When counselling is anything but

First of all, full disclosure: I’ve never had an abortion, or had to consider it.

But I wanted to tell you a story that I think is relevant to the current debate surrounding Nadine Dorries’ proposed amendment to the Health & Social Care Bill.

Ten years ago I was a teacher, working in an girls’ school. As part of the school’s obligation to provide a moral and religious education, the school organised an afternoon focusing on abortion for the sixth formers. We were told that this would be an opportunity for the students to explore and debate the ethical issues around abortion, and as a sixth form tutor I was obliged to take part.

On the day, it turned out that the head of sixth form had only managed to book a Christian abortion counselling organisation. It had, apparently, been impossible to find a pro-choice group. We sat through an hour’s lecture on the evils of abortion, presented in the most lurid and biased terms possible. The speaker focused solely on very late-term abortions. I remember seeing a photo of a foetus having its spinal column severed by a surgeon. It was, deliberately, hugely disturbing, and completely lacked any context regarding how rarely this sort of procedure takes place, and the benefits that some women may find in ending a pregnancy.

At one point, one of my students ran out of the room in tears. It was known among some of the staff that she’d recently had a termination herself. At the end of the talk, the speaker told the students that her organisation provided free counselling for women considering abortion, or who had already had one. Anyone was welcome to access their services. As I took my group away, I noticed people from the anti-abortion organisation gathering around to comfort the girl who ran out.

On the face of it, the amendment to the Health & Social Care Bill sounds perfectly innocuous – providing counselling for women considering abortion, and ensuring that they don’t come under any pressure to undergo an abortion they’re unsure about.

No-one could argue that women shouldn’t be offered support. No-one could argue that abortion is a decision to be taken lightly. But it’s vital that any counselling received is unbiased. Effective talking therapies rely on an absolute bond of trust between the client and the therapist – in particular, the client needs to feel free to express every element of their opinion and thought process. I don’t believe that this is possible if you already know what your therapist – strongly – believes.

It would be brilliant if David Cameron announced funding for self-referring, walk-in, value-neutral counselling for any woman who needed it. In the landscape of cuts, though, it’s hard to imagine this happening. Instead, vulnerable women may be forced to use services provided by biased, proselytising organisations whose express intention is to prevent abortion.

A fascinating and furious debate took place in my classroom after the talk. Quite contrary to my fears, my students saw straight through the excessive manipulation they’d endured, and led their own, far more moderate debate on abortion. Not everyone thought it was a good thing, but both sides of the debate were united in their disgust at being spoken to like children. I was proud of them. But the sight of that girl in the folds of the anti-abortion counsellors still snags in my throat. She deserved much better therapy than that.


13 thoughts on “When counselling is anything but

  1. YES YES YES. You have phrased my thoughts so perfectly. I have tried to present this argument to pro-choice women and have been accused of “oppressing” women because I don’t believe in abortion as birth control when people just haven’t bothered to be safe with the Pill or condoms or what-have-you.

    It just seems like common sense to me that we should take responsibility for our sex/bodies and avoid the possibility of abortion altogether (as much as possible–of course rape and abuse/health causes are exceptions).

  2. Pingback: To Dorries, from Quiet Riot Girl « Dear Nadine Dorries

  3. I am pro abortion but I don’t agree with the 24 week rule – I think it should be considerably reduced (with exceptions). There are understandable reasons for choosing to abort a pregnancy, some of which are mentioned in other posts, and would include rape, abuse, foetal viability and maternal health, to mention a few. As women we have a vested interest in ensuring we are taking ownership of our sexual health and our bodies in general and if we empower ourselves by taking these responsibilities seriously we are probably not going to find ourselves in the position where we need to consider having an abortion.

  4. Thanks for such great comments. I just wanted to say that I’m heading off on holiday for a week, so apologies to anyone else who wants to comment & whose words are put on hold until I get back.

  5. When looking to find a clinic and explanations of the procedures I was going to go through, I googled abortion and the number of weeks I was at. The results were horrifying.
    I don’t think it’s possible to avoid the guilt trip and fears… Most women are smart enough to not by it, those who are not might benefit from counselling. It’s not about making the right or wrong decision, rather being confident about that decision (whatever it might turn out to be).

  6. Hi Anna

    I am not talking about individual feminists. I am talking about the propaganda around rape and domestic violence and sex work. I am not including the abortion counselling in this, not because there are not some worrying issues, but because it is too much of a hot topic at the moment. And I don’t want to get involved in the ‘debate’.

    But I do know something about rape crisis centres and feminist dogma around rape, and domestic violence, and how women are always placed as the ‘victims’ and men as the ‘perpetrators’. And there are very few services for men, either as ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’ of gender violence. The whole system is backed up by feminist politics. I CAN blame the ideology and I do!

  7. What kind of things do you imagine they say in these centres that is so biased and awful? And by the way, the ‘feminist’ agenda is and has always been to help women, whether in achieving equality or just by raising women’s issues wherever possible. I don’t see an issue with feminists working with vulnerable women when all they will tell them is things they need to hear – ‘it wasn’t your fault, we can help you, what you do is your decision’. Having a pro-life group talk about abortion is different because, as this article and many others show, they flat-out LIE and their agenda is to shame women into not having abortions. The agenda of pro-choice campaigners and feminists is to help women, and if what they are doing is coercive or unethical, or if their ‘feminist bias’ makes them coercive or unethical, then what they are doing isn’t helping women and is based on something other than feminism.

    You can say ‘but I’ve heard feminists say…’ to argue against me, but you can’t blame that ideology for what some people do with it.

  8. The issue for me is the one you outlined – I don’t want factually inaccurate scaremongering used on women.

  9. I think you explain it very well – you needed actual support & respect, not an overblown political debate. People’s needs are getting lost in all of this, because we feel under pressure to be simply ‘pro’ or ‘anti’

  10. You’re right – we see others’ views as biased and never our own. Proper, effective counselling has to be completely value-free or else otherwise we’re all vulnerable to ‘pleasing teacher’.

  11. Very interesting post..! I’ve had an abortion, and I didn’t ask for counseling because I was sure of my decision and I also thought it would be inappropriate to have counseling from an abortion clinic about abortion.

    Now that it’s all over I think it could have helped to know what I was about to go through emotionally. There’s more to it than the debate of whether it’s ok or not, but also how to cope, what to expect. It’s hard to explain..

  12. and I will add that I value being able to make that point, here, where you have made a space that is quite open and reasonable about women, bodies and sex.

    If I were to say what I just did on a feminist’s blog, including Stavvers’ – I’d get called a troll and worse. Stavvers calls me a ‘troll’ herself. Because I dare to disagree with her.

    This ‘debate’ is not in any way rational or unbiased or fair to women or men, on either side.

  13. great post betty you make very good points.

    I’d add that some ‘counselling’ and support services for women such as women who have suffered domestic violence, rape or the overblown problem in the UK of ‘sex trafficking’ – have been run by feminists with a very strong agenda.

    I dread to think some of the things that are said to vulnerable women in rape crisis centres.

    So my worry with this debate is that the pro-choice side, whilst I agree with them in principle, are not being completely honest. They do not mind ‘biased’ services for women when those services suit their world view.

    In my biased opinion!

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