They sent mystery shoppers to three counselling centres in Cambridgeshire and found that at each one women were being given some kind of false information about abortion and/or subjected to ‘counselling’ which was biased and often based on personal anecdotes.
Counsellors at all three centres spoke about the possibility of suffering from ‘post-abortion syndrome’ after ending a pregnancy, despite this being an invented medical condition. A mystery shopper in Ely was told that ‘some people will have all sorts of traumas about it and dreams about it and sort of lots of awful stuff goes on’, in Newmarket the counsellor claimed abortion could lead to ‘feeling of distance from existing children, inability to maintain a normal routine...feeling depressed, sleep problems, disturbing dreams .’ Counsellors lacked accurate medical information and misrepresented the possible physical complications of abortion. For example, in Newmarket the counsellor read from inaccurate materials; ‘there’s likely to be a higher risk of miscarriage and preterm labour but they haven’t put any, there’s no stats for that. So treat that with a pinch of salt, for the moment.’
Unfortunately these findings from Cambridgeshire support what we know about many other independent pregnancy counselling centres across the country. Volunteer mystery shoppers have reported back to us on centres giving misinformation, or presenting an extremely biased account of the pregnancy options. For example, in Bedford earlier this year a mystery shopper was told that ‘they tend not to do surgical terminations because there’s an increased risk of damage to the woman’s cervix...it can lead in future pregnancies to, the pregnancies falling through the cervix’. Another counsellor in Halifax recounted her own experience and conflated being sterilised after her abortion with a general risk of infertility following abortion:
‘What can happen, and does happen, but not in everybody is it (abortion) can prevent you from having other children. I don’t know how it happens. Also if you have a baby after having an abortion it can quite often not go to full term. I’m not saying they’re stillborn or anything...I don’t think deformity enters into it, that’s a genetic thing. It can affect your future chances of conceiving. I had to be sterilised after mine, that’s what they did in those days.’
In fact, as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists makes clear, ‘there are no proven associations between induced abortion and subsequent ectopic pregnancy, placenta praevia or infertility.’
We were glad to see local MP Julian Huppert support the group’s call to action. He said:
'It is crucial that all organisations offering information or advice in relation to unplanned pregnancy choices follow evidence-based guidance from a professional medical organisation. Women who seek help in this matter have a very serious decision to make and they cannot make that decision without medically accurate information. And organisations providing that information have a duty to make it crystal clear if they have a particular religious or anti-abortion stance.'
EFC has been campaigning for evidence-based, impartial support with pregnancy decision making for years and we have found that the majority of ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ are run by organisations which are either transparently anti-abortion, or which, when you dig deeper, have associations with anti-abortion groups. In practice, a number of these centres are giving false, biased and stigmatising information about abortion to the people who visit them.
We call on local commissioning groups and local authorities to investigate pregnancy advice centres, and to clamp down on groups which are in breach of ethical standards in health provision and counselling and may also be guilty of false advertising. We also ask that education, youth and health workers inform themselves about these centres and do not signpost anyone to them should they have concerns.
The EFC pregnancy decision making Best Practice Toolkit offers guidance for investigating independent advice centres in your area.
Banner from the Feminist Action Cambridge demo on 15th December 2012.