It was inevitable, really. With one of the biggest restructurings of the NHS of the past few decades working its way through Parliament, two MPs, Nadine Dorries and Frank Fields, have put forward an amendment to abortion law that, on its face, doesn’t look bad: women seeking a termination would, under the amendment, have to seek “independent counselling” before going through with the procedure. This, of course, is very dangerous to abortion rights in the UK, as anyone who has thought about this for more than ten seconds would realise.
The Right, over the past twenty years, have realised that a legislative ban on abortion would be incredibly unpopular;indeed, according to YouGov, the current amendment is opposed 40%-24%, and only 29% of the population believe that abortion access is too lenient, as opposed to 51% who believe it’s just right or too strict. The catalyst for this was probably the very famous Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which affirmed a woman’s right to abortion. And with the Right in America made to look impotent on this regard, the Right in Europe was similarly emasculated. But with conservative politics becoming all the rage these days, the Right have finally found their foothold into reducing access to abortion.
Dorries’ first piece of ammunition is the supposed link between abortion and mental health. This makes abortion restrictions a matter of protective policy, as the argument goes. But like the link to breast cancer, this too has been debunked as cherrypicking data to fit political viewpoints: a practice which, as Bad Science readers will know, is widespread on both sides of the aisle.
So then Dorries makes overtures about abortion as an industry. Of course, this is complete bollocks. As a publicly-owned service, the NHS is not in any need to abort babies to make a profit. This is more obviously a tactic borrowed from the U.S. Before the ink on Roe v. Wade was dry, the Right immediately acted to try and restrict abortion without banning it. This was at the forefront of healthcare debate in America last year: no taxpayer money used to fund abortions. Leaving aside the fact that taxpayer money may be used to fund activities that others may find morally repugnant (the War in Iraq and support of Israel being two major ones), it’s not even a moral stand. The rich can easily skip over the border to Canada, or, in our case, the continent, to pay for abortions out-of-pocket, the poor are left even poorer by either paying a premium for abortion (because no federally-assisted insurance package can cover abortion) or by raising a child for eighteen to twenty-one years.
Never was this more apparent when funding to Planned Parenthood, a non-profit reproductive health provider, was under threat because they spend money on abortion: an entire three percent. This is the most overt example of making the poor poorer; as abortion services are restricted, so are STI screens, contraceptives, cancer screens, and other womens’ health services (which, between them, accounts for 95% of PP’s services). Clinics are under threat. The eminent American liberal blog Daily Kos even went as far to call it a “war on women“. It may not be that far from the truth; with the religious tinge that American conservative politics has, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say a large amount of the movement believes that if a woman gets pregnant, then it’s her own fault, even if she was raped. Including one recent vice-presidential candidate. You know which one.
It’s very important to note what is meant by independent counselling. While Dorries claims that religious organisations would not be allowed to intervene, it’s almost certain that most of the independent counsellors would be anti-abortion. Why would an anti-abortion group seek, or be granted, NHS funding? And likewise, charities such as Marie Stopes are only not “independent” because the NHS has recognised their aid in reproductive health. The tactic of “opening your mind” is well-known to those preaching views counter to the mainstream. Conspiracy theorists most often use the tactic, but the most infamous user of the term is Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly, who claims that you are close-minded if you use basic physical laws to verify that gravity is an inversely proportional to the square of the distance. As Aristotle said, the mark of a true open mind is one that can entertain an idea without holding it.
Even so, it wouldn’t be too long until conservative politicians started crafting “informed consent” restrictions. It’s a particularly odious form of anti-abortion rhetoric that is very similar to (and overlaps with) the health concerns as mentioned above, with a twist of claiming that the consent gives more choice to a woman. By insistently using the term baby instead of the more correct fetus, by requiring ultrasounds of the fetus before termination, all this implies that abortion is an act of murder. It also seeks to hide the fact that a fetus necessarily must live in gestation, consuming the mother’s resources, for at least twenty to thirty weeks before it can be born. I wouldn’t go as far as to use the term parasite, but the implication is the same: these acts seek to deligitimise a woman’s right to her own body.
And finally, and this is more of a footnote than anything, politics should not be in a position to disregard scientific evidence and science in general. But, sadly, it’s hard to find a decent politican who believes in evidence-based policy, as it’s not politically expedient. Over time, evidence on climate change, evolution, abortion, drugs, security, and civil liberties has been actively thrown away in favour of the “gut feeling”; a prospective presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman, lost support within the Republican Party because he agreed on scientific consensus on climate change and evolution. Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary, famously sacked David Nutt because he dared to speak the scientific line rather than the policy line. And for anyone who’s flown in the past ten years, airport security lags behind actual terrorist tactics to the point it’s not even funny; when was the last time someone put a bomb in his shoe, airside or not?
This story has a happy ending. After realising that her plans were unpopular, Dorries has decided to blame Nick Clegg. Unlike a lot of things over the past seventeen months, this may have some truth; Evan Harris, one of the Lib Dems’ best MPs (before he sadly lost his seat last May), asked Nick Clegg to discuss the amendment with Cameron. Coupled with a supposed Lords rebellion to a Health Bill with the amendment, the hope of the it passing is close to zero. But this too betrays a salient fact: not even Conservative MPs are happy with reducing abortion access more than necessary. More Tories voted against a bill to reduce the abortion limit to sixteen weeks than for it, a move which would’ve still allowed over 90% of abortions possible now to go ahead. And even for the limit of 22 weeks, on the cusp of scientific consensus on a suitable limit, 80% of Labour MPs and 60% of Lib Dem MPs voted No. Even on a free vote, Dorries won’t win. But we must keep vigilant, because if more American conservatism makes its way eastwards, it could be disasterous for the vast majority of us.