The Catholic Children’s Society has been commissioned by Conservative-led Richmond Council to “help and support students in the borough’s schools”. The public service contract, worth £89,000, involves counselling children on unplanned pregnancy, contraception, abortion and homophobic bullying.
The move has sparked outrage from secular and gay rights groups, who question the ability of an organisation which draws its inspiration from “Christian values derived from the Gospels and the teaching of the Catholic church” to provide un-biased, non-directive counselling to young people on sensitive issues.
The new contract comes at the expense of the Off the Record project, a small local charity which has provided confidential counselling to teenagers in the Borough for 20 years and which has the support of Relate, the national counselling organisation.
‘Off the Record’ also runs a sexual health clinic staffed by a specially trained nurse offering pregnancy testing and advice, emergency contraception, STI screening and referral for termination of pregnancy.
Counsellor Stephen Knight, leader of Richmond’s Liberal Democrat group said:
“The decision beggars belief. Counselling services for young people have to address issues such as contraception, unwanted pregnancy, and homophobic bullying and the appointment of a religious group to provide these services on behalf of the Council is totally inappropriate”
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society echoed his concerns:
“What on earth was the council thinking about in appointing such a partisan and dogmatic organisation to provide counselling and support services?… What sort of advice would a specifically Catholic agency with an instruction to uphold Catholic teaching tell a girl who came to them for contraceptive advice? Surely the council could have found a non-sectarian service that wouldn’t pose these sorts of problems”.
Abortion Rights is increasingly concerned that the government’s Localism agenda, which seeks greater involvement of voluntary and religious groups in the delivery of public services, will allow anti-choice organisations a formal role in providing support to women facing unplanned pregnancy.
Anti-choice ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centres’ already operate around the country, many of which have a record of providing women with inaccurate, misleading advice about abortion, with the aim of deterring or delaying women from having a termination.
Recent moves by anti-choice MPs to require women to receive ‘independent advice and counselling’ prior to abortion would also be likely to see the involvement of such groups in supporting pregnant women, were they to succeed.
Abortion Rights strongly believes that young people have a right to evidence-based, non-directive information about pregnancy, abortion and sexual health, so that they are able to make their own informed choices. We are shocked that the Catholic Children’s Society has been deemed an appropriate provider of such services.
The move comes after last week’s controversial decision by the Ministry of Justice to commission the Salvation Army, the Christian missionary church, to run the Poppy Project which works with trafficked women, replacing the respected women’s housing charity Eaves. This contract too, has implications for the counselling of women facing unplanned pregnancy as, like the Catholic Children’s Society, the Salvation Army deems abortion to be morally unacceptable.
Abortion Rights’ Vice-Chair Kate Smurthwaite has written to the National Secular Society highlighting this issue. Read her letter here.