Monday 29 November 2010

Abortion is a modern phenomenon

Every Monday EFC busts myths and takes names, cutting through the misinformation, disinformation, and straight up nonsense to bring you the facts.

It is often assumed that abortion is a modern phenomenon, resulting from liberal sexual practices that have become every day in the post-pill, post-legalised abortion world. In fact there is documented evidence in the Ebers Papyrus of abortion taking place as far back as 1550BC in ancient Egypt and stories of abortion in China that reach back 5,000 years. Just as today, some of these abortions were carried out for social and emotional reasons and others to avoid obstetric emergencies or other health reasons.

Aristotle wrote (384-322 BC) ‘When couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun’

Depictions of abortion in Ancient Greece are quite detailed and include descriptions of a range of different methods from self-induced abortion through strenuous activity or ingesting specific substances, to surgical abortions, similar to the Dilatation and Curettage abortion still sometimes used today.

Over centuries ‘wise women’, midwives and herbalists have prescribed a range of abortifacient herbs and potions some of which may have been more effective than others. In the years immediately prior to the legalisation of abortion in the UK women used a range of dangerous methods to try to self-induce abortion including drinking gin and taking a scalding hot bath, or injecting toxic solutions into the uterus. Safer abortion was available to women who were able to pay to see a psychiatrist who could give approval for the abortion to go ahead on mental health grounds.

Friday 26 November 2010

A Lie is not the 'other side of the argument' it is just a lie

Here is the main substance of a presentation given by Lisa to the Westminster Health Forum on Teenage Pregnancy 16th March 2010

There has been a lot of discussion about issues around faith and SRE in the last few weeks as a result of the SRE passage through Parliament and I really wanted to make the case here that ethics and evidence are not two separate things, they have to be addressed in parallel and that means that people addressing factual information have to think about the context for it and people addressing faith issues have to, HAVE TO be giving evidence-based information.

We don’t believe that anyone should appoint themselves as a filter or a censor of evidence-based information around sex and relationships education. We believe that all young people should be able to access absolutely accurate information. They expect the professionals and adults in their lives to provide that and we should all be committed to doing that. I think there is sometimes an idea that in certain aspects of SRE, certainly the aspects Education For Choice addresses i.e. pregnancy decision-making and abortion, that it's all so controversial and political that there isn't evidence-based information, it’s all just a matter of opinion. But that's nonsense - the fact is that there are good quality and peer reviewed studies from all around the world that provide us with accurate information.

In terms of faith and values, I don’t really need to say much. Lots of people feel it’s a really important part of what they do, and who they are, but it’s also really fascinating. Young people are really interested in all these kinds of questions. They want to know what other people think and where they get their views from. They want the opportunity to explore those - to compare views, to ask themselves – where do my ideas come from? From me? Are they my personal opinions, or from my family, my community, my peers? How do those views impact on me and my ability to make decisions about my life? Those are things that everyone is really interested in and I don’t think that health professionals who go into schools should be shy and kind of try and veer away from those kind of discussions, because they are really interesting and really useful.

I am not going to talk in any length about the barriers to quality education, but clearly there are problems. There are teachers who have lack of time, lack of skills or confidence who sometimes resort to using outside speakers who aren’t suitable, who aren’t bringing evidence-based information and who are there to promote a very particular perspective, that’s not helpful for young people. There is sometimes a lack of clarity about the need for evidence-based information or where they can access that. We find that there is a lack of understanding of the term balance and that is something I will talk a little bit about because in the DFES guidance on SRE in the year 2000 which was actually very good guidance, it was recommended that schools do not approach topics within SRE like abortion in a really polarising way in which you give two sides of a very extreme argument, that is not helpful for young people’s health and it is not something that makes young people feel safe within a classroom situation.

There is another aspect to this discussion about balance, and this is a bit brutal but I hope you will forgive me. This is a quote from my favourite television series of the 21st century (The Wire) and I think it really sums it up – ‘a lie is not the other side of an argument, it’s just a lie’. We cannot give people misinformation and say, well that’s just my point of view. We can say 'this is my point of view and these are the facts associated with it', but we have to be clear what the difference is between the two and I think we can do that in a really simple way.

Look at this. If I was a politics teacher I would be very happy for the students in my class to leave the room all agreeing that Gordon Brown is a very handsome man. We might all disagree with that, or we might all agree with that, or we might have different opinions, there is no factual framework, there is no criteria for handsome against which we can judge that. It really is just a matter of opinion. But if my politics students leave the room believing that Gordon Brown is the King of England, I have failed as an educator, they are wrong. There’s actual facts and evidence that tell me that he isn't the King he’s the Prime Minister (or was at the time this was written).

So how does this relate to SRE. I will give you an example. If a student leaves my classroom believing that abortion is wrong, that is completely fine. There is no objective criteria by which I can say to that student abortion is right or abortion is wrong, it’s clearly a matter of personal opinion and values. However, if a student of mine leaves the classroom believing that abortion will make her infertile, that is misinformation and I have failed as an educator.

Doing exercises like this with a class of young people in SRE is a really good way to help them untangle the difference between something that is based on opinion or values, and something that is based on fact and it is a really, really important thing that we need to do.

I am just going to finish by saying, don’t be shy of exploring values if you are a health educator and please, please do not fall short of giving accurate evidence-based information if you are a faith educator.

Thursday 25 November 2010

With just 4 staff, EFC...

...reaches thousands of young people a year directly and through the professionals it trains, providing them with accurate information on abortion and an opportunity to explore the dilemma of unintended pregnancy

... trains 450 professionals including school nurses and sexual health specialists, teachers, youth workers, housing workers and social workers so that they are equipped to support young people to learn about pregnancy options, and can provide impartial support with pregnancy decision-making

...provides tailored one to one support for teachers, parents and carers via phone or email on how to discuss the issue of abortion with young people

...develops evidence-based resources on abortion for young people and professionals and promotes best practice through a range of resources and through presentations and workshops at conferences and study days

...informs policy makers of young people’s information and support needs and equips young people to become advocates for better quality education and services

...responds to consultations and shares information and best practice with other young people’s and sexual health organisations through participation in coalitions and fora.

To see what our users and supporters think of EFC's work watch this short video

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Calling all 16-21 year olds: Want to have your say about sexual health issues?

EFC is excited to announce the launch of our Youth Advisory Group (YAG). Young people are at the heart of everything we do and we think it’s crucial to get their views and feedback on our work. With the project starting in the new year we’re now looking to recruit young people who are interested in sexual health issues to give us their views on how sex education is taught and how we should be talking to young people about unplanned pregnancy and abortion through our projects, training and resources.

All those chosen to take part will be fully trained and attend monthly meetings at the EFC office in Islington. Travel expenses and refreshments will be provided and the meetings will be a great chance to meet others and get involved with advocacy and discussion on some really important issues.

If you know any young people in London (or you are a young person in London!) who might be interested in applying please contact for an application form and some more information. Go YAG!

Monday 15 November 2010

Myth-busting Monday: 'The Catholic church has always prohibited abortion'

Every Monday EFC busts myths and takes names, cutting through the misinformation, disinformation, and straight up nonsense to bring you the facts.

The consensus in the Catholic church has always been that abortion is wrong, but the total prohibition on abortion is only about 150 years old. Historically the Catholic church saw abortion as evidence of sexual sin but the concept of abortion being sinful because it entails the ending of a sacred life came much later. In some eras, the circumstances of the woman were taken into consideration so that a woman ending a pregnancy because of poverty and the difficulty of caring for a child was viewed more sympathetically than someone using abortion to disguise fornication and adultery.

Even once the concept of abortion as homicide began to take hold in the church, it was centuries before the view that sacred life begins at conception was expressed. In the intervening years it was generally believed that the embryo became sacred once it was ‘ensouled’ - some weeks after conception and some time before birth. Sometimes quickening – the point at which a woman can normally feel movement in her womb – around 16-20 weeks, was identified as the point at which the fetus becomes a proper human. This process was also known as ‘hominisation’.

It was only in 1869 that the church decided hominisation takes place at the point of conception.

The website of US campaigning organisation Catholics For Choice provides comprehensive information and a clear timeline describing the changing status of abortion within the Catholic church.

Some Catholic countries have laws which reflect the church’s total prohibition on abortion – most in Latin America and some, such as the Republic of Ireland and Poland, in Europe. Four million women a year in Latin America have abortions which are illegal and often dangerous. Women from Ireland routinely travel to mainland UK and pay for private abortions. For those who cannot afford the cost of an abortion or the associated travel costs help is available from Abortion Support Network.

Other Catholic countries such as Portugal, Spain and Italy allow safe, legal abortion.

Monday 8 November 2010

Myth Busting Monday Special - so many myths, so little time

An article in The Independent newspaper today reports that Family Education Trust is circulating a pamphlet to all schools today encouraging them to promote the message that ‘In the context of a faithful, lifelong marriage, sexual intimacy is beautiful and enriching, but where a sexual relationship is pursued to express passing feelings and emotions, it is ugly and destructive and will lead to misery and regret.’

For this Myth Busting Special I look at all the myths that are explicitly stated and implicit in the pamphlet and in FET's decision to distribute to all schools.

Sex before marriage is ugly and destructive?
There are millions of people, young and old, having sex outside of, before and after, marriage all over the world. While we know that many people experience unsatisfying sex, coerced and unwanted sex, which is 'ugly and destructive', or transactional sex which may be far from 'beautiful', millions of unmarried people also enjoy the intimacy and affection and the physical sensation of sex for which human minds and bodies are so perfectly made. The human body which predates the institution of marriage by some fair margin – is made for sexual pleasure. For millions of people sexual pleasure has been the only pleasure they could come by easily in a world in which food, shelter, and other forms of basic comfort, let alone recreation, are not guaranteed. Though it pains some people to hear it, many millions of people in the world enjoy sex within a range of different relationship types from long-term and monogamous to perfunctory. For some the excitement of the one night stand outweighs the technical congruence of the long-term partnership. For others it is the safety and familiarity of the long-term relationship that enhances pleasure and enjoyment. In any kind of relationship where both partners are consenting and enthusiastic and use safer sex practices, sex outside of marriage has no demonstrable negative effect on its participants.

Sex within marriage is universally beautiful and enriching
Given the multiplicity of literature, TV programmes and replies from agony aunts on 'how to keep your flagging sex life alive' and 'how to keep your husband interested' it may be safe to assume that marriage, and the monogamy it implies, does not- in and of itself- guarantee you good sex. Married couples may experience all the same problems as unmarried ones when it comes to sex, a difference in desire and libido, different sexual needs and tastes, different energy levels, physical and psychological obstacles to fulfilling sex, infidelity and jealousy. Some of these things may even be exacerbated by lack of sexual experimentation with each other or others before marriage. While marriage may provide a safe and trusting relationship within which to explore each others sexuality, it can also normalise and cement dysfunction and violence. Good communication, equality and trust are the key ingredients for any couple's sex life and these do not come free with the marriage vows.

Regret always relates to sex outside of marriage
Some people regret that they never experimented more before they committed themselves to a monogamous married relationship.

Sex education is corrupt and corrupting unless it aims to prevent people having sex
Of course we all believe in educating people to have the tools to resist unwanted or unsatisfactory sex. Young people need to know how to make choices they'll be happy with about their sexual behaviour and partners, to better understand how to give and recognise consent, and to address power imbalances that lead to violence and bullying - this is why we advocate for comprehensive sex and relationships education, but SRE isn't just about risk avoidance, it also includes how to give and receive pleasure and feel safe. If it's going to engage young people it's got to be about increasing the proportion of sex which is wanted, safe and enjoyed, not reducing the amount of sex young people have per se.

Marriage is the best relationship within which to live and bring up children (and it's ok to tell children so)
Observing sex education lessons in a girls school in inner city Islington carried out by a group with a strong abstinence agenda, my colleague was upset that the speaker was emphasising again and again the disadvantages of being brought up by unmarried or single parents. She was pretty sure that the majority of pupils in that particular school are not brought up by two still-married parents, so how helpful, or ethical was their message? For many children these kinds of messages don't reflect their reality. Proponents of the 'marriage-only' model might as well call these children a bunch of 'bastards', because that is the logical end-point of their thesis - that all sex out of wedlock ends in misery and despair. I thought the repugnant concept of 'illegitimacy' was dead and buried, but I feel it lurking barely beneath the surface of Family Education Trust's ideas.

We also have to consider those young people who know that they are gay or are already questioning their sexuality. How do they hear these messages and what impact does it have on their sense of how valuable they are and how valued their lives and lifestyles will be as they become adults. It is discriminatory and damaging to teach children that there is only one 'right way' to live your life - and particularly vile when those most vigorously promoting marriage as the only way are also the most outspoken against gay marriage.

Most importantly, I have never seen any convincing evidence that marriage is all its cracked up to be. The studies I've seen heralding marriage as the best formula for a happy family seem to ignore confounding factors and rarely compare like with like by looking at long term committed relationships alongside marriage (I'm willing to be corrected by the army of academics out there who can tell me I'm wrong here).

Telling young people not to have sex is a good way to stop young people having sex
It's not. The evidence is everywhere and this blog post is too long already to exercise these arguments again.

Just telling young people not to have sex, and nothing else is morally acceptable
It's not. On top of any arguments about the efficacy of sex education young people have a right to know about things that effect their bodies and lives so it's not ok to ignore their rights by lying to them or withholding accurate information. In fact to do so would be morally corrupt.


Thursday 4 November 2010

Young People Take Over EFC!

Takeover Day is fast approaching! On Friday 12th November young people all over the country will be having their say by taking over charities and other organisations for the day. At Education For Choice we always snap up any opportunity to hear what young people think of our work so we’re looking for volunteers to come in and tell us what's what!

Are you a young person aged 16-25, living in London and interested in sexual health issues? Are you free on the 12th November? If so, we want you to come in to our office on Holloway Road and tell us what you think about how young people are taught about sex and pregnancy in schools. Those selected to come in will receive travel expenses and lunch for the day as well as training on sexual health issues. The experience will be a great way to find out more about sexual and reproductive health and to have your say in how an organisation is run.

If you’re interested in taking part (or know a young person who might be!) please email stating:
· Your name and age

· Why you’re interested in coming in to Education For Choice for Takeover Day

Monday 1 November 2010

Myth Busting Monday - Abortion counselling legislation protects women

A common myth is that abortion is traumatic and dangerous for women's mental health. In many parts of the United States doctors are mandated to provide women with specific information on the psychological risks of abortion. The information is not always scientifically accurate or evidence-based. The doctors do not choose what information they have to give out. The state governments often determine this after aggressive lobbying from the anti-abortion movement. So, women going for a safe, legal medical procedure may be, for example, advised that it is likely to damage her health or lead to mental illness.

So, what is the basis for fears about the impact of abortion on mental health? A recent large and comprehensive study of research literature around the world carried out by the American Psychological Association found that ordinary first trimester abortions (90% of abortions in the UK are first trimester) do not present a risk to a woman's mental health. Most women are able to integrate the experience of abortion into their lives without experiencing psychological problems.

So why would MP Nadine Dorries be holding an adjournment debate tomorrow (02.11.10) proposing that the legal framework for abortion should include mandatory provision of information about psychological risk and 'cooling off periods' - in which women who have freely chosen abortion are told to go away and think more about it and come back after a set number of days - Is it because she wants to improve women's lives and keep them safe?

Actually policies which mandate psychological counselling and 'cooling off periods' are a recipe for increasing delays for women choosing abortion, increasing the number of post 10 week abortions (successfully reduced over recent years), and increasing the anxiety and stress that women experience when seeking abortion. Another insidious, and intended, effect of these policies is to remould the anti-abortion movement as somehow pro-women and to reposition abortion, and by extension abortion providers, as dangerous.

None of this is about the health and wellbeing of women. It's highly ideologically driven and is probably just one of a range of attacks on current abortion law and provision we can expect from the anti-abortion movement in the next few months.


So it’s been a couple of weeks since we launched the ‘A Word’ campaign and the support we’ve had so far has been amazing. Over 150 people have signed our statement of support and many more are following us on Twitter and Facebook. Some fantastic people have set the ball rolling by donating generously to our campaign. It’s great to see so many people who, like us, aren’t afraid to talk about the importance of abortion education - aren't afraid to mention that 'A Word'.

We’ve had articles published on feminist online magazine The F Word, US-based reproductive justice Abortion Gang and Independent journalist Joan Smith’s blog Political Blonde. We’ve also been thrilled to have the support of Dr Evan Harris and Graham Linehan . Every opportunity to speak out about The A Word is a chance to increase support and awareness of a campaign which makes sure that young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are firmly on the agenda.

Our education work is unfunded. The title of this campaign is a nod to the difficulties we have in getting funding for projects which mention the word abortion. That’s why we’re reaching out to you. If you believe in our work, and the importance of honest, evidence-based education about pregnancy and abortion then please make a donation. Every £5 is one more young person who's been provided with evidence-based information, or a teacher who has been given support to teach the facts, or some free resources for a student or for a small underfunded youth centre. It's only with your donations ,big or small, that we'll be able to continue doing what we do.

Thanks to all those who’ve already shown their support - we’ll keep you updated on our progress!