional states women are left it.
“However, it is certainly not appropriate to involve religious groups to dole out advice to women who are already battling with insufferable guilt.”
'This is a cynical and patronising policy': Anonymous, 24, public relations
“Some people say that an abortion is the hardest decision a woman ever has to make. I have to disagree.
“Of course for some women it is. And those women need access to sound, impartial advice. But for a lot of women it is one of the easiest decisions they will ever make. Not a nice decision to have to make, but for some, an easy one.
“When I had an abortion in a country where it was illegal – on a semester abroad when I was 20 – I had no access to any advice, just a whispered, rather judgmental indication of what steps to take next.
“To have had the option to speak to a medical professional about the options available would not have gone amiss, but luckily I knew that for me I was making the right decision.
“Nadine Dorries's call is cynical, patronising and unnecessary. To assume that charities such as Marie Stopes and BPAS [the British Pregnancy Advisory Service] offer weighted advice seems terrifyingly naive and unfounded. I also don't even understand the aim, which she has stated explicitly, which is to reduce the number of terminations by 60,000 procedures a year.
“To assume that somehow these 60,000 terminations could be saved or prevented is completely the wrong way to look at it. These women don't need more advice once they are already pregnant and time is a real factor, they need advice before they even get pregnant.
“Sex education in the UK needs a new approach. Treating women like they are unthinking children and family planning charities as if they have an agenda is not going to help anyone.”
'They just want to restrict our access': Anonymous, 30, healthcare worker
“I was 17 and I was coerced into sex with someone who thought a baby would bond us forever - he actually wanted me to be pregnant.
“I had to sit my A-levels with morning sickness and then arrange an abortion. Because of all the other things going on in my life (leaving school, planning university etc) and because the whole thing was so traumatic, I waited until I was 8 weeks pregnant before going to a GP.
“Because I saw a sympathetic GP and was able to see a gynaecologist quickly, and because the waiting list in my area was short, I was able to have an abortion at 10 weeks, which meant a lower risk of complications.
“I don't think the advice is a real issue. It's a red herring. An abortion/termination of pregnancy is a medical procedure. Every medical procedure you have in the UK, you have after being fully informed and signing a consent form. To say women need extra counselling for one particular procedure is patronising as well as derailing from the more important issue, which is the agenda of some members of the government who want to restrict access to abortion.
“The requirement for 'independent' counselling is going to delay abortions, and it isn't necessary. There is no evidence for it.
“In any case, I didn't regret having an abortion, and I feel I was informed well beforehand. To be honest, though, this is a data-rich age and I was already well informed - I had read about what it would entail beforehand.
“Why can't we just assume people will know their own minds, as with any elective surgery?”