The debate around a woman's right to choose on abortion is often thought of as mainly about term limits. It's easy to forget that there are many more obstacles which can be put in the way of women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say there is no shortage of those in our society who will clutch at any straw to deny women the right to autonomy over our own bodies.
One such individual is Tory MP Nadine Dorries who has chosen the UK government's summer recess as the right time to try and sneak through her latest proposals mandating that women be offered "independent" counseling before being referred for termination.
Let me start by explaining that when she says "independent", she means "independent from the medical profession". A recent exposé in The Guardian showed that outright lies about risks of cancer, infertility and mental health problems are commonplace among organisations that claim to offer this service. Women can also expect deliberately gruesome and inaccurate descriptions of the process of termination itself and the use of emotive language - the foetus referred to as a baby and talk of heartbeats, grandchildren and babyclothes. No mention is made of post-natal depression or the difficulties of single motherhood. That's not what I would call "independent". And remember in the middle of a recession Dorries' proposal would force the NHS to hand over vitally-needed funds to pay for this "service".
The MP and her supporters claim this is necessary because if such advice is given by abortion providers, they will attempt to "sell" abortion at any cost. She seems to have overlooked two key points: that only one in six calls to Marie Stopes helpline leads to an abortion being performed at a Marie Stopes clinic and that Marie Stopes and other abortion providers are charities, run on a not-for-profit basis.
A woman's right to access an abortion is compromised twice by this move. Firstly in the way that abortion is framed. What does it say to women seeking abortion if they are ordered to be offered counseling? It sends a message that women's own judgement on the matter is not to be trusted, that women cannot be relied upon to know their own minds and make their own decisions, they must be "helped". Having GPs and professional health organisations refer women to these unscrupulous "counseling" advisors serves to legitimise the lies they spread. If the government is paying for me to be told this - surely it must be true?
Anyone seeking medical treatment has the right to seek for themselves any support they want: GPs and service providers will always highlight risks as well as benefits. These "counseling" organisations have existed for decades and women who wish to visit them are able to do so - without even being given a disclaimer about the biased nature of the service they offer. There is no evidence anywhere to suggest counseling can be of any use to those who don't actively want it.
Secondly it poses a practical obstacle. An extra layer of referral. The move would prevent GPs and organisations like Marie Stopes from providing accurate and fair information about the process of termination. Instead women would be expected to wait possibly several weeks for their "counseling". There is no incentive for providers to operate in a timely way and even a rapid referral would mean another day off work and another set of travel expenses.
Abortion is safest carried out as early as possible into a pregnancy. The longer the delay caused, the greater the risk to a woman's health and some women could be delayed so long that abortion is no longer an option for them under UK law.
Finally let us not forget the group of women most seriously affected by any move that makes abortion harder to access: women in abusive families and relationships, women trapped in the sex industry and women from religious communities where evidence of extra-marital sex can be linked to "honour"-violence. When we put another obstacle in the way of abortion access we know we are putting women's lives at risk.
Nadine Dorries claims, on the basis of what evidence we do not know, that her move will prevent 60,000 abortions per year. But isn't "preventing an abortion" just the same thing as "forcing an unwilling woman to continue with a pregnancy"? Women know their own minds, they are welcome to seek whatever support they so desire in making decisions about their bodies. It is not the job of the government or the NHS to tell women what counseling they need and it certainly shouldn't be their job to push women towards organisations known for false and distorted information.
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