Ministers have caved in to backbench pressure to step up the level of independent counselling women receive before terminating a pregnancy, to the anger of some MPs who believe the government is playing “politics” with women’s abortion rights.
The department of health’s decision to develop “proposals” to introduce independent advice for women seeking terminations at abortion clinics comes after months of campaigning from backbencher Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP who in 2008 brought forward a private members’ bill to reduce the legal time limit for a termination.
Ms Dorries believes that abortion clinics’ counselling is biased because they have a vested interest in carrying out the procedure – a claim vehemently denied by clinics. Marie Stopes, which provides a third of the 190,000 abortions carried out each year, is a not-for-profit charity whose independent councillors all belong to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Her amendment to prevent private organisations which carry out terminations from offering pre-abortion counselling has sparked a flurry of anger from some MPs who are concerned that the counselling issue is being used to peddle broader anti-abortion sentiment from some quarters such as pro-life Christian groups.
“These plans are based on prejudice rather than evidence,” said Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary and minister for women. “David Cameron should not put politics before the interests of women’s health and women’s lives.”
Another Conservative MP said the assumption that counselling was not being provided by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service was not true. “The majority of women looking for an abortion are already clear that is what they want when they approach a clinic. We have to be careful not to go down the US-type model of allowing politicians who have a very different agenda to press their case,” said the MP. “This [debate] is about an individual who brought an amendment, whose agenda is to reduce abortions dressing it up as counselling. It is disingenuous.”
Ms Dorries, who counts Dr Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship as one of her advisers, said on Sunday that she was “not a pro-lifer” but wanted to make sure women could access independent advice before deciding on a termination. “No one who has any agenda about anything – be it the abortion clinic or people ideologically linked to the Christian groups – should be allowed near a woman when she is making that choice,” she said.
Other MPs on Sunday complained that the two days set aside to debate the public health bill would be derailed by the abortion amendment. “If there is concern about this we should consult to see if there is a problem or if there isn’t,” said Sarah Wollaston, a former GP-turned Tory MP. “I don’t want to see two days’ debate about a bill being derailed into a discussion on the very emotive topic of terminations.”