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.