Downing Street caves in over abortion amendment

By Ian Dunt

Downing Street moved decisively against an amendment which would change the system of counselling around abortion today.

The change of tack came after several days of controversy over the amendment to the health and social care bill tabled by backbenchers Nadine Dorries and Frank Field.

The amendment would strip abortion service providers of their duty to provide counselling to women going to them for the procedure and hand it to 'independent' providers.

Critics say that many of these providers would be anti-abortion or religious groups.

Comment: The secret behind the anti-abortion lobby's latest trick

Downing Street said David Cameron "cannot support" the amendment and that Tory MPs will be advised to vote against the amendment if it comes to a vote next week.

That development does not guarantee that the amendment will not pass, however. The new intake of Tory MPs are socially conservative and highly unpredictable. Analysts also believe several religious Labour MPs could support the proposal.

Shadow equalities minister Yvette Cooper commented: "There is now complete confusion and chaos in government on abortion. This is what happens when David Cameron pursues short term headlines without thinking the issues through. 

“Ministers made the mistake of pandering to prejudice rather than following the evidence, and it is deeply worrying to women that they could have been so careless in their approach." 

Liberal Democrat ministers were incensed to discover that the Department of Health had effectively tried to buy off Ms Dorries over the weekend, by proposing a consultation on allowing all women seeking abortions independent counselling.

The move was a significant watering down of Ms Dorries' plans, because it would not have stripped providers of their role. But the message that independent counselling was a certainty served to irritate Lib Dems, who felt the government was rallying behind Ms Dorries.

Senior Tory figures, including Mr Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague, have previously voted to lower the time limit on abortions.

Downing Street's actions will be interpreted as another humiliation for health secretary Andrew Lansley, whose department is seen as having mishandled the issue.