One of my very first acts of political activism was as a young student in 1979, when I joined a march of women in Edinburgh against John Corrie MP’s attempt via a private member’s bill to reduce the time limit on abortion from 28 to 20 weeks.
I’d thought the world had changed a lot since then in terms of women’s reproductive and sexual choices. But this parliament has seen some astonishing attacks on women’s autonomy over their bodies.
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has been leading the charge, first with her Ten-Minute Rule bill to require schools to teach abstinence to teenage girls (not , note, to teenage boys), a bill that secured a majority allowing it to go forward for second reading. To follow that, now she’s tabled amendments to the Health and Social Care bill that would signficantly reduce the ability of organisations which carry out abortions to offer counselling and advice.
Dorries needs to take a careful look at the evidence. Abstinence campaigns don’t work. Education and information are the best means of reducing teenage pregnancy – that approach secured the reductions in teenage conception rates achieved under Labour. In the US, by contrast, a federally-supported, 10-year evaluation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programmes found that these programmes had no impact on youth remaining abstinent, age at first intercourse, number of sexual partners, or condom use.
As to restricting provision of advice on abortion, this will shut out some of the most expert organisations, those with a long track record of supporting women, offering high standards of care, and who absolutely don’t come with an agenda to force a woman to have an abortion. 20% of those receiving abortion counselling from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which also carries out abortions, choose not to do so. The support they receive from BPAS helps them to make their own decision. But, crucially, if a woman who’s been advised by such organisations does decide that abortion is the right choice for her to make, she can be confident she’ll have been given full information to make that decision, and will receive the best standards of care.
Dorries is not a lone voice however. I do understand that some of my parliamentary colleagues – and of course some women and men around the country – have deep-rooted ethical and moral objections to abortion. They are of course completely entitled to hold those strong personal views. But personal morality should not be imposed on others outside of the legitimate political process. What’s also deeply worrying therefore is that the government itself is surreptitiously advancing the Dorries agenda – without any real public or parliamentary debate.
First ministers threw BPAS off the sexual health advisory committee – while retaining a place for Life – sauce for the goose but not for the gander which they tried to brush aside. Now we learn that the government is also quietly looking at whether regulations on abortion advice can be changed while avoiding the need for Dorries’ amendments actually having to be debated during the passage of the Health and Social Care bill.
Women do not take a decision to terminate a pregnancy lightly, but when making that decision, they desperately need to know where to turn for advice. In what can be a time of excruciating anxiety, early access to support is vital, and the confidence that advice will be non-judgemental and impartial is essential to give women confidence to seek support. If access to the agencies who can provide high-quality information, advice and care is restricted, we will inevitably see more women desperate but unsure where to turn, bearing children they are ill-prepared or unable to look after, or disappearing into the backstreets. And the most vulnerable, the youngest, poorest and least-well educated women will be those who are at greatest risk.
So thirty two years after I first took to the streets, I’m shocked and distressed to find myself having to return to the fight. Women, and men, who want to halt yet another of this government’s repeated attacks on women’s autonomy must not let these proposals go unchecked.