Monday, 29 August 2011

The government's war on women's wombs

I try to avoid writing about Nadine Dorries. I am loathe to give her the oxygen of publicity she so clearly craves, and that helps thrust her into the spotlight so that her marginal and ill-informed views are given a platform that allows them to be taken seriously.

But clearly, today, we need to be writing about what the Telegraph called on its Sunday front page the ‘biggest shake-up’ in abortion regulations for a generation.

I don’t think any of us really believed that the government would take Dorries’ and (Labour) Frank Field’s ridiculous proposal to prevent abortion and pregnancy experts offering women counselling when they’re seeking a termination seriously. But then, this is the government who thought it could be a smart move to offer Life a space on their pregnancy and sexual health advisory board, instead of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. You know, Life. The charity that thinks condoms don’t prevent the spread of STDs.

A bit of background. Ultimately, Dorries is an anti-choice campaigner who, despite couching her rhetoric in anti-sexualisation and ‘caring’ terminology, wants to eventually restrict a woman’s right to bodily autonomy when it comes to ending or continuing a pregnancy. Over the years, she has taken many different approaches. She campaigned to reduce the upper time-limit of abortion from 24 to 20 weeks, a vote that was defeated in parliament in 2008. She has put forward a motion asking for girls (and only girls) to receive abstinence education in schools. She calls this ‘empowering girls to say no’. We call it, ‘removing vital sex education that informs girls about contraception and safety’. And now she has proposed that ‘abortion providers’ such as Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service be prevented from offering women counselling when seeking an abortion. Instead, ‘independent’ counselling will be offered – which of course allows anti choice charities and campaigners the chance to step in and offer biased (and often unscientific) advice.

And it is this latter policy that the government are considering adopting.

Dorries defends this idea on the basis that Marie Stopes and the BPAS offer ‘biased’ counselling, encouraging women to have an abortion because, as the abortion providers, they gain (financially) from providing as many abortions as possible. This is such a stupid and ludicrous thing to insinuate that it is mind boggling that the government are even taking it seriously (especially considering the Tory dedication to privatising health care). The idea that either group actively encourage women to have an abortion in order to get money is so offensive and so far off the mark as to feel almost libellous (I’m not a lawyer and am not actually accusing Dorries of libel – figure of speech). By that logic, all healthcare (especially private) could be accused of the same thing.

And, of course, the groups that Dorries wants to see take on the role of counselling have a vested interest in persuading the woman they speak to not to have an abortion. Their interest may not be financial but it is ideological. They want to see an end to abortion, and so it is likely that they will take a counselling angle that seeks to persuade the woman to not have a termination. If you don’t believe this, then take a look at this little number. Anti-choice campaigners believe that the proposed changes to counselling provision will reduce the number of abortions in the UK by 60,000. This change is not about offering independent, unbiased advice that will give women a choice between having a termination or continuing with her pregnancy. This is about silencing the voice that offers women that choice.

Dorries’ approach to abortion is wholly unscientific. She is a firm believer in the completely made-up condition ‘post-abortion syndrome’. This so-called syndrome is based on the idea that after an abortion, a woman is traumatised and depressed. Of course, some women are. Some women do feel pain and sorrow after an abortion and they need support and to be listened to. But what those women don’t need is people telling them that they feel depressed because they were wrong to terminate their pregnancy. What those women don’t need is unscientific rhetoric from the film ‘The Silent Scream’. It’s so illogical, and indeed harmful, to punish and demonise the women you are supposed to be helping.

Just as there are women who feel depressed after an abortion, there are women who feel relieved. And this needs to be spoken about more. I have so much respect for writers such as Caitlin Moran and Zoe Williams who have written honestly about this side of abortion. According to the way our culture talks about pregnancy and abortion, women are ‘supposed’ to feel traumatised and sorrow after a termination. And so the relief, the feeling of getting your life back on track, the feeling that you made the right decision is silenced and hidden. But this silence allows anti-choicers the space to fill the debate with nonsense about post-abortion syndrome and how women always and only regret the decision to end a pregnancy.

I have never had an abortion. I put this in because I want you to understand that I do not know how I would feel after a termination – whether I would feel relief or sadness or something completely different. But if I ever find myself pregnant and not wanting to be, I want to know that I can speak to people who will listen to me, unbiased, and give me the medical advice I need. I want to know that I won’t have to listen to a twisted morality-based rhetoric about how a woman is supposed to feel. I want to know that I will be listened to, and that my choice over my body would be respected.

Dorries and her gang are trying to take that away from women, to replace it with counselling that does not respect a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

Despite her earlier efforts to reduce the upper time limit, Dorries’ proposals to offer counselling, and her plans to create a ‘cooling-off’ period for women making the decision actually creates a delay for women having an abortion. To me, this clearly shows that she doesn’t really care about reducing the time limit, but instead wants to stop abortion all together. It also shows that she doesn't respect or acknowledge a woman's ability to make a decision about her body. It's infantilizing and it creates more problems by pushing back the date of the termination.

Finally, it is important to remember that when anti-choicers talk about reducing the number of abortions by 60,000, that they don’t care about what happens to those 60,000 babies. Dorries isn’t campaigning for an increase in child benefits. She isn’t campaigning for more support for single parents, or for better childcare for working families. Anti-choicers aren’t demanding the re-instatement of the health in pregnancy grant, or for greater flexibility of parental leave. They aren’t calling for more maternity wards to be opened with better facilities, and despite their obsession with post-abortion syndrome, they’re not researching how to tackle post-natal depression. They don’t care about women and they don’t care about children. They care about restricting women’s freedoms and denying women one of our key human rights – the right to bodily autonomy.

What can you do?

Email your MP to ask that they don't restrict a woman's right to choose: - it takes two minutes with the template letter.

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