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.

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