If the anti-abortion lobby cared about independent advice it wouldn't seek to dismantle it.
By Ian Dunt Follow @IanDunt
If you really care about the independence of the advice offered to women considering an abortion - and by really care I mean not use it as an excuse to propagandise them - there's a very simple way to do it. You just make the existing guidance binding.
The plan produced by backbenchers Nadine Dorries and Frank Field and backed, in a watered-down form, by the Department of Health achieves quite the opposite. It opens the door to anti-abortion campaigners so they can make an already traumatic event even harder.
The Dorries/Field amendment to the health and social care bill, due to be debated on Monday if Speaker John Bercow gives it the nod, would strip abortion providers such as BPAS and Marie Stopes of their duty to offer women considering an abortion counselling. Instead, the duty would be handed to 'independent agencies' recognised by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. The government, in a bid to buy Dorries off, proposed a consultation on plans for GPs to always offer women considering an abortion independent advice and counselling. The difference is that this would not strip abortion providers of their current role and would require no new legislation.
As things stand, a woman seeking an abortion needs the consent of two GPs. Then, if clinic staff believe she needs additional counselling, that is provided to her. Separately, abortion providers associated with the NHS have a duty to provide counselling to the women who go them. Here's the key fact: that advice falls under the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' (RCOG) guidance, which says it must be impartial, objective and unbiased.
What happens if a woman feels the advice she was given falls below that standard? Not much. It's just guidance. So if you were worried about the independence of the advice being offered to women the obvious solution is to put the RCOG guidance on a statutory footing or hand it to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), so that there's a clearer system of accountability around the counselling process.
Quite why you would want to do that is another matter entirely. There is no record of major complaints against the counselling offered by abortion providers. Instead of being part of the 'conveyor-belt' of abortion, as the hysterical literature of the anti-abortion lobby describes it, this counselling is offered to women who have already chosen to have an abortion. That's why they're with BPAS or Marie Stopes to begin with. The fact that over 20% of them decide against the procedure following the counselling session shows that these organisations are taking their responsibilities seriously and following the RCOG guidelines.
Dorries has argued that allowing the abortion providers to provide the counselling service encourages them to convince women to have abortions, because they are paid by operation. If that's her view, she had better be voting against the government's healthcare reforms, which allow private firms to bid for all sorts of procedures. To suggest that's tolerable while non-profit organisations can't be trusted is extremely problematic. Field says he is motivated by the principle that a service provider should not also be advising on whether to take up the service it is providing. In that case, why isn't he campaigning outside dental surgeries?
Dorries' amendment is a solution to a problem which does not exist. But even if it did, you wouldn't accept her suggestion. The Tory backbencher has argued that neither abortion providers nor anti-abortion activists should be able to provide the counselling service, with only organisations registered with the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) being allowed to provide the service. That sounds like a reasonable middle-of-the-road position.
It isn't. In fact, it is incredibly misleading. Dorries is suggesting that we strip abortion providers of their duty to offer the counselling but simultaneously allow groups like Life and Care Confidential, both avowed anti-abortion organisations registered with BACP, to step in. Counselling is a self-regulated industry. There are no reliable mechanisms for providing accountability. There is no definition of 'independent' counselling. While groups like Care Confidential strive for 'commissionable status', recent Newsnight reports have shown them to be unreconstructed religious groups plastering up their public image in a bid to gain a stronger foothold in the abortion process.
This was never about independent advice, or we wouldn't be talking about gagging one side while freeing up the other. This is about opening the door to religious organisations so they can do their best to discourage an abortion when a woman is at her most vulnerable. Scratch beneath the surface and this is cynical, misleading, sleight-of-hand politics at its worst.
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