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.