Monday, 29 August 2011

"Independent" abortion counselling: a solution in search of a problem

Rules designed to restrict abortion choice look set to be introduced by the coalition Government in the UK. The rules, proposed as an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill by Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries (both devout Christians), will remove the role of abortion providers such as BPAS and Marie Stopes in providing pre-abortion advice. Ms. Dorries and Mr. Field state that there is a financial conflict of interest of abortion providers in providing pre-abortion counselling. It is of course a ridiculous idea, effectively accusing medics and nurses working for such organisations of failing to obtain informed consent (the cornerstone of medical ethics) for abortion procedures. There is not one study or piece of evidence to support their claim. Imagine if you are thinking of having your gallbladder removed due to gallstones. The very idea that a surgeon could not tell you about the procedure or alternative options because he/she has a financial stake in carrying out the operation (is paid by the NHS to carry out such operations) is a ludicrous one. But that is the logic of Ms. Dorries.

The amendment is supported by the secretive 'Right to Know' campaign, which rebuts all questions about its funding. It is widely suspected that it is financed by US evangelical conservative Christian groups (see interview with Dr. Evan Harris here), and is part of the 'chipping away' strategy that Ms. Dorries is adopting at UK abortion law.

Whilst this is only tinkering (reducing the gestation limit at which abortion is available was roundly rejected by MPs in 2008), Ms. Dorries has admitted to being advised by Dr. Peter Saunders, who is CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship (which appears to be an increasingly extreme organisation peddling increasingly wacky ideas). A look at the powerpoint slides of Dr. Saunders here lays bare the 'chipping away' strategy. Ms. Dorries has indeed concentrated on the potential reduction in numbers of abortions her amendment might produce (she states up to 60,000) a year). More pragmatic commentators have stated that numbers will probably not be reduced a great deal, but that referral to the 'independent' counsellors will cause delays in abortion meaning later term abortions, which will be a matter of regret not only to Christian and secular organisations, but particularly for patients.

Pre-abortion advice provided by non-mainstream organisations has been found severely wanting. As The Guardian reported this month:
A survey of 10 centres operated by Christian and anti-abortion organisations found evidence in most of them of poor practice and factually incorrect advice, while the quality of counselling differs widely. Advice ranged from scaremongering – linking abortion with breast cancer, for example – to actions apparently designed to steer women away from abortion, such as showing them baby clothes and talking about "the child"...At a Life centre in Covent Garden, London, the undercover researcher was given a leaflet entitled Abortions – How they're Done, which said incorrectly that 85% of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration. It stated that "the unborn child is sucked down the tube" and that "the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse [in the case of chemically induced abortion]."
Finally, Ms. Dorries cites support for her campaign from BACP, the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. This rather conflicts with the reply from BACP to a question about its supposed support to which the answer came "BACP has never suggested or implied that organisations like BPAS and Marie Stopes International should stop providing abortion advice or any of their other ancillary services."

It's good to know that the Government is, in straightened times, thinking of introducing complex, unfeasible, unceccessary, and expensive legislation for which there is no need, merely at the whim of a couple of backbench MPs. The amendments will also use up valuable time for debating the major aspects of the Bill - most notably, that GPs will be given the majority of the NHS budget to commission services, and the stealth privatisation of the NHS. I urge you to lobby your MP about this issue before the 6th Sept (when the amendment is likely to be debated), which can be done easily at this link:,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/

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