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Marie Stopes: legal and independent?

On 23rd May, BBC 5 Live broadcast their morning radio show from an abortion clinic, in the hope of giving ‘an insight into an area of British life which is taboo’. There is a recording of the programme here, or if you get in touch, the ProLife Alliance can provide a written transcript of the programme.  The programme followed the route every woman who enters the clinic takes, and certainly did provide some fascinating insights, though perhaps not quite the rosy ones the clinic was hoping for.

First, the women see Karen.  Karen is a Healthcare Assistant who will either approve their request for an abortion or send them to a counsellor.  Karen is very anxious to stress that the woman’s reasons must be legal, despite her own view that ‘it’s their choice’.  But, as the presenter questions her further on exactly what she would have to say to obtain an abortion, Karen encourages her happily: ‘You’re getting there, yes’. 

She does not even bother to pretend that she cares whether the woman’s stated reasons are her real ones.  Karen agrees when the presenter states that ‘I could actually have an abortion for whatever reason I wanted as long as I told you it would damage my mental health’.

So, what happens if a woman fails this rigorous legal screening process?  She gets turned away, on the basis that her reasons are illegal?  No, she is sent to the counsellor to try and summon up some psychological concerns. Not that the counsellor seems aware that he is supposed to be playing any role in making sure the abortion is legal.  In his view ‘ultimately we are here to help the woman find her way with whatever decision she needs to make’.   The law does not come into it.

It is not surprising then, that women who have received an abortion at the clinic are unaware there are any legal restrictions on abortion at all.  When informed that it is illegal to have an abortion for financial reasons, Amanda, a woman who has recently had an abortion, is shocked: ‘I think it is a very interesting revelation.’ 

Legally, the situation is very clear.  Under the Abortion Act 1967, there is no abortion on demand.  Abortion can only be performed under certain circumstances.  Most abortions are performed on the basis that continuing the pregnancy would involve greater risk to the mental health of the pregnant woman than abortion.  The programme shows just how far this legal requirement is being stretched or ignored in abortion clinics like this one. 

Once Karen has decided that the woman’s reasons are legal enough for her, she is confident that it is ‘pretty easy’ to tell when a woman is not sure about abortion and needs counselling.  But what if there is, as there was during filming, a woman upset in the waiting room?  Do they send her home, or send her to see the counsellor?  No, Karen simply gives her a hug, to make it all better.  Maybe, Karen surmises, the woman is worried about the unknown, or maybe she is worried that the staff at the clinic will judge her.  It does not even cross Karen’s mind that the woman might not be certain that she wants an abortion.

Perhaps recognising that Karen might not be the best person to decide whether women need counselling, the presenter suggests that maybe all women should have counselling. No, replies the counsellor, the very person one would expect to stick up for the women involved.  It would apparently be ‘disempowering’ to give them a chance to think through their options.  Karen backs him up: ‘At the end of the day, the best counsellor you’ve got is your best mate.’  One wonders why counsellors bother getting all those years of training and experience if a friend, with no training and with their own biases and opinions, is more useful. 

So, if the woman’s best mate is allowed a significant say in the woman’s abortion decision, what of the baby’s father? The presenter asks Amanda whether she ought to have told the partner of the child.  Amanda seems unsure: ‘he was very immature in how he acted and it’s a difficult one.  Perhaps I should have told him?’  There’s no room for this sort of uncertainty as far as Karen is concerned.  She reminds Amanda, in a none too subtle whisper ‘it’s not his decision’.  She warns Amanda ‘At the end of the day, your partner can walk away and leave you’.  There is no place for the father of the unborn child according to Marie Stopes.  Your best mate can play a significant role in the decision, but the father?  No chance.

Once the woman has passed all these derisory hurdles, she receives her ‘treatment’.  ‘Treatment’, for anyone not fluent in abortion clinic language, is ‘abortion’. The staff are anxious to downplay the ‘treatment’.  The pill used to induce early abortions is ‘just swallowed like you would a paracetamol’.  And side effects?  ‘Not sure what you mean’ is the answer, despite the testimony from Amanda that she experienced bleeding for over a month.  Eventually, the medical director accepts there may be some pain and cramps, but says nothing of the common risk of infection.  The programme does not even mention D & E, the form of abortion performed in cases of late abortion.  A dirty little secret the abortion clinic does not want listeners to know about?

Since there are, according to the staff, virtually no risks to the mother, what about the fetus?  The presenter asks the medical director outright whether it will feel any pain.  ‘No’ is the definite answer, and presumably the one she gives to all her patients.  When faced with the evidence that the fetus may in fact feel pain during late abortions, she suddenly changes tack.  ‘Well, the truth is we work within the law.’  That is her only concern.

Once the ‘treatment’ is over, women are provided with contraception in ‘lots of flavour, lots of styles’.  Unfortunately, the Medical Director states, everyone forgets now and then and this can lead to ‘a very troublesome’ situation for women.  In this case, ‘troublesome situation’ is abortion clinic language for ‘pregnancy’.  Ah well, at least the programme made clear how easy it is to head straight back to the clinic for more ‘treatment’!

The British Medical Association yesterday agreed to support a motion in favour of independent counselling for women considering abortion.  After this programme, we can see why.