Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign
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Inaccuracy and anecdote: Dorries’ time limit debate

big ben tower01.11.12

Yesterday, Nadine Dorries held a parliamentary debate on reducing the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks. There was no vote and therefore no immediate threat to the law, but the debate gave MPs the opportunity to lay out their arguments around the time limit and for Ms Dorries to ‘give notice’ of her plan to hold a full debate and vote in Parliament next May – which in itself is a worrying prospect.

Speeches from anti-choice MPs focused on foetal viability as justification for reducing the time limit. But their arguments ranged far beyond this and all the staples of anti-choice rhetoric – inaccuracy, anecdote and emotion – were on display.

They spoke at length about foetal abnormality (which was specifically not at issue during this debate), about foetal pain and foetal sentience, but then objected to the use of the word ‘foetus’ at all.

They graphically discussed the surgical procedure of a later termination and we heard about women who had as many as seven (yes, seven!) abortions, in spite of the fact that this is an extremely rare occurrence.

More than one MP made the point that as only a small number of women have abortions beyond 20 weeks, cutting the time limit would not really matter that much or constitute much of an attack on women’s rights.

The contribution of Strangford MP Jim Shannon, part of a large Northern Ireland contingent, was particularly colourful and perhaps illustrates that a 20 week limit is really not really at the heart of their interests. When challenged about his use of statistics on survival rates for example, he retorted,

“Life is life as far as I am concerned; that is where I am coming from”.

He went on, “Ask the women who have had abortions and live with the guilt and despair every day, and who try for children and are faced with more difficulties than those who are not had abortion.

“I speak for those babies who feel the pain of being ripped from their mother’s womb.”

It’s good that Mr Shannon feels able to speak on behalf of both women who have had abortions and for foetuses, but we really should point out that reliable evidence shows no increased risk of mental health problems nor impaired fertility following abortion.

The contribution from Nadine Dorries herself was more nuanced but in some ways more problematic. As ever, she sought to position herself as a ‘pro-choice’ advocate who was nonetheless attacked by both the pro- and anti-choice camps. ‘As a mother’ she championed this issue through ‘compassion, humanity and civility’.

But there were some deeply problematic statements in her speech, particularly around the kind of women who are ‘qualified’ to make an informed decision about abortion. It’s worth quoting one passage at length:

“One MP who came up to me the other day said… “Every woman who wants an abortion knows exactly what she is doing.” Well, in her rather slick, well-educated Oxbridge world and her leafy shires I am sure they do, but what about the young Asian girl who was recently marched into a clinic in floods of tears by two family members? No one knew her age, but she was marched in by two family members for an abortion. Is that a one-off story? No. Speaking to abortion providers, that happens on a regular basis.

Not every women makes the decision because she went to university and marched up and down streets in Oxford and chanted about women’s rights. Lots of women are actually incredibly vulnerable. It seems to me as though many of the women who make the feminist “women’s right to choose” argument have no regard whatever for those women. In pushing one particular mantra and ideology, no consideration is taken of those women at all.”

There is something deeply alarming in this section. It doesn’t really matter that she dismisses pro-choice advocates as over-privileged. She’s wrong of course: our campaign was founded by working class women who saw the suffering caused to poor women who were forced to turn to back street abortionists because that was all they could afford. But never mind.

But her assumption that younger, less well educated, lower income women are inherently vulnerable, that they are routinely coerced into abortion, or that they are in some way less able to know what is good for them, is hugely troubling; as is her clear and profoundly insulting implication that the ‘young Asian girl’ was coerced by family members because of her ethnicity.

This is a narrative that must not be allowed to take root. Sometimes women seeking later abortion are in complex and difficult situations. Sometimes they are vulnerable. But they are as capable of making informed decisions about their lives and knowing their own mind as anyone.

Nadine Dorries must not be allowed to position herself as the champion of marginalised women when her drive to reduce the abortion time limit is in fact a direct attack on their rights.

The contribution to the debate by pro-choice women MPs was, of course, less sensational, focusing as it did on medical evidence. But it was an effective approach. Labour MPs Seema Malhotra, Julie Elliott and Diane Abbott all emphasised the absence of new scientific evidence to support a reduction in the time limit and the comprehensive backing for 24 weeks offered by all the UK’s major medical bodies. On this, anti-choice MPs had no direct response.

The debate closed with health minister Anna Soubry, responding on behalf of the government. Her comments supporting the importance of access to contraception and the empowerment of young people as ways to reduce the rate of unplanned pregnancies were welcome.

But her announcement of the government’s decision to drop its long awaited abortion counselling consultation was the big news of the day, leaving Nadine Dorries furious and claiming personal bias on Soubry’s part (imagine that!) and blowing the time limit publicity machine off course. Whether it will be enough to halt the juggernaut altogether remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that yesterday’s events did not give the anti-choice parliamentary cause much of a boost.

Read more about the anti-choice evidence problem in this post from Ministry of Truth.