A parliamentary amendment that would have placed restrictions on abortion providers giving pregnancy counselling has been defeated by 368 votes to 118.
The Dorries and Field amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill proposed that “information, advice and counselling” could only be called independent when provided by “a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies, or a statutory body”, and that those that did would make clear to any woman who approached them that alternatives were available. If successful, it would have cost groups such as Marie Stopes and BPAS multi-million pound contracts with the NHS.
The amendment was put forward by Conservative Nadine Dorries and Labour’s Frank Field, but was expected to fail after the Cabinet refused to give its support.
However, three Cabinet members – Defence Secretary Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, and Owen Paterson, Northern Ireland Secretary – voted in favour of it.
In the Commons Mr Field asked Mrs Dorries to drop the amendment in light of a Government promise to hold a consultation and then a debate. He also said he had put his name on the amendment but, “for reasons unknown”, it had been taken off.
Before the vote Mrs Dorries had accused the Coalition of “covert whipping” after Health Minister Anne Milton sent a letter to all MPs detailing why the Department of Health was against the proposals, and stating that all health ministers would oppose the amendment if it came to a vote.
Mrs Dorries said it put pressure on Tory MPs, and accused Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of blackmailing Mr Cameron by saying Lib Dem MPs would not vote for the bill if her amendment was supported.
She said: “Nick Clegg has put pressure on the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister is putting pressure on MPs.”
Mr Fox was the most prominent backer of the amendment. He said: “I would certainly want to support any amendments that saw the number of abortions fall in Britain. I think the level is far too high. I would certainly welcome any restrictions which enable people to think twice and get objective advice, [though] I would actually want to see what the amendments specifically are.”
Support for the Dorries proposal had been lukewarm among pro-life groups. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) said it would not back the amendment because there was no evidence it would lead to a reduction in the abortion rate.
Olivia Darby of the Pro-Life Alliance said the amendment carried “many real risks”. She said: “What is important at this stage is the Department of Health’s forthcoming consultation on abortion counselling.”
But Ed Rennie, clerk to the parliamentary pro-life group, said pro-life MPs would support it, adding: “It will be a shame if David Cameron got cold feet on such a modest measure. The abortion lobby campaign has been underhand and built this straw man of religious counsellors bringing God into non-directional counselling… The Dorries amendment has very wide public support.”