Friday 23 October 2015

Devolution of abortion in Scotland - Words to watch out for

Thanks to the marvellous Ellie Hutchinson for this brilliant guest post!

Calling all pro-choicers! In case you missed it, a potential shift of power happened in the UK this week. But as it only concerns women’s bodies, it didn’t quite get the coverage it should have done. Blink and you’ll miss it, but Scotland may take control of a women’s right to choose. Abortion law may be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This is huge. HUGE. 

The process of this and the reasons for this have been covered elsewhere, so now we know what some of the pitfalls might be, and whilst we acknowledge that women’s bodies are yet again a political football, let’s put that aside for one moment and get cracking and get organised. We can't afford to wait for it to happen, and sit and watch our law makers debate whether or not they will make laws about our bodies and the bodies of people we love/work with/know in passing/share a sense of humanity with, we have to start lobbying now.

We know those anti-choicers are sneaky, what with their bad science, manipulation of language and their dodgy ethics (sure, why *not* force someone to continue an unwanted pregnancy as punishment. Seems legit).  As such, we need to keep a close eye on what they are saying and who they are saying it to. In other words, we need to be ON. IT.

So I present to you a handy cheat sheet of words to watch out for and my own personal responses.

Pro-life - I am pro-choice, and I am also pro life. Confusing?!!! Not at all. I really like life. I have a good, fulfilling one, with people I love and good food to eat, and music to dance to. I have a daughter who is the best person in the world and I have a rewarding job meeting interesting people. I have a partner who makes me laugh and brings me wine. Life sure is good. I love life. You know what’s the best about life? The ability to choose what I do with it. (see where I’m going with this?) It is not about life, it is about choice. We need to keep reframing the debate and repeating the pro-choice mantra “it is not pro-life, it is anti-choice” because it is- it has nothing to do with life, and it has everything to do with control. 

Anti- child - As I’ve said, I have a daughter who is amazing and the best and oh my days so cute and funny, and I have lots of children in my life. I was one once! I am not anti-child. But I am anti forcing someone to continue a pregnancy that they don’t want. To give birth when they don’t want to. To raise a child when they don’t want to. What is anti-child is forcing someone (sometimes children themselves) to live a life of punishment, of regret because of your personal interpretation of science. No. That is not ethical. It’s also not how science works.

Protecting children - I’m all for protecting children, in fact I’ve spent most of my working life working towards making the world safer for children. Whether it’s been domestic abuse, poor housing and child sexual abuse, I’ve been there banging my pro-child drum- children deserve a good life. But spoiler alert- Fetuses aren’t children. That’s why they’re called fetuses. Or embryos. But they are not children.  When an anti-choicers talks about protecting children , let’s talk about decent sex and relationships education and money towards support services. Because they are the things that protect children.

Anti-family - I may have mentioned this but I have a family. I have a toddler, a partner, parents, a sister, a large extended family, a load of sort of in-laws, nieces who are all lovely and lively, a community of friends and a cat. I am really into my family. I love family! I grew up in a family with young parents, lone parents, traditional 2.4 families- the whole shebang, and it was amazing. We all choose different paths and different ways to have and raise our families, but we are all bound by love. And the buffet table. I really enjoy a family party. Family is the heart of my life. I will always, always support my daughter and my families right to make decisions about their lives and their bodies, even if I don’t agree with it. I don’t judge them (out loud anyway) and I certainly wouldn’t expect them to make the choices I’ve made. Because that right to choose your own path, go on your own journey, with people cheering you on- now that is family, that is love. I am 100 % pro-family, 100% pro choice.

The debate in Scotland is just beginning, and we have a lot of work to do.  So even though we weren’t asked, and even though it’s come as a wee bit of a shock, let’s do this debate. If abortion is to be devolved, what do we want to see? let’s get rid of gatekeeping, let’s review women’s access to non-surgical procedures, let’s talk about women’s access to services across the country- where can people go, and how much does it cost them to get there.  Let’s get organised and let’s get focused. Abortion, as always , remains a “matter of conscience”*  so who are our friends in Parliament? What support do they need?  

There are lots of groups across Scotland working on this issue locally and nationally, so if you’d like to get involved and support the right to choose, find them on Facebook or by emailing Abortion Rights, write to your MSP and get active.
If we are to have control over our own laws, then women surely should have control over their own bodies too. 

*like any other health care issue. Oh wait

Friday 6 February 2015

Bruce amendment on "sex selective" abortion - write to your MP!

Fiona Bruce MP has introduced an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill, which aims to outlaw so called “sex selective abortion”. Bruce’s amendment, which has been signed by a long list of MPs including many who describe themselves as pro choice, is a worrying attempt by a seasoned anti abortion campaigner (Bruce is chair of the All Party Parliamentary Pro Life Group) to undermine the right to choose.
The amendment will be debated at the Serious Crime Bill's report stage on Monday 23 February.
Anti abortion campaigners are lobbying MPs intensively, so it is vital that MPs hear the pro choice movement’s arguments about why the amendment is unnecessary – and potentially incredibly damaging. At the end of this post, you will find a draft letter which you can use to email your MP – please do contact your MP, as every letter is vital.
The wording of the amendment is:
"Termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child 
"Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.”
A review by the Department of Health in 2013 into sex ratios at birth in the UK found “no group is statistically different from the range that we would expect to see naturally occurring”.
The amendment, if passed, will not even be effective, but could be the thin end of a wedge to undermine the 1967 Abortion Act. Laws already rightly protect pregnant women from reproductive coercion, as a form of domestic violence. 
The amendment will however introduce a duty upon doctors to consider something other than the health and wellbeing of the person who is pregnant: doctors will be tasked with policing the intentions of people seeking access to abortion. As intentions are impossible to prove, this will in practice lead to racial profiling, and differing levels of availability of the full range of reproductive options, based on perceived ethnicity.
Supporters of the amendment claim it will ‘send a message’, which it will – it will send the message that in certain circumstances, a foetus’s rights trump those of the person carrying it. Abortion laws don't need to change – what needs to change are ways of thinking that value a foetus of one sex over another.
Numerous pieces have been published in response to the Bruce amendment pointing out its deeply flawed nature, in the New Statesman, on the Conversation, in the Letters page of the Daily Telegraph, and in the Scotsman among others. Abortion Rights has written a letter to MPs which you can read here. For more background on how bans on “sex selective” abortion are an ineffective response, the Guttmacher Policy Review published an excellent piece in 2012. This very blog has two posts on the issue (from September 2013 and January 2014) which call into question the claims and evidence used by anti choice campaigners who are calling for a ban.
The Bruce amendment presents a real danger to the right to safe, legal abortion in the UK. Please act now to put forward the pro choice case, which will in the end strengthen women’s rights more than an amendment that pays lip service to feminism while undermining the right to bodily autonomy. 

Proposed letter to your MP

You can find your MP’s email address and contact details via this link:
Feel free to use the below letter as a template, or to adapt it, or to write your own – we just need to make sure we contact as many MPs as possible.

Dear [MP name],
I am writing to you to express my strong opposition to the amendment to the Serious Crime Bill tabled by Fiona Bruce MP, “Termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child”.
Reproductive coercion, including forced abortion, is already illegal, as it is a severe and abhorrent form of domestic violence. Abortion clinic staff are trained to recognise the signs of someone being forced into having a termination they do not want, and follow procedures to ensure that women’s right to choose is respected. No new law criminalising women seeking abortion is required.
A review by the Department of Health in 2013 into sex ratios at birth in the UK found “no group is statistically different from the range that we would expect to see naturally occurring”. While there have been several highly upsetting first person accounts of women forced to abort due to the foetus’s sex, there is no evidence that this is a widespread practice in the UK, and no compelling argument that the Bruce amendment would have protected the women in question.
The amendment will do nothing to address the causes of boy-preference in some communities, and will lead to racial profiling of people from communities assumed to be 'at risk' of sex selection. It will give doctors the impossible task of policing the intentions of pregnant women, and remove the Abortion Act's requirement that the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman be the overriding concern of doctors authorising terminations.
I ask you to vote against this amendment and to make the case that your colleagues do the same.
Yours sincerely
[Name, address]

Friday 23 January 2015

Crisis pregnancy centres in the spotlight again

We were really pleased to be asked to write an article on crisis pregnancy centres for Comment is Free. Here's our original version...
Last year, Education For Choice (EFC), a project within young people’s sexual health and wellbeing charity Brook, produced a report into the UK’s crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs), which are, as the introduction says, “organisations independent of the NHS that offer some form of counselling or discussion around pregnancy”. Sounds quite neutral, right? After all, when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, surely as a baseline everyone can agree that people of all ages deserve impartial, non-judgemental and medically accurate information about all the options open to them, including but not limited to abortion. But instead, after extensive mystery shopping trips carried out by dedicated volunteers across the country, we found that far too many CPCs are using their counselling room as an anti abortion space, giving people facing often complicated circumstances a dose of anti abortion propaganda and misinformation, rather than a truly impartial space to talk through their feelings and come to an informed decision.

We were really glad to see the media pick up the issue of the uneven quality of counselling provided by CPCs, shining a light on what goes on in these secretive places which, unless you’re either someone who’s faced an unplanned pregnancy and has Googled “I’m pregnant and I’m not sure whether I want to be” or a dedicated pro choice activist, you’re not all that likely to have heard of. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and if a CPC advertises itself as providing non directive counselling, the public has a right to know whether this is indeed the case.

Now CPCs are back in the spotlight, thanks to a sizeable donation to an English CPC, Choices Stortford, by the charitable foundation set up by evangelical Christian multimillionaire Brian Souter. Now, he has a perfect right to spend his fortune as he desires, even if it means trying to keep homophobic laws on the books, or – as in this case – supporting CPCs. But it’s hard not to look at the donation, and think that, if he really wanted to reduce the number of abortions in the UK, Souter could have thrown his weight and his cash behind any number of different causes, from campaigning for better parental leave, to schemes to support single parents, to ensuring that all young people are given comprehensive, age appropriate sex and relationships education, to improving access to contraception and sexual health services.

How will Souter’s donation be used? We can get an idea from Choices Stortford’s Facebook page, which links to a piece in a local paper proclaiming that six of its counsellors have received training on how to deliver a 10-step so called “post abortion recovery programme” called ‘The Journey’. It’s very hard to find more than the most basic details about this programme online, but we found a blog post by a CPC about it (which was taken down, coincidentally after the report’s publication), saying: “Accountability: After the grieving process, a woman may become more open to the part she played in the abortion, and willing to face its consequences” (see p16 of our report). This doesn’t sound like the most neutral language in the world to us, casting doubt on whether use of ‘The Journey’ is compatible with the tenets of non directive counselling – which Choices Stortford says it offers to people with “Post Abortion Syndrome”, a pseudo-medical condition made up by the anti abortion movement.

The issues of unplanned pregnancy and pregnancy options, including abortion, are ones we in Britain, in common with – let’s face it – most of the rest of the world, have a problem talking about with honesty. It’s really important to note that there is a strong pro choice majority in the UK. But we can’t ever take our abortion rights for granted: abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland in most circumstances, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in 2012 he backs cutting the time limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 12 weeks, and anti abortion protests outside clinics are becoming more visible and are using tactics borrowed from the US. An EFC report from 2013 (PDF) into how abortion is taught in schools found widespread failings, meaning that young people were often left “ill-equipped to make decisions about pregnancy”. Our CPC report, meanwhile, found that many of the CPCs which told our mystery shoppers manipulative misinformation about abortion also go into local schools to deliver sex and relationships education. Improving education about pregnancy options must be a priority for all schools, to fight myths about abortion, and to reduce stigma.

Money talks. When it comes to CPCs, we have reason to be worried about what anti abortion pounds are saying to people in sometimes difficult circumstances.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Young people and 'repeat abortion'

Thanks to a small grant from the European Society of Contraception and Reproductive Health we have been able to undertake a project looking into repeat unplanned conceptions amongst young people in London. This blog gives an overview of what we found out from our workshops with young people in Croydon.

Readers of this blog will probably already know that a third of women in Britain experience abortion. What you might not know is that over a third (37%) of those accessing abortion have already had one or more terminations. Recent statistics for England and Wales show that in 2013 27% of abortions to women aged 25 and under were ‘repeat abortions’. In Croydon, 50% of abortions (for all ages) were ‘repeat’ procedures.

The Telegraph claims the statistics show that women are having ‘lifestyle abortions’ and ‘using abortion as a contraceptive’. But what’s the real story? Why do some people have more than one abortion? Is it a problem? If so, when and why? We produced this document, Frequently Asked Questions about Repeat Abortion, to try to answer some of these questions and to offer recommendations for professionals supporting young people to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It’s free to download so please do have a read, and pass on to your colleagues. 

There are of course a number of factors which might contribute to someone experiencing one or more unplanned pregnancies – including failure rates of contraceptive methods. For example, the pill and the condom, the two most popular methods of contraception, come with actual-use failure rates of 8% and 15% respectively. In order to get young people’s input with the project we carried out workshops and focus groups in Croydon.  We talked about the fact that pills and condoms are the most common forms of contraception for young people and discussed some of the problems they might have in using these methods effectively:
“Pills - sometimes you don’t remember to take them. You have to take it at a certain if you don’t actually remember to take it, you’re kind of unprotected.”
“As a female, you might not know how to put on a condom for instance, yeah I know it sounds really silly but let’s say you get to do the deed, you might not actually know how to put on a condom and stuff, and you kind of feel a bit stupid asking.”
“A lot of my friends didn’t (carry condoms) when we were younger, because no one wanted to be called a’ve been out with your boyfriend and you pull out a condom, he’s gonna think ‘Oi, you’re ready!’ Nah, he might not be thinking that, but in your mind you could possibly think it. 
He’s probably thinking, ‘Ah, I’m well up for this!’ But like it would be a bit embarrassing.”
Many of the young people formed opinions about contraceptive methods based on the experiences of their friends, often expressing an objection to LARC methods, seeing them as ‘invasive’:
“My friend’s got it (the implant) yeah, and I went with her and it’s horrible. It’s like this massive thing yeah, and to get it out she has to have an operation, she cuts it open, urgh, it’s horrible. Like, you can feel it.”
“I know it sounds silly, and you’re probably gonna laugh but it reminds me of something out of a movie, like an alien movie, you know like when they put things under your skin! The fact that you can feel it, in your day to day life, just, I don’t like that thought.”
“I went to the clinic with my friend, she got that (IUD) and the curtain was there - she was on that side and I was on this side, and I could hear her like ‘owwwww’!”
“And you have to be on your period to have it done don’t you, that’s what they said to my friend.  And I was like, dignity?! Come on!”
The young people (who were 16+) said that their school education had lacked details on the full range of contraceptive methods:
“Whenever you had any lessons at school it was always about condoms or the pill, it was never anything else about any other contraceptions.”
“When you’re at school, there’s not enough. All you hear about is the pill, not the implant or the injection, I never heard of that until a couple of years ago and I was like ‘what’s that?’. But then you are put off as well, by other people’s stories – of when they’ve put it in and you’re like, ‘Oh god, that doesn’t sound very nice’.”
These young people made various suggestions for improving knowledge about reproductive health and the range of contraceptive methods available:
“Make it less scary... if you see a picture like that (diagram of IUD), like they need to draw it to scale maybe! You know when you look at that, even though it’s small, in your mind, you’re gonna think, oh my god it’s massive...instead of drawings (you need) an actual picture of what it actually looks like. Cos you wouldn’t know what it looked like until you actually went there would you?”
“Maybe nurses do talks or something about how they put it in, ‘cause someone like me, could never do that ‘cause I’d just cry my eyes out. I’m really squeamish.” 
“I feel like there should be more talks within schools, about different types, like it is only condoms and the pill that are discussed.”
“Tell teenagers about contraception through videos, so they can just watch it – when people give me leaflets on the street I just throw them away, or just put it in my bag and it will stay in there for like a year! Whereas if, I don’t know, there was like pop up ads or something .”
“A video to show in schools, ok, these are the different types of contraception. These are the facts.”
So young people are telling us that they would like more practical demonstrations of contraceptive methods – we’ve certainly had positive reactions when using the FPA’s contraceptive display kit, which allows young people to see and touch different methods. There is also the suggestion that educators use more videos – and since we know young people respond to other people’s experiences, how’s about a UK version of these Bedsider videos? Someone fund us and we’ll do it!

For more information on young people and repeat unintended conceptions have a look at EFC's own research from 2007 and Hoggart and Phillips' 2010 research report.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Abortion rate continues to drop in England and Wales

The latest statistics for abortion in England and Wales (2013) have been released today and can be viewed here on the Gov.UK website. Here's a summary.
For women resident in England and Wales, in 2013:
  • The total number of abortions was 185,331 
  • The abortion rate (for ages 15-44) was 15.9 per 1000 women, 0.8% lower than last year's abortion rate, and 4.7% lower than in 2003
  • The abortion rate was highest for women aged 22
  • The under-16 and under-18 abortion rates are both lower than last year, and than in 2003
  • 37% of women having an abortion had had one or more previous abortions
  • 53% of women having abortions had one or more previous pregnancies that resulted in a live birth or a still birth
  • 91% of abortions were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation
  • In 2013, there were 5,469 abortions for non-residents carried out in England and Wales. The 2013 total is the lowest in any year since 1969

So those are the numbers but what do they tell us?
Well, first of all, the abortion rate is the lowest it's been for 16 years, the 2013 stats show a continued decrease. The same is true for the rate of abortion for under 18s - this has gone down from 18.2 per 1000 women to 11.7 per 1000 women in the last ten years. This drop reflects the reduced rate of teenage conceptions in general and is likely a result of young people's increased access to contraception. The rate of women accessing abortion early on in pregnancy is a positive sign that most are able to have their pregnancy confirmed early and access abortion when it is safest.
When asked, people often assume abortion rates will be highest for teenagers, when in fact, the most common age to have an abortion was 22, and there was a slight increase in the abortion rate for women aged 25-29. Bpas suggests that that this may well reflect the increasing desire to have children later (the average age for first time motherhood in the UK is now over 28). Over half of women accessing abortion are already mothers.
In 2013, approximately 5500 abortions were performed in England and Wales for non-resident women. The majority of these women (67% and 15%) were from Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively. This shows a continuing decline in the numbers of non-resident women accessing abortion in England and Wales. The FPA suggests that this could be due to under-reporting, or women travelling to other countries for the procedure. We also suggested last year that these women may well be (illegally) finding abortion medication online, rather than travelling for the procedure, which can be very expensive.
We join the FPA in calling for Northern Irish women's right to free, safe, legal abortion in line with women in other parts of the UK, and with bpas that, "we should stop politicising abortion and accept that it is a standard part of women's healthcare."

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Teaching about periods - Guest post from Chella Quint

Chella Quint is a performer, writer, and education researcher who uses her unique brand of comedy to engage the public in positive and enlightening conversations about menstruation. You can watch her TEDx Talk hereFor Menstrual Hygiene Day we've asked her to write a guest post and share top tips from her newly launched #PeriodPositive project which is all about challenging stigma connected to menstruation.

There are many sensitive topics within reproductive health and sex and relationships education.  Sometimes teachers and other educators are afraid to tackle these topics in case they ‘get it wrong’, and that’s understandable: making a mistake can be scary or embarrassing, or could even feel shameful. Challenging shame is one of the goals of Menstrual Hygiene Day, and it’s an issue I tackle frequently when challenging the messages in feminine hygiene product advertising.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of when talking about menstruation. It is a reproductive right for young people to understand their own fertility, and anyone can become a confident menstrual educator. 

Menstruation education should be:

  • Free, unbranded, objective, and inclusive of re-usables like menstrual cups and cloth pads
  • Consistent, accurate, up-to-date and peer-reviewed 
  • Supported more comprehensively by the National Curriculum, particularly in Science and PSHE
  • Aimed at different age groups, starting before puberty, and revisited regularly
  • Inclusive of different genders, cultures, abilities and sexualities

I've really enjoyed researching and developing this work both formally and informally, with schools, universities and through science engagement, and I'm continuing to create resources and test out lesson ideas. 

I always start by asking participants to plot their menstruation comfort zone on a spectrum line and on a bulls-eye chart: 

Here are some of the top tips from my research so far:
The full set of tips can be viewed here.

 Follow @Periodpositive for updates, and check back at for more free resources soon.

Thursday 8 May 2014

High Court ruling against free access to abortion for Northern Irish women

Today, a High Court judgement ruled that women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to access abortion free of charge through the NHS in England. 

Abortion is severely restricted in Northern Ireland and is only available where the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or where there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her physical or mental health. This means that the vast majority of those seeking abortion in Northern Ireland will need to travel to access a safe, legal procedure. Currently, these women are required to pay for the procedure, which can range from approximately £400 to over £1000 for those at a later stage of pregnancy. The test case brought to the High Court by two women was rejected, meaning that the need for Northern Irish women to pay for abortion procedures carried out in England remains.

Northern Ireland is not covered by the current 1967 Abortion Act which applies in England, Scotland and Wales. The key legislation governing abortion in Northern Ireland comes from the Offences against the Person Act 1861. This means that women’s access to reproductive health care is managed according to a law which is over 150 years old and precedes the invention of the telephone and the light bulb.

The restrictive law in Northern Ireland does not prevent Northern Irish women having abortions, but it does make it more difficult. Those who can afford the private clinic fee and travel costs to England will be able to access a safe, legal abortion, but might have to significantly rearrange work and childcare to do so. Others may face delays in their attempts to raise a large sum of money in a short period of time. Overall, abortion is safe, but is safest the earlier in pregnancy it is performed, so delayed access means higher prices and also an increased chance of complications.

Those without access to such funds will be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy (which again, is likely to have severe financial implications for someone who cannot afford an abortion), or they will resort to an illegal and potentially unsafe method of ending the pregnancy. Abortion Support Network is an organisation which helps women in Ireland and Northern Ireland to afford the cost of an abortion abroad. Mara Clarke, who runs the organisation, details some of the desperate measures people have taken to try to end their pregnancies:

“We have mothers calling us, telling us that their 18-year-old daughter drank a bottle of floor cleaner after she was raped at her own birthday party. We hear about women taking whole packets of birth control and washing it down with vodka.”

Others unable to travel will buy abortion medication online through sites such as Women on Web – however, if they do, they risk life imprisonment for ‘procuring (their) own miscarriage’.

The latest statistics from England and Wales show that in 2012 905 women travelled from Northern Ireland to access abortion. Many more will have travelled elsewhere or bought illegal abortion medication to end their pregnancies. Clearly, strict abortion laws do not stop abortions from happening, but can make them less safe by causing delay and restricting access. Abortion for Northern Irish women is largely a matter of economic resource. As Mara Clarke puts it, “women with money have options, women without money have babies”.

As a young people’s project we're particularly concerned about young women’s access to reproductive healthcare. In 2012, 43% of abortions in England and Wales for Northern Irish residents were for those under 25. Young women are less likely to have the resources necessary to travel and pay for a private abortion. A pregnant teenager seeking an abortion in Northern Ireland may suffer from stigma and lack of support, as well as financial limitations. 

The young woman who presented a test case to the High Court was just 15 when she became pregnant and travelled to Manchester for an abortion. Her mother paid £600 for the procedure, some of which was covered by the Abortion Support Network, and described the process of raising the funds as ‘harrowing’. Not all young women will have the support of their families. We believe that the abortion law in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the UK, so that all women, especially young women, are able to access the full range of reproductive healthcare they need, which includes abortion.