Tracey McNeill is very calm for someone whose industry has recently been hit by a wave of fresh scrutiny.
The director of abortion provider Marie Stopes in UK and Europe is speaking to The Huffington Post UK as BBC Radio 5 broadcast a special two-hour live show from one of their clinics, speaking to women who have had terminations, healthcare workers, and nurses.
The aim? As her press officer puts it, “demystify” the process. For McNeill it’s about understand what it’s like going into an abortion clinic.
“It is a supportive, friendly, space. It’s real and normal people that end up coming to our clinics,” McNeill says.
There are no protesters outside the abortion providers’ headquarters in London, but asked about reaction to the broadcast, we’re told to look at Twitter.
A cursory glance at the social networking site shows plenty of supportive tweets, but many others asking why the BBC are broadcasting from a “slaughterhouse”, and questioning why they are broadcasting a “two hour long abortion advert.”
“What I get frustrated about is when I listen to, I was listening to the first hour of the radio this morning and when I listen to Karen, our incredible health care assistant, and I know that every single woman she treats really compassionately and with a huge amount of empathy and care. What I get frustrated and upset about is for our own staff when the media say ‘we’re just abortion factories.’ When you come into our centres you know it’s very different,” McNeill says.
It gives an indicator as to why, nearly half a century after abortion was legalised in Britain, it is something that needs to be demystified on live radio.
In McNeill’s view, abortion has crept in the media again in a “highly politicised” manner in the last 18 months.
“I think that it's been the subject of a huge amount of scrutiny. We're not opposed to scrutiny but I think there's been a lot of scrutiny both from the media, from politicians.”
She’s referring to both a push from Nadine Dorries MP to force abortion providers to provide out-of-house counselling services for women considering a termination, something which politicians are currently consulting on, and a recent CQC investigation into abortion clinics.
“One thing I’d like to come out of this is both politicians but generally the general public understand the sensitivity of the issue,” she says.
So, some politicians don’t understand? “I don’t think they do. I think, we’ve opened our doors and we’ve had some very high profile politicians who have come and they’ve gone away thinking ‘wow. this is amazing’.”
She means Dorries, who has fallen foul of pro-choice activists after targeting abortion counselling and calling to ban abortions after 20 weeks. The Tory MP herself says she is pro-choice and after visiting Marie Stopes tweeted that the group “set [the] standard for others to follow.”
Did they change her mind? “Who knows whether we’ve changed her mind,” McNeill says.
“When we invite politicians through our doors it’s never to change their mind because that’s not our role. Our role is to make them understand what really good quality care and counselling looks like and for them to form their own opinions.”
The point is, she says, the question about abortion counselling should never have been looked into by MPs. In fact, she’s annoyed it even was.
“The House [of Commons, who debated it in September] was very clear that there wasn’t an issue.
“This is something that is actually quite clinical and in any other stream of healthcare if you wanted to change the way you deliver a clinical service, or change a clinical pathway then actually that would be driven by the royal colleges because there’d be changes in technology or they’d be different ways of doing things so they colleges would provide guidelines...
“Our disappointment, as we said at the time, is that this has become a political debate rather than one being driven by clinicians and royal colleges.”
Aside from that, there’s also the Care Quality Commission, whose full report is due out at the end of this month. The government was accused of political manoeuvering over the issue of abortion in March after details of alleged up to one in five clinics may be illegally pre-signing abortion forms, were given to the press before providers or the police.
A letter disclosed under FOI later revealed the so-called “raids” (It did feel a bit like that,” McNeill says) cost an estimated £1m and delayed the investigations of 600 other hospitals and care homes by the regulatory group.
"That again was a lot of scrutiny, there was a political decision that the CQC should go and visit abortion clinics,” McNeil says. “I think it was politically motivated, it was the Department of Health who asked for that to happen, through Andrew Lansley.”
“We would always open our doors, we open our doors constantly to external scrutiny from the Department of Health, from the CQC and from commissioners but it did feel a bit like raids because every abortion provider during one week were having unannounced inspections.
“What you have to be careful about is if you go and visit every provider then you're bound to find some things that aren't right but then how do you handle that, because it's really important that women still have access to choice. and women still have access to abortion.”
Then McNeil, who has so far been collected and diplomatic in all her comments, suggests something unexpected - changing the abortion law.
She says she doesn’t think the 1967 Abortion Act needs to change now, but could “within two years” so to get an abortion women only need the signature of one doctor.
“I think there’s legitimate reasons to say [that]. If you require any other surgical or medical intervention you don’t require two signatures.”
She quickly slips back into to diplomatic mode, saying we should wait for the results of the CQC investigation before pushing for anything. “To try and change the law currently when we need to understanding some of the findings from the CQC, is not a time for law reform.”
But the CQC are looking into whether doctors have broken the law by pre-signing abortion forms when you’re saying that you don’t believe in the law?
“Absolutely, in time, but I think that you don’t try and... If you’ve got organisations that are found to be acting outside of the law it’s not a good time to try and push through law reform.”