Saturday, 26 March 2011

Inevitably, rights need to be defended

Well, it was obvious this was coming sometime during this Parliament. The Telegraph reports that amendments to further restrict access to abortion will be tabled to the Health and Social Care Bill by MPs including Nadine Dorries MP (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire) and Frank Field MP (Labour, Birkenhead).

[trigger warning]

The amendments haven't yet been filed, but the Telegraph reports that the first will:

[...] create a new precondition for any women having an abortion to receive advice and counselling from an organisation that does not itself carry out terminations.

...and the second will transfer responsibility for setting clinical guidance for abortions to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (away from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists).

The second appears to be more symbolic than anything else, at an initial glance: they don't like the recommendations that the RCOG is likely to produce, so they'll give the job to someone else less specialised. Given that two doctors are required to agree for an abortion to happen - one or two more than any other medical treatment - this may cause problems with finding doctors if the guidelines NIHCE comes up with are significantly more anti-abortion than the ones RCOG would have written, but there will still be plenty of doctors who believe that forcing someone to go through with an unwanted and/or dangerous pregnancy is sufficiently harmful in its own right.

The first comes right out of the USA anti-choice book, though. It's full of typical anti-choice assumptions:

  • People in possession of a uterus automatically lose all their critical thinking skills and therefore, by force of law, must be required to be take advice and counselling whether they want or need it or not. No-one ever thinks about whether or not they should have an abortion before they walk into their GP's office.

    Unsurprisingly, this isn't applied to most other life decisions. Perhaps, given that - according to Science! - 99.81% of decisions on who to heterosexually marry are non-optimal, there should be mandatory advice and counselling for anyone wanting to get married. Religious organisations would not be allowed to provide this advice, since that would be a conflict of interest.

  • The pro-choice side want to maximise the number of abortions performed. Therefore it's a major conflict of interest for advice to be provided by an organisation (such as the NHS) which also provides abortions.

    Claire Murphy of BPAS is quoted in the Telegraph article for the obvious reality:

    On average, 20 per cent of women who approach BPAS initially seeking an abortion eventually chose not to have a termination, [Murphy] said.

    “The bottom line is that like any other medical procedure, women have to consent before they receive abortion treatment,” she said. “We have no interest in pushing women into procedures they do not want. We are about giving women choices.”

  • Reducing the number of abortions, in and of itself, would be a social good. The means taken to do this are irrelevant.

    The social problems resulting from a vast increase in the number of unwanted children - it's not as if our foster care and adoption services are keeping up with demand as it is; the health problems caused by carrying on with unwanted or dangerous pregnancies; the problems caused for families who neither want nor can cope with an extra child - all quietly ignored.

It's unfortunate, because there are several largely uncontroversially good actions which could be taken, one side effect of which would be to reduce the number of abortions. "Cheating" and just making abortions illegal or harder to get1 doesn't have the same effect.

For instance:

  • Researching - and not restricted to one form of reproductive anatomy, either - cheap, fully reliable contraception without side effects or the possibility of sabotage, and making this widely advertised and available to everyone in the country.
  • Significantly increasing the level and range of support available to parents - especially those without much money, and those with disabilities, and single parents, and everyone else who differs from society's default parenting model.
  • Major improvements in the coverage and availability of sex education for children - and, indeed, if we don't want to take most of a century to catch up, for adults too - especially on coercion issues (which often include coercion over contraception). Dismantling as much of rape culture as possible would help.
  • Far more efficiency and effectiveness in dealing with domestic violence and rape.

All of these would - as a side effect - reduce the number of abortions that were needed annually, either by making it less likely that people would become pregnant unexpectely, or by making it more likely that people who became pregnant would be able to support a child for the following decades.

Of course, helping people is not really what these MPs go in for (both are well to the right of their party as a whole) - far easier to punish them for not doing exactly what those MPs would have done.

Aside on Parliamentary Procedure

Votes concerning abortion in the Commons are generally "free" or "conscience" votes on which none of the parties take a particular line. As far as I can tell, none of the major parties currently represented in the Commons have any official policy on abortion.

In practice, most Labour MPs will vote against restrictions, most Conservative MPs and most Northern Ireland MPs will vote for restrictions, and the Lib Dems will split roughly equally on both sides. When there was a Labour majority in the Commons, this wasn't too bad. At the moment, however, the odds are not good (though, with around a third of MPs being new, they may be better than it looks).

It's not clear yet whether the amendments will be submitted at committee stage, report stage, or for third reading, which affects who will be able to vote on them.


1 In Northern Ireland, abortion is almost entirely illegal. Middle-class people who are pregnant there can quietly get on a ferry to Great Britain, have an abortion, and return home. Poorer people need to rely on the services of groups like the Abortion Support Network to cover their travel costs, hotel bills, and so on. (ASN is always in need of donations to cover its costs, if you have some spare cash)

Quite a few of the suggested restrictions are heavily class-based. Outlawing abortion entirely would cause too much opposition from the middle-classes and their swing votes. Restricting it won't inconvenience them too much and "who cares about poor people anyway?".