Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, with the help of former Labour minister Frank Field, has tabled an amendment to the upcoming Health and Social Care Bill that aims to introduce new counselling requirements for women seeking abortions, a move which not only disregards counselling arrangements currently in place, but which would create further delays and obstacles for women seeking abortion care.
Anti-choice activists have been focusing on the issue of abortion counselling and the need for new ‘Informed Consent’ legislation for some time, on the erroneous basis that full information about the physical and mental risks associated with abortion is currently being deliberately withheld from women seeking the procedure.
Its proponents claim that abortion providers cannot be trusted to offer appropriate counselling to women seeking abortion as they have a ‘vested financial interest’ in the procedure going ahead, and that many women with unplanned pregnancies ‘currently receive little or no counselling’.
Abortion is already thoroughly regulated in the UK, and like any medical procedure, requires the informed consent of the patient before it can be carried out. Healthcare providers are legally obliged to provide the patient with all necessary information.
The fact that independent-sector providers such as BPAS are licensed by the Department of Health to carry out abortions under NHS contract confirms their adherence to medical and governmental regulations. Indeed, approximately 20% of women seeking abortions at BPAS clinics decide not to proceed with a termination following the counselling they receive.
Aside from the fact that we trust private health care providers in other areas of medicine to offer unbiased and accurate information to patients, even though they may have a financial interest in providing treatment, it should be remembered that abortion providers such as Marie Stopes and BPAS are registered charities, they are not for-profit organisations.
The introduction of ‘Informed Consent’ legislation paves the way for anti-choice pregnancy counselling services or ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centres’ to become involved in providing support to women seeking advice around unplanned pregnancy. Such organisations market themselves as offering ‘unbiased information’ on pregnancy options, often offering pregnancy tests and ultrasound screening, but do not disclose their ideological opposition to abortion. Their sole aim is to dissuade women from having terminations, via the provision of grossly inaccurate and misleading information on the physical and mental after-effects of the procedure.
As we have reported, the introduction of ‘mandatory counselling’ requirements in the United States has resulted in women seeking abortions being subjected to just such inaccurate and burdensome ‘advice’.
Mainstream medical opinion is united in its agreement that, when carried out in a legal setting where sterile facilities are available, abortion is a safe procedure carrying a low risk of complications, as documented by the revised guidelines on the issue recently published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). Its review of evidence around the mental health impact of abortion finds that “the great majority of women who have abortions do not experience adverse psychological [consequences]”.
Anti-abortion activists not only choose to disregard these recommendations, but now seek to discredit the RCOG, casting doubt on its impartiality by claiming it has an absurdly liberal agenda and ‘incestuous’ ties to the ‘abortion industry’. Dorries and Field have therefore tabled a second amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill seeking to remove responsibility for abortion guidelines from the RCOG altogether.
While we must call anti-abortion activists to account for their disregard of medical evidence and ignorance of abortion practice as it currently stands, we can be somewhat reassured that on this occasion their proposals have little chance of progressing through Parliament and becoming law.
But we must remain in no doubt that, for all their protestations that they are ‘pro-woman’ and simply seeking to stand up for the rights of the ‘vulnerable and bewildered’, their true aim is to deter, delay and prevent women from accessing abortion when they choose to do so.