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31 March 2012

‘Abortion industry’: A slur on the women who support their choice

Clare Murphy, BPAS Director of External Affairs, discusses the impact that campaigners' vilification of abortion providers is having on women inside the clinics.

When journalists call us at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – as they do quite often at the moment – they refer without hesitation to the latest stage of their investigation into the “abortion industry”. It is the language of the MP Nadine Dorries, who has herself borrowed it from the US anti-abortion movement.  It is used to vilify those organisations which provide care to women who need it and the healthcare staff who deliver it. But this is not an industry, and the people who provide this care are not tycoons. They are people who for the most part have devoted their lives to a vital yet stigmatised area of women’s healthcare. They, and the women they care for, deserve better than this.

One of BPAS counsellors, who has been with us for more than 25 years, told me the other day that this was the worst onslaught on abortion care she had ever known.  In the last 12 months, abortion has taken on an unpleasant political dimension which threatens to undermine women’s care. Last March, Nadine Dorries and Frank Field launched their “Right to Know” campaign, at the heart of which lay the charge that those involved in abortion care were incapable of providing objective advice to women considering abortion because they had a vested interest in that woman ending her pregnancy – and by implication that women were being conned into abortions they did not really want. The campaign not only insulted abortion charities, but it also cast aspersions on women’s own ability to make decisions for themselves, about themselves.

The MPs’ endeavour to send women to “independent” counsellors was comprehensively defeated in a parliamentary vote. But the Department of Health said it was keen to embrace the “spirit” of Nadine’s ideas and is currently drawing up proposals to that effect, in consultation with a range of MPs – a number of whom have made clear their opposition to abortion. They have not asked for our input, or that of any medical body. Women’s care pathways are on the verge of being radically overhauled not because there is evidence that women are not getting what they need, but because of an agenda pushed by politicians who believe women make the wrong decisions.

The political discussion about the abortion industry, vested interests and the exploitation of vulnerable women is echoing outside our clinic doors. Protesters now seem to believe it is perfectly acceptable to harangue women as they try to access services, to question them about their decision and to suggest to them that once they cross the threshold they will be lied to. For many women, having to make their way past a crowd of protesters makes what is already a difficult day that much harder. “This is not a decision I have taken lightly and I don’t need to be harassed,” wrote one woman recently. “I felt calm coming here and now I can’t breathe and feel panicky and judged. Last thing I needed,” wrote another.

Abortion doctors have also in recent weeks felt their work coming under a political and media scrutiny that has not been applied to any other area of healthcare. Doctors working in this area must of course conform to the law, but writing in a letter to The Guardian yesterday a number of senior clinicians expressed their concern as to how in the current climate “the abortion service will manage to carry on providing what is an already difficult and demanding area of medical practice”. We can already count on our fingers the number of doctors who are trained and willing to carry out surgical abortion up to the legal limit of 24 weeks.  Despite the fact that abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure in the country, it is not a routine aspect of medical education and there are concerns as to where the next generation of abortion doctors will come from.

When abortion first became legal in 1968, doctors went into it because they saw assisting women in this way a worthwhile calling. Many had seen the consequences of backstreet abortions.  Few people want to turn the clock back to those days – and judging by the number of donations, emails and letters of support BPAS has received in recent weeks it appears there are plenty of people intent on ensuring we don’t.

This article was first published on the Independent’s ‘Battle of Ideas’ blog, here:

‘Abortion industry’: A slur on the women who support their choice. By Clare Murphy. Independent, 30 March 2012

Read other items in the BPAS blog here.