How anti-abortionists are upping the ante

ESSAY: Heated debate about abortion is good - but pro-lifers' new tactic of harassing individual women and doctors is cowardly and wrong.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Only two years ago, British abortion clinics, doctors and campaigners would look at the aggressive tactics of ‘antis’ in America – the endless campaigns of intimidation of doctors and clients, the endless legal debates about amendments to state laws designed to restrict women’s access to abortion and make their experience more unpleasant, the continual prominence of the A-word in political and media debates – and recognise that we had things much easier over here.

Under the New Labour government, abortion services were funded and positively promoted. On a cultural level, abortion was pragmatically accepted. In terms of campaigning, the self-styled ‘pro-lifers’ were isolated and viewed with suspicion by the mainstream, even those with strong objections to abortion.

But something has changed. Or rather, a number of things have changed – which may be completely separate, but which have come together to create a distinctly hostile climate for women who seek abortions and the doctors, clinics and healthcare professionals who provide them. Britain has not ‘become America’, on abortion or anything else; but we are seeing the systematic introduction of ideas and tactics that have been tried and tested across the Atlantic.

What this will ultimately mean for abortion law and provision is not yet clear. But already, a ‘chilling effect’ has settled over abortion provision, with disturbing implications for those who support the principles of democracy and reproductive autonomy.

Protesters’ tactics

The most overt attacks on abortion have come from anti-abortion campaigners, who for years have been standing outside clinics with plastic fetuses, rosaries and grisly images. In recent months, however, a notable change has appeared both in the aggression of the protesters and their perceived support. Women attending abortion clinics are routinely stopped and interrogated about their decision, and organisations that provide ‘crisis pregnancy counselling’ as a means to encourage women to think again about their decisions now operate across the country, presenting themselves as neutral services.

This attempt to take anti-abortion persuasion directly to the woman considering abortion is a tactic familiar from the US anti-abortion movement, which in recent decades has preferred not to debate abortion politically, but rather to attempt to influence women’s decisions in more subtle, direct and dishonest ways. ‘Counselling’, in its various guises, has emerged as a significant way of attempting to achieve this aim.
Thus attempts have been made in the USA to ‘inform’ women about abortions through laws that force them to view ultrasound images of their fetuses, or provide them with misleading or downright inaccurate information about the impact of abortion on a woman’s physical or mental health. Such attempts often go under the guise of ‘Right to Know’ laws, which use the language of empowerment to justify what is essentially a project of therapeutic manipulation.

‘Counselling’ strategies have been relatively successful, as they appear kinder, and more oblique, than the overtly aggressive tactics that we also see in the USA, and which in some cases have led to physical violence against abortion doctors and other clinic staff. But it is important to note, first, that there is nothing soft or sympathetic about ‘counselling’ a woman to think of her abortion as murder. It is a thoroughly cowardly tactic that eschews either a genuine engagement with a woman’s own circumstances, or an upfront principled discussion about the morality of abortion.

Counselling tactics are also linked to overt violence in that they share the same atavistic approach to anti-abortion campaigning. If what counts is not winning the argument but stopping that woman from having that abortion, then other forms of persuasion and activity are also logically permissible. This could include physically preventing women from entering clinics, and running smear campaigns about abortion providers, which are designed to intimidate both staff and clients.

Not all of these activities are the same. It is one thing to display grisly images, however upsetting these might be; it is another to lie to purport to run a neutral counselling service that aims to manipulate a woman’s decision; it is yet another to engage in physical violence. The problem with each distinct activity needs to be addressed in its own terms.

But it is also important to recognise that what distinguishes most anti-abortion activity today from political ‘pro-life’ campaigns of the past is their attempts to bypass public arenas of debate and aim to influence directly the emotions and experiences of women seeking abortion.

Political climate

A startling shift in the politics of abortion has been its prominence in political debate – and the form that the debate has taken. A recent example in Britain is the effect of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’ attempt to propose that women seeking abortion be offered ‘independent counselling’ about their decision – instead of, or at least in addition to, the pregnancy options discussion that abortion providers give as a standard part of the abortion consultation. This proposal, which on the face of things is quite boring and anodyne, has sparked off a significant realignment of political thinking about abortion provision and regulation.

Dorries is a well-known opponent of abortion and, in the 2008 debate about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, she campaigned hard to bring the ‘time limit’ for abortion down from 24 weeks’ gestation to 20 weeks’. When she, along with the Labour MP Frank Field, brought her counselling amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill to a parliamentary debate in September 2011, the amendment was successfully exposed as a tactic designed to restrict women’s access to abortion and suffered a spectacular defeat.

Not that you would know that now. For despite this defeat, the Department of Health (DH) quickly set in motion a consultation on abortion counselling, drawn up by a working group that includes Dorries, and which appears to favour a reform of the way abortion counselling is provided. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence that the current situation is problematic – there has never been any suggestion that abortion providers push women into having terminations against their will; not all women who attend an abortion consultation proceed to treatment.

On the face of it, the extent to which the government and the DH have run with the agenda of counselling reform makes little sense. It makes sense only if we understand the impact of the Dorries amendment as a more subtle version of the anti-abortion tactics discussed above, bringing American-style law-changing into a British context, where abortion law and policy is so different. In an immediate giveaway, Dorries named her counselling campaign ‘Right to Know’, and much of her rhetoric has been skilfully borrowed from would-be legislators in the USA.

The broader sympathy for the Dorries amendment seems to come from a coterie of individuals within and around the government who share Dorries’ antipathy to abortion and also promote a version of politics that puts more emphasis on process than parliament. These individuals include public-health minister Anne Milton, who has been positive about the counselling reform proposals from the moment Dorries first mentioned them, and has shown a clear commitment to finding strategies to modify people’s sexual behaviour.

It is also worth name-checking Tim Montgomerie, the influential editor of ConservativeHome, who is a high-profile Evangelical Christian and patron of SPUC Evangelicals, the Christian wing of the anti-abortion campaign group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. The Evangelical agenda – again, as we know from the USA – is very much about employing therapeutic strategies of reaching out to vulnerable people (‘saving souls’ on the street) rather than engaging in theological or political debate. These non-established churches are also clearly linked to many of the energetic ‘crisis pregnancy counselling’ centres that are now operating, and some of the more aggressive anti-abortion campaigners that harangue women outside abortion clinics.

It is interesting that on one hand, there seems to be no desire to have a parliamentary debate about Britain’s abortion law, or to go anyway near the (necessary) question of reforming the outdated 1967 Abortion Act. The New Labour government ducked this question in 2008, and parliamentary reform is hardly top of the Lib-Con coalition’s agenda for today. But on the other hand, there is a clear unwillingness to leave things alone. This has resulted in some concerted attempts to change the way in which the current law is interpreted and abortion is provided.

In this regard, women’s access to abortion could be restricted via reforms of abortion counselling, as discussed above. Access could also be restricted through putting pressure on doctors, professional bodies and lawyers to interpret the 1967 Act in a far more limited way than it has been for the 40 years since it was passed.

The chilling effect

This trajectory became clear at the beginning of March, with a strange, and rather inconclusive, investigation by the Daily Telegraph newspaper into whether women were being granted abortions on the grounds of ‘sex selection’ (answer: generally, they are not). This resulted in the publication of an opinion piece the following day by the Lib-Con health secretary Andrew Lansley about how serious a problem this was, and how the full force of the law would be brought in to deal with it. The day after that, Dorries wrote on ConservativeHome that this showed how the 1967 Act was a ‘badly drafted piece of legislation’ that allowed too many loopholes, and crowed that ‘this is about to change’ and ‘the spotlight is full on abortion practice’.

In all the heat and bluster generated by the Telegraph’s ‘sex-selection’ story, it has become clear that a number of policymakers and professional bodies neither understand Britain’s abortion law, nor are clear about how it has been – and can be – applied. This has immediately resulted in a chilling effect on abortion providers, which are confident about the legality of their own practice but made nervous about whether those who run the country understand why and how it is legal. That is bad news for abortion doctors and their clients, for sure, but it’s really bad news for those who believe in the principles of democratic debate and decision-making.

We know that the 1967 Abortion Act is vulnerable to changes in interpretation, brought about by media campaigns and shifts in political opinion. This was the unfortunate upshot of the 2002 Joanna Jepson campaign, where a curate brought about a police investigation into a case of an abortion carried out after 24 weeks’ gestation on the grounds of fetal anomaly. The law did not change as a result of the Jepson campaign, however, and nobody has been prosecuted.

But those few doctors who are prepared and skilled enough to carry out the small number of abortions that take place after 24 weeks because a fetal anomaly has been detected have been made very nervous about the implications for them if they take the clinical decisions that they are allowed to under the law. This is a serious indictment of a democratic society, which allows doctors to use their judgement about permitting and performing abortions in rare and tragic cases, but then threatens to hound them – and their patients – for making these judgements.

A similar threat now hangs over doctors performing any abortions under the 1967 Act. If parliamentarians want to reform this outdated law, then well and good – for all its pro-choice protestations, the New Labour government did women and doctors a great disservice by refusing to vote on this debate last time parliament had an opportunity. But the law should be debated and reformed democratically, not by stealth.
As for the antis – abortion is an important moral question, and a democratic society benefits from open and impassioned debate about precisely these issues. But a strategy aimed at merely upsetting women seeking abortion and intimidating the doctors who provide them is cowardly and wrong.

Jennie Bristow is is editor of Abortion Review and author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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