On Saturday, July 9 hundreds of people will descend on central London as part of a pro-choice demonstration, speaking out about increased efforts by politicians to restrict access to abortion. It doesn't seem so long since such demonstrations and anti-abortion vigils outside clinics were something of the past in the UK. According to research done by Abortion Rights UK, 77 percent of people here support a woman's right to choose. But since 2008, abortion has been back on the agenda -- with a number of attempts by right-wing politicians and religious groups to change the law.
Leading the charge is Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries. No stranger to controversy, she's known for her links to fundamentalist Christians and her promotion of abstinence-based sex education. In May she left us aghast when, in an appearance on daytime television, she claimed that if teenage girls were told to "just say no", there would be less sex abuse. Although she supported lowering the upper limit at which abortions can be carried out from 24 weeks to 20 in 2008, she favours a limit of just nine weeks -- and a leaked document has revealed that she has close links with organisations which hope to achieve the outright prohibition of abortion in any circumstance.
So far, the fight to reduce the limit has been unsuccessful. But in recent months, Dorries has taken it all up a notch. She and Labour MP Frank Field have tabled an amendment to the upcoming discussion of the Health and Social Care Bill, which would introduce mandatory counselling for women considering an abortion. Counselling in itself is not a bad thing, but Dorries and Field want to stop women from receiving advice from any organization which provides abortion services, on the grounds that they have a "vested financial interest". As if this wasn't enough, it was revealed at the end of June that the pair hope to push the changes through the back door, by exploring how to change existing regulations rather than putting their proposals through a vote in Parliament.
The fact is, while Dorries and Field are denouncing the "agenda" of pro-choice organizations, the services they seek to promote are no less biased. There is huge concern that anti-choice groups could win the contracts to provide counselling. These groups are not offering impartial advice and are frequently working to provide misinformation about terminations -- usually by talking about the supposed link between abortion and mental health problems, often described as "Post Abortion Syndrome", which has been disproved by a number of studies in recent years. Indeed, the completely anti-choice organization Life has recently been appointed to advise the government on sexual health, while the genuinely impartial British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) has been omitted from the new Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV. BPAS and similar organizations are alarmed at the way things are going, concerned that these measures will stop women from making the choice which is right for them until it is too late.
I do not think it is wrong to want to decrease the number of abortions, but limiting access to health care and delaying women from making the choice they want will not have this effect. As global statistics show, limiting the legality of the procedure and restricting access does not make women less likely to terminate pregnancies. All it serves to do is force women into dangerous situations and put more lives at risk. Every year, it is estimated that there are around 20 million "unsafe" abortions out a of worldwide total of 42 million, with over 90 percent of these occurring in countries where abortion is illegal or access to services is restricted. The World Health Organization has concluded that abortion rates are similar the world over, whether the procedure is legal or not.
This why it's so important that people mobilize and speak out against Dorries's agenda and support the work of truly impartial and pro-choice organizations. If she wants to lower the number of abortions, Dorries needs to be focusing on comprehensive sex education and providing easy access to good advice. The measures she hopes to bring in might seem tame compared to some of those attempted abroad, but it's a slippery slope, and we can't afford to let the groups she has links to get a foot in the door. There's nothing wrong with the system as it is -- the abortion rate has dropped in recent years, and the focus should be on improving the situation, not implementing regressive and misogynistic approaches to the issue. Since May, a group of pro-choice activists, experts and politicians have been in close contact, holding a planning meeting and discussing how to take things forward. Tomorrow's demonstration is the next step they're taking to stand up to the government.
So if you can, consider spending a few hours in central London tomorrow afternoon, supporting the cause and standing alongside those who recognise that we need to defend the law from those who seek to turn turn back the clock on reproductive rights. More details can be found here, or you can follow the #prochoicedemo2011 hashtag on Twitter to keep up to date with what's happening.