Despite all the apparent evidence that, in the words of the wild-eyed Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, “we’re all doomed”, I tend to hope that any counter-indications that we’re not can be believed. I’m one of the world’s natural optimists. I think David Cameron is right about our “broken society”: but I’m not yet convinced that it can’t be mended. Not yet.
So when I saw a story in the Sunday Telegraph headlined “Abortion rules to be tightened in biggest shake-up for a generation”, I wanted to believe it, and I still do. Have a look at this:
The proposed change comes ahead of a Commons vote, due to take place next week, on amendments to a public health Bill put forward by Nadine Dorries, a backbench Conservative MP.
The amendments would prevent private organisations which carry out terminations – such as Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) – from offering pre-abortion counselling. Women would instead be offered free access to independent counsellors.
This sounds fine, but it poses questions: why isn’t the government simply accepting Nadine Dorries’s amendment: or is it proposing something that is just as good, but maybe better drafted, or something of the sort? The way the Telegraph story proceeds doesn’t really clear things up:
Mrs Dorries, a former nurse, claims abortion providers are not independent because they have a vested interest in conducting abortions. Last year, Marie Stopes and Bpas carried out about 100,000 terminations and were paid about £60 million to do so, mostly through the NHS.
OK: so why doesn’t the Government just get behind Mrs Dorries in putting a stop to abortion counselling from such sources? Do we need to read between the lines of her reactions to the Government’s demarche to perceive a disappointed politician who has been leaned on? Look at the wording of this:
Mrs Dorries said she had hoped that her proposed amendments to the health Bill would prompt the Government into taking the kind of action which it has now done.
Frank Field, a Labour MP, said: “I’m anxious that taxpayers’ money is used so that people can have a choice – we are paying for independent counselling and that’s what should be provided.”
So does that actually mean that she had hoped that her amendments would get Government backing but that she fears that actually they are not? And will she now withdraw her amendments? If so, why? And does Frank Field’s reaction, that “we’re paying for independent counselling and that’s what should be provided”, indicate a certain scepticism that it actually will be provided?
Who, exactly, will be providing this “independent” counselling”? The Department of Health says it hasn’t made up its mind. What we need to know is this: will funding for counselling now actually be withdrawn (as Mrs Dorries wants to happen) from people like Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service? We shall see. But John Smeaton of SPUC is sceptical. Under the headline “Sunday Telegraph story on government tightening abortion rules is dangerously misleading”, he quotes his colleague Paul Tully:
“Handing the drafting of proposals relating to abortion to the Department of Health is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken-coop. The Department of Health commissions the vast majority of abortions in Britain, and says doctors should provide abortion on demand. Successive governments have regarded abortion as an answer to unmarried teenagers and other vulnerable women who get pregnant.
“Since 2004, most NHS abortions have been transferred to private clinics, and the health department now funds more than 9 out of 10 abortions at these clinics. If the Department now want counsellors to help pregnant women avoid abortions, it would represent a major change of heart. We remain very wary of the proposals and the Department’s involvement.”
Paul Tully adds: “Pro-life counselling can save many lives but independent counselling is not the same thing. It all depends on the approach of the counsellor and the information provided.”
This all reminded me strongly of a previous occasion when a Tory government seemed to be proposing counselling: then, it was put forward (today we would say “spun”) as a means of insisting on a breathing space before couples thinking of divorce actually got into the hands of the lawyers (who, like the abortionists, have a vested interest in going ahead rather than drawing back). This time, the counsellors were involved in something called “mediation”. All this sounded so good that the Catholic bishops’ conference, having been gulled by the pious Free Presbyterian, Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, enthusiastically backed it. Alarmed, Valerie Riches of Family and Youth Concern, who had actually read the proposed legislation (the Family Law Bill; it became the Family Law Act 1996) went to see Cardinal Hume to remonstrate, and was shouted at for her pains; to his credit, however, he did look at the Bill again, and the bishops withdrew their backing. For, the point was that, as the government-sponsored divorce charity Wikivorce (“Our organisation helps 50,000 people a year through divorce”) put it,
Family Mediation helps couples, who are separated or divorced or in the process of separating or divorcing, reach agreement about important issues – especially those concerning their children.
Couples are invited to meet together with a mediator in an informal, confidential atmosphere instead of exchanging correspondence through their solicitors or appearing separately in a formal court. They are helped to identify the issues they want to sort out, to express their own views about them and then to negotiate together to find common ground and reach solutions acceptable to them both which are the best possible for their children.
Mediation, in other words, was supposed to make divorce less painful, not to make it less likely. Indeed, by removing the pain of the proceedings, it could even be argued that it made it less likely that a final effort to stay together would be made. You only got mediation when you had already decided to divorce; the counselling wasn’t for the purpose of advising you to reconsider: so the Catholic bishops shouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole. I remember the fight over the Family Law Bill extremely well, for the Daily Mail waged a campaign against it and its predecessor, the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, and I was their lead writer on the subject. I was very shocked at the time by the bishops’ unbelievably ill-advised support.
But could it happen again? “After all, “Abortion rules to be tightened” sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Something a bishop should support? If the Telegraph has got it it right, “Pro-life campaigners suggest the change could result in up to 60,000 fewer abortions each year in Britain”. But do they really suggest that? Exactly which “pro-life campaigners” say that? The bishops should be cautious: they have a bad record in their support for government legislation hostile to Catholic values which, if they had scrutinised it more closely, they would have understood better: remember their astonishing support for Ed Balls’s Education Bill, which, if it had been enacted (only Tory opposition stopped it), would have forced Catholic schools to give sex education telling children, among other things, how to “access” contraception and abortion?
Maybe John Smeaton is being unduly sceptical, who knows? But let’s just be careful about this: let’s see what exactly the Government does propose in the place of Nadine Dorries’s amendments: and then, even more importantly, let’s see what its civil servants allow it actually to do before we give it Catholic support. As I say, I’m a natural optimist; but there just could be something fishy about all this.