If it ain’t broke…

…don't fix it.

That's what pro-choice supporters have been saying about this week's misbegotten and disingenuous attempts by Nadine Dorries, Frank Field and others to restrict access to abortion under the spurious guise of 'ensuring independent abortion counselling' and 'protecting vulnerable women'.

In the 140-character world where so much of the superficial discussion of these issues takes place, I have said it too. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" – meaning 'leave our hard-won abortion rights alone'. Or, to paraphrase Suzanne Moore in her outstanding Guardian piece: "Keep your rosaries off our ovaries". (Full article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/abortion-counselling)

But is it true to say that our arrangements for abortion "ain't broke"?

Released from tweet-length sound-bites, it turns out I've got quite a few things I'd like to see fixed. Here's some ways in which I think UK abortion policy could be improved.

1) Abortion policy should be the same everywhere in the UK.

The situation for the women of Northern Ireland should not be ignored in this debate. There, abortion can be legally provided only if the mother's life is in danger, or a mother's physical or mental health are likely to be severely impaired. Access to abortion should be made better, easier and safer for women everywhere. A good starting point would be to bring policy and practice in Northern Ireland to the same position as the rest of the UK.

2) There should be no requirement for the signature of two GPs before a woman can have an abortion.

Women should be treated as competent, independent decision-makers who know their own mind. Many women know as soon as they discover that they are pregnant that they do not want this baby. Many women will have already taken a number of steps to try to ensure they do not become pregnant. When these fail – as sometimes happens – it is simply bizarre to think that two other people should also need to be persuaded that abortion is the right next step before a woman can obtain one.

3) Abortion should be available to any woman on request, without her having to justify her reasons to anyone.

Unreadiness to parent is a good reason to want an abortion and should be treated as such. Abortions for what are derided as 'social reasons', or 'lifestyle choices' should not be disparaged. These 'social reasons' may include poverty or an unstable or unsafe relationship. These situations can be overcome, but no-one could argue that they are good conditions in which to bear and raise a child. 'Lifestyle choices' may be made by women who are currently focussing on study or a career rather than parenthood. A woman may choose to re-prioritise her life if she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, but she shouldn't have to. It is better for children to be much-wanted and born to parents who are ready for the challenges ahead. Critical voices will say: 'if she didn't want to have a baby, she shouldn't have let herself get pregnant / shouldn't have had sex". Well, maybe not. But once we've finished moralising and finger-wagging over a woman who was – for the sake of argument – too drunk to remember contraception in the heat of the moment, maybe we'll recognise that doesn't bode well for the 18+ years of responsibility-taking that comes with bringing a baby into the world. I'm not going to judge – I've chased down the morning-after-pill while carrying the hangover of a potent booze'n'hormone cocktail too.

4) The NHS should be funded to ensure that any woman who wants an abortion can have one, free of charge, within a fortnight of requesting one.

For women who want an abortion, early abortion should be encouraged and facilitated. At every gestational age abortion is safer than continuing a pregnancy. But the earlier an abortion takes place the lower the physical and psychological risk of the procedure. This means that nothing – and certainly not a requirement for 'counselling' that implies women don't know their own mind – should delay access to abortion when a woman has decided that she wants one. Clinical practice must continue to include providing comprehensive information to enable women to give informed consent to the abortion, as is the case for every other medical procedure.

5) Unbiased counselling and support for women should be available at their request.

Women know when they feel ambivalent or equivocal about continuing a pregnancy. If a woman needs more support when making up her mind – perhaps because she has to balance a pregnancy with a risk to her health; perhaps because she needs to decide if she has the capacity to parent a baby who will be born with challenging disabilities or may not live for long – it should be available to her.  She should be able to use the counselling and support confidently, knowing that the organisation that provides it is committed to helping her to make her own decision, and is not trying to make that decision for her. To be an unbiased counsellor in these circumstances is not to be 'neutral'. The counsellor must be firmly, unequivocally on the woman's side, whichever side that is, as she makes her difficult choice. (Susie Orbach makes this point well here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/03/abortion-services-selling-soap-powder)

6) Women having an abortion (and abortion providers) must be protected from harassment.

Anti-choice campaigners are entitled to their opinions, and – of course – to live their own lives in accordance with their beliefs, but they are not entitled to make misery in the lives of people they disagree with. Anti-choice campaigners should not be allowed to gather at abortion clinics, and other places where abortions are carried out, for the purpose of harassing women who are having an abortion. Threats and harassment against abortion providers should be taken seriously and pursued through the criminal justice system where a crime is committed. Civil (anti-harassment) injunctions should be used, as a matter of course, to enable women to exercise their legal right to abortion without having to be vilified and humiliated for doing so.  

Would I describe current abortion policy in the UK as 'broke'? No. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. I would start with those six improvements and then ask: "What next?"

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3 thoughts on “If it ain’t broke…

  1. Wow, more than 140 characters to express myself. Such luxury.My feeling is that when it comes to a topic like abortion, we should always be looking for ways to improve the system. It is an emotive subject, and I think it is important that all views are taken into account – even if they are ultimately dismissed.A big problem I have is the moral absolutism that the opposing sides take; moral absolutes are extremely rare, and when one takes a position of "I know I am right", it is very hard to have meaningful or useful discourse.I am not sure that clinic offering abortions are the most appropriate agency to offer pre-abortion counselling; it strikes me as a conflict of interest. However, I am sure that when we hear that changing this procedure will lead to a massive decrease in abortions, well, that tells you all you need to about those suggesting it.I have had inner battles about abortion; I have moral discomfort with the concept of terminating so many pregnancies. However, who am I to try and question the motives of an individual? I am allowed to have this discomfort – I cannot help how I feel, and I have thought long and hard about it, but should this arbitrary discomfort mean I have the right to tell people what to do?Of course not. And those who do, well, they disgust me.I would love to see the abortion rate drop – but this should be done with education, and encouraging responsibility and accountability – not with emotional blackmail and ridiculous religious mores.It may not be broken, but that does not me it cannot be better.

  2. I completely agree with all your points. I think Dorrie is completely misguided and all her proposals will do is make later term terminations more prevalent than they are now.I do agree with a system of counselling that is done in an independent woman-centred manner, that is available on request in a timely manner, and I think there should be more support for women who are facing an unplanned pregnancy.I think abortion should be taken out of the shadows. It should be a completely public, swift procedure and not in the hands of private clinics. I do hope that Dorrie’s ammendment does not pass, but does provoke a frank and open discussion about abortion.

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